Joanne Yates and some History of Technology

Last Friday I attended a seminar by Joanne Yates about the history of computing and information management in the insurance industry. The insurance industry has been one of the most technologically advanced over the last 100 years, investing in new information technologies at a rapid clip; they were one of the first industries to use computers after World War Two. But Yates argues that the technophilia goes back even further into the early twentieth century when the latest technology were punch-card tabulators. She makes a compelling case that the shift to computers wasn’t that revolutionary in the insurance industry. To them the computer was just another tool in a long line of information appliances.

Part of this lends credence to the idea that the information issues confronted by the contemporary world are not all that different from those being worked on 100 years ago. The problem of managing information has been around for at least the last two centuries, extending back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In fact the Industrial Revolution was the impetus for many of the information management problems of the present day: the need to control businesses over large distances, across time zones, and among people who are less likely to know each other outside of work. This is essentially the argument she made in Control Through Communication.

So is there anything new under the sun in the contemporary information landscape? I find two possible threads particularly intriguing. The first is the idea that the computer enables new ways of solving or approaching problems. I can see examples of this in computer modeling of many different phenomenon, from weather to architecture to social networks. Here the computer augments human understanding in unique ways and makes previously intractable problems at least approachable. The other thread is the internet. I think this is particularly interesting as a social phenomenon, a way for people to connect with each other more than ever before. Each of these developments has historical roots in the information age but eventually a difference in degree may become a difference in kind.

Joanne Yates home page at MIT Sloan School