The University Record, March 25, 2002

Brooks says information revolution misnamed

By Martin May

There is a social revolution under way, not an information revolution, said Clinton Brooks, the DeRoy Visiting Honors Professor, at a talk March 20.

Brooks is a special adviser to the director of the National Security Agency and works in encryption and signals intelligence.

When communications technologies were first developed—such as the telephone, radio, television, computers and the Internet—it was expected they would be used only for specific functions, Brooks said. For example, it was initially thought that the telephone would be used only for commerce and not for personal conversations. Instead, unforeseen uses developed, and the social impact of the technologies is far greater than originally was planned.

“Information is not the currency of the Information Age because it is limitless—time and attention is the currency,” Brooks said. There are about 550 billion pages on the Internet as of this month, he said. The real heart of the Internet explosion is that network capacity is doubling approximately every nine months, he said.

“The World Wide Web—Web addresses preceded by ‘www’—is only a small part of the Internet,” Brooks stated. He also mentioned that the best search engines only catalog a small percentage of what is on the Internet. “If you really want to do research, that’s what libraries are for,” he said.

Most communication is not through words, Brooks said. Body and facial language, and vocal tone and inflection are how most communication takes place. Only 7 percent of communication is through words, Brooks maintains.

It is difficult to capture this non-verbal communication through e-mail and chat rooms, he said. “I know a person teaching teenagers and she was really concerned that they were really not good about confronting each other on issues,” he said. “They could play with each other over the e-mail systems, but when they came face to face to work out issues, they were really uncomfortable and tried to wriggle their way out.”

The Internet, however, is playing only one part in the social change that is under way, Brooks maintains.

“In 2002 more people in the world have access to a TV than to a telephone or running water,” Brooks said. Television plays a greater role in impacting politics than the Internet, he said. “We now have politics of intervention—that is, reacting to the latest hot story—not representation.”

“The jet has had a more significant impact sociologically on America than the Internet,” Brooks argued. Air travel has led to the rise in the tourism industry to destinations, such as Disney World and Las Vegas, and has allowed for greater movement of people over vast distances, leading to the dispersion of families, Brooks said.

The growing information network that has resulted from these technologies has brought about a great amount of social change, Brooks argues.

“The important aspect is not the content, but the social impact of connectivity provided by these technologies,” he said. This social impact has manifested itself in a rise in economic flexibility, productivity and competition in the capitalist system. These changes have resulted in the collapse of the welfare state, Brooks said. “With that collapse goes the certain protection for a number of people.” Brooks also argues that hierarchical institutions are becoming an anachronism because they are inefficient and unable to effectively handle the network of quick information flows.

“The power is no longer with nation states or these institutions any more. The power is really in the flow of this network,” he said.

A concern of Brooks is that a small number of people without too much expertise can disrupt these communications systems. Brooks says a major question to be faced is how high a price society is willing to pay for security. Brooks is troubled by the recently passed Patriot Act, which he says is a start down a slippery slope to the loss of liberty.

His talk was sponsored by the LS&A Honors Program.