The American Historical Association’s publication “Perspectives” shares the following quote by Eric Schmidt of Google: “There was 5 exabytes of information created between the dawn of civilization through 2003, but that much information is now created every 2 days, and the pace is increasing” (December 2013, p. 20). As a historian, I immediately want to know how we are going to deal with this inundation.
There are several critical turning points in that enterprise historians call “civilization.” In the realm of information, the first was the invention of writing. We will accept Chomsky’s insight that language itself is a biological phenomenon encased in our wetware. But writing? Writing is a stupendous leap. Those Sumerian cuneiform scratches may have started as tallies for cattle at a fair, but they also produced the epic of Gilgamesh.
Another enormous event occurred when civilized people created a method of mass producing writing: the Chinese printed their character script by 800 CE; Europeans developed the printing press for alphabet-based writing in the middle of the 15th century of the Common Era. And thus the profusion of texts began.
Looking only at the European output, 8,000,000 items of printed material (books, pamphlets, broadsheets, playing cards) were produced before 1500. They are called the incunabula. They are the first manifestation of the avalanche of printed material which leads to the 5 exabytes of information produced by civilization.
There is a characteristic of the printed material, however, which restrained the production of information: the editor! The first editor was the printer, but the editor/publisher was soon in business as well. By 1500, presses had proliferated from Nuremberg, the source, to Scandinavia, Poland, England, France, Spain, Italy—Europe learned how to print.
Printed material presents historians with a goldmine of information necessary not only to understand political events, but the whole intellectual changes which produced the modern world. Information is the life blood of historical inquiry. However, printed information is filtered through a sieve: the editor. Primary information is the historian’s key: information before an editor, a compiler, declared what was to be printed.
We call our era the post-modern world since no wordsmith has yet formulated who and what we are now. Perhaps only when the post-modern morphs into something yet newer will we get a defining term for where we are now. The post-modern world is producing information at the rate of not mega or giga bytes, not peta or terra bytes, but exa bytes.
Historians can now deal with uncensored, unedited information in unprecedented number and they will be able to do so because they have the tools. Metatagging is one of the new methods for a venerable task: herding raw information into meaningful aggregates. Historians organize the flow of information imbedded in the raw material of human experience into narratives.
The task has never been easy since so much ancient data is inaccessible. It will not be easy now either for the opposite reason: so much data is accessible. The tools, however, are the same: critical reading, verification, and an understanding of the past. Historians are wonderfully prepared for the information flow of the post-modern era. They have been dealing with the organization of information in exabytes as long as historians have been plying their art and trade.