How information flow empowers innovation – Part 1

The flow of information is a good starting point for a little investigation of how the essential inputs to our society – to our technological world, to our economy  – have shaped and will keep shaping our ability to innovate. Our ways of handling information, generating it, storing it, granting or denying access to it, transmitting and sharing it, these ways have transformed over time. And with those changes, the patterns of information flow shifted as well. I want to take a look at the key innovations that shaped those patterns, and find out how those patterns shaped society’s innovation capacity.

The first transformation occurred in Europe in medieval times, during the dark ages. For most individuals in this setting, the information they had access to was neighbourhood talk and the overarching traditions that had been handed down from previous generations. At that time, most information travelled with people, it was stored in people’s minds and delivered over people’s tongues. Messenger and message were inseparable, as the oral transmission of information was always personal, person to person. Hence access to information was exactly defined by access to people.

Only very little information was stored in writing. Very few people could read, and even less could write. Books were precious and expensive, as they had to be copied by hand, page by page, word by word, letter by letter. The skills for that work were scarce, and in fact concentrated in the scriptoria of monasteries. Hence it’s no wonder that most books stored religious content. In addition, most books were stored in monasteries, so that the access to books was controlled very effectively. What is more, the information stored in those books was usually coded in Latin or Greek, so that it required a skilled translator (again a clergyman, a priest, a monk, a scribe) to decode the message. From today’s venture point, you can easily see the power of information superiority at work: the Church had tight control over access to and content of the single truth. There was just one defined message, which was shared in writing amongst the few in the know. This message was then sent orally from the pulpit to the parish to receive and absorb it. And for many centuries, there was no debate about the message.

All that changed in a process that we know today as the Reformation. In fact, this period saw major changes in the way that information was handled; a transformation that was partially driven by society, partially driven by technology. The landmark events of this transformation unfolded over little more than just one hundred years.

At the beginning of the 15th century, Jan Hus was a professor of philosophy and theology at the university of Prague. He believed that the Holy Script itself constituted the highest authority in Christianity, higher than the Pope or his representatives. Therefore, he preached in Czech rather than in Latin, in order to give the people access to the Holy Script in their own language. His idea to empower the parish obviously challenged the information monopoly and the power basis of the Catholic Church: eventually, he was tried for heresy at the Council of Constance, found guilty, and burned at the stake in 1415.

Barely a century later, in 1521, Martin Luther pursued a very similar goal of reforming the Church (only that he preached in German). And he succeeded. The interesting question then is to what extent the circumstances had changed: the power struggle between the political and the religious leaders in Europe was still ongoing; society was still in a state of unrest; like Hus, Luther was excommunicated; like Hus, Luther was accused of heresy. But unlike Hus, Luther prevailed. Why? What was so fundamentally different in 1521?

Of the many smaller and larger changes that had occurred since the Council of Constance, the most significant one –to my mind– was triggered by Johannes Gutenberg‘s innovation of movable type printing. It is quite telling that his first major work was the Gutenberg Bible, published in 1454; just 50 years after Hus, the Church still ruled over information storage and reproduction. But that firm grip on the written word eroded as Gutenberg’s revolutionary idea met society’s quickly increasing demand for information. The movable type was superior to the well-established hand-carved wooden stocks; it offered unrivalled flexibility and speed to multiplying and circulating words and ideas.

In that period of political instability and social unrest, Gutenberg’s new technology was eagerly adopted to communicate new ideas, to send them faster and further than ever before. And Luther’s ideas were part of the ensuing information avalanche. He thus could reach a community that was larger than the local parish. Even more importantly, the political support he garnered from regional leadership turned out to be strong enough to protect him from the prosecution of the Church. That is the main difference to Jan Hus, whose community of followers had been smaller, and whose political supporters had faltered in the face of the political clout of the Catholic Church still had at the beginning of the 15th century.

In the early 16th century, the convergence of the Reformation with the Gutenberg Revolution promoted wide-spread literacy, giving us a supreme example of the dual character of an empowering/disruptive innovation: literacy empowered ordinary people, while it disrupted the information monopoly of the Church.

Seen through the lens of the patterns of information flow and the changes therein, literacy enabled a number of essential breakthroughs that we all too often take for granted today:

  • Literacy democratised the access to written information. Reading –the essential required skill– was no longer the privilege of a small elite of mostly clergymen.
  • Literacy decentralised the reproduction of information. The skills required for movable type printing were shared fairly easily amongst interested craftsman. They were not confined within the walls of monasteries.
  • As a result, literacy effectively ended the control of the Catholic Church over the information storage regarding what was stored as well as where it was stored.
  • In addition, literacy accelerated the transmission of information. The person-to-person engagement, the oral transmission was no longer required as more and more ordinary people could absorb written information. This impersonal information exchange greatly facilitated the speed and reach of information transfer.
  • Finally, when everybody can write, everybody can share ideas. That is –at least in my mind– the biggest revolution we owe to literacy: with ever increasing portions of the population being able to read and write, society taps into an enormous resource – the thoughts and ideas of the individuals.

Back in the 16th century, these effects of literacy started to develop far-reaching transformative power. They encouraged the individuals to inquire, to make up their own mind, to not wait for the priest to tell them what to believe. The inquiring mindset became the basis for the Scientific Revolution, ushering in the Age of Enlightenment, promoting inventions and discoveries, encouraging expeditions to distant places and distant thoughts.

From our luxurious position of hindsight, it is difficult to appreciate how profound these changes really were for society. I’d offer that everyday language could be revealing, even though I cannot point to any solid proof. Just as a thought, consider the wording frequently used to introduce an idea: I’d suggest that since the 15th century, phrases like “I guess …” or “I believe …” were increasingly replaced with “I think …” in reflection of the growing relevance of reasoning.

In part 2 of this little time travel, I’ll move fast forward from the end of the Middle Ages all the way to the present day: How did the world transform over those 500 years? How did we get to a point where the word “information” is nearly synonymous to “the internet”?


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