Information Reformation

I wrote the following article two decades ago when I was a technology evangelist at Sun Microsystems. Back in the mid-’90s we experienced the early part of the first wave of “The Web.” Today newer Web technologies have expanded what was largely a “reader-oriented” phenomenon into a dynamic read-write participatory social platform. While the mantle of managing information has passed to a new generation of companies, the basic principles of information production and exponential growth remain the same.

Information ReformationINFORMATION REFORMATION

Every October 31, we observe the anniversary of the German Reformation. Presently, there is a lot of talk about the Internet Explosion. There are several significant similarities between the two.

Indeed, one could call it the “Information Reformation.”

HIGHLIGHTS:

1) Common Language:

  • Luther made previously exclusive information accessible to the common man by publishing in the common language (German), not the language of scholars (Latin).
  • With the aid of graphical tools like Mosaic, Netscape or the HotJava browsers (a Java-based browser from Sun), anyone can easily read the Internet and discover new information without knowing classical Geek.

2) Common Format:

  • Luther published pamphlets, extending the existing single page “broadside” to multiple pages in quarto and octavo sizes. He featured pictures using the finest woodcuts and engravings of the times.
  • Graphical Web browsers that take advantage of open, standard HTML make information pictorial and, with advanced Java capabilities, dynamic, and multimedia.

3) Mass Distribution:

  • Gutenberg printing pressLuther’s 95 Theses, with the aid of the movable type printing press invented a few decades before his birth, were distributed to the masses. Within two weeks, it had spread throughout Germany. Within a month, it was all over Europe. By the end of the year, it had spread beyond the Holy Roman Empire.
  • With the availability of interconnected computer networks, like those offered by Sun, information is quickly distributed all over the World Wide Web.

4) Unprecedented Growth:

  • Between 1517 and 1523, publications in Germany increased 7 times. Half were Luther’s writings.
  • The growth of the Internet and the availability of information on the Web has grown phenomenally, with a growth curve that appears almost biological.

5) Broadcast Marketing

  • Luther took advantage of the new printing press to “evangelize” his views on theology and detract from his competitors with his pamphlets.
  • Many companies, organizations, and individuals now take advantage of Internet home pages to “market” and promote their product, offerings, and views.

BACKGROUND:

Wittenberg DoorIn the 16th century, as a result of a dispute concerning certain Church practices, a German University professor posted a call for debate on their equivalent of a bulletin board, the door of the Castle Church. These 95 Theses were not intended as a call to reformation but a quiet, scholarly discussion of theological issues.

So it was, on October 31, 1517, that this 33 year old Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Door, marking what historians conveniently use as a coat hanger for the beginning of the Reformation.

But it was two significant things that changed history: first, one of Luther’s friends took the original Latin 95 Theses and translated them into German, the language of the common man. Now they were available to anyone who could read.

Secondly, with the aid of the movable type printing press, invented not far away in Mainz by Gutenberg toward the end of the previous century, copies were distributed to the masses. It became a veritable manifesto for change.

Thus it is with the spread of the Internet. So one could say we’re currently experiencing more than an Internet Explosion or Revolution, but an Information Reformation.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

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6 comments… add one
  • As usual, a great job, Bill. I recently made comments along the same lines. Hereas HTML created a common format for presentation layer, state was often a problem until RESTful APIs came to be. This is changing everything all over again. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20141026113530-34520-the-end-of-apps-as-we-know-them

    Reply
    • Excellent comment Michael. I wrote this back in the day of HotJava (1997) and other early browser technologies. Very Web 1.0. Web 2.0 is definitely a new way of doing compute services. Do you think it’s as epochal as Gutenberg and Web 1.0?

      One of my readers asked “Do you suppose Zucherberg will surpass Gutenburg in influence one day?”

      What do you think?

      -Bill

      Reply
  • Love it! It seems though that the proliferation of data vs. information threatens to undo us. I prefer Goldratt’s definition of Information, “The answer to a question,” vs. the traditional definition of, “The data to answer a question.” The example that goes along with this: I ask you for your phone number – you hand me a phone book. You have met the traditional definition of information. It seems to me that there is more and more non-specific data piling up without purpose and as unacceptable as ever – this is evidenced by the quality of many Siri hits I am handed. I believe that this will be the real advantage AI will bring if it can help turn data to real information. This would be a real information reformation. Thanks for the brain food Bill!

    Reply
    • Tom,

      I used to work for a data storage company. Their motto at the time was “where information lives” which sounds much more interesting than data :-)

      -Bill

      Reply
  • Hi Bill,

    Information Reformation … yes. Your paralells with Martin Luther’s influence are historical. ;-)

    “… copies were distributed to the masses. It became a veritable manifesto for change” … yes. Change? Hmmm… describe the change. Information can be (is) reduced to ones and zeroes.

    As a student of theology and history, what comments would you make about a couple of documentary series by Adam Curtis,

    1. “The Century of the Self” – https://youtu.be/eJ3RzGoQC4s?list=PLz08Y9lIkYtdahac8xQxLfRXFvGeFtRFl

    2. “The Trap: What Happened to our Dream of Freedom”
    2.1 Episode 1 – F**k you, buddy – https://youtu.be/y97Ywl7RtUw?list=PLz08Y9lIkYtdahac8xQxLfRXFvGeFtRFl
    2.2 Episode 2 – The Lonely Robot – https://youtu.be/8d1ibtOVImg?list=PLz08Y9lIkYtdahac8xQxLfRXFvGeFtRFl
    2.3 Episode 3 – We Will Force You to be Free – https://youtu.be/nSVlPlnB8wI?list=PLz08Y9lIkYtdahac8xQxLfRXFvGeFtRFl

    Two of the most thought-provoking documentary series I have viewed. Since your are a keen student of history, you may have viewed them previously.

    After viewing them, what are your thoughts on TRUTH?

    Does Veritas Vos Liberabit (John 8:32)? Yes.

    Reply
    • Barry,

      Yes, information can be reduced to ones and zeros. Change is rarely binary.

      I’m unfamiliar with Adam Curtis’ work and cannot comment on them.

      I think there’s data, information, knowledge, wisdom, truth. Not all the same.

      Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” In this context he said that he who sent him is true and he speaks the truth. That truth “shall make you free.”

      -Bill

      Reply

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