Unknown An early information system on the Internet known as AOL.
When I started middle school at the age of 12, I had the great fortune of being the first class in a brand new building. The architecture was a beautiful half circle, and large attached box on the side. The box housed a large gym and our cafeteria. The two levels of the half circle contained several dozen classrooms and lockers. And in the center of the half circle, below a radiant glass ceiling in a fully open atrium, was our library, rich with short stacks of books, desks of computers, and several rows of seating. This library was clearly meant to be the heart of the school, representing knowledge and discovery, and the hub connecting the classrooms, the gym, the cafeteria, and the outside world. Every week, throughout middle school, we had a library class, where we learned how to use a card catalog, how to read carefully, how to write a bibliography, and about the wonderful diversity of the genres, from young adult pulp fiction to historical non-fiction. Our librarian loved books and loved teaching us to love them.
At home, I encountered a different world of knowledge. My family had a new PC, and inside it was something called a modem, which we plugged into our phone line, and used to connect to the internet via a service called America Online (AOL). When we wanted to connect, we made sure no one needed to use the phone, then initiated a connection to AOL. The modem’s speaker would make a phone call to AOL, but instead of voice, it made a piercing screech. After a minute, we would hear the affirming sound of a connection, when we knew we were online. Once there, I had a similar sense as I did at my school library, that I was connecting with the world. But this world, rather than being full of carefully written, carefully curated texts, was a mess. AOL had a chaotic list of links to different portals, with stories that seemed to be written by journalists. There were encyclopedia entries describing seemingly random topics. There were chat rooms, where I could be connected with random, anonymous people around the world. And there were collections of files; one favorite of mine was sound clips from famous movies. My brother and I would wait an hour for one WAV file to download, then spend several more hours using the sound editor application in Windows 95 to reverse it, speed it up, making Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator say “I’ll be back”, backwards, and like a chipmunk.
These two different experiences emerged from two very different information systems1: that of a school library and that of AOL. And as the stories show, each had their own unique qualities, connecting me with different information, different ideas, and different people. In this chapter, we discuss what information systems are, how they differ, and compare them to our most recent modern information system: the internet.
Amy J. Ko The process underlying a basic library.
What are information systems?
In contrast to information technology, which is some form of engineered device like the telephone or computer, information systems1 are processes that organize people, technology, and data to allow people to create, store, manipulate, distribute, and access information. For example, a book is an information technology, but a library is an information system that makes books—among other things—accessible. A library’s process, as depicted above, might involve patrons using a catalog to find the location of the book, going to the stack that contains that book, using the organization of the stack to locate the book, then reading the book. Each of these parts of the process uses a different information technology (e.g., an index, a sorting scheme, a book), but together they make a system. In contrast, a computer is an information technology, but its system includes an operating system, software ecosystem, technical support and repair services, and online communities. Information systems can even be highly informal and low-tech; for example, in your family, you might have someone who plays the role of organizing family gatherings, determining when people are available, finding locations to meet, and planning activities. Their work, their communication with you, and their use of communication technologies, is an information system. Whether a library, a computer, or a family, all of these are processes that move data between people and technology in specific, ordered ways, each optimized for particular goals.
Unknown The Great Library of Alexandria and its papyrus scrolls.
Information systems, like information technologies, have come in many forms in history. Consider, for example, the Great Library of Alexandria3, one of the largest information systems in modern history. It was built in Alexandria, Egypt, and part of a larger research institution called the Mouseion. The idea behind the library was to be a universal collection of knowledge. Ptolemy II Philadelpus, who ruled the region, was known for aggressively procuring papyrus scrolls of writing by either buying them or copying texts found on boats entering the Alexandrian ports (much like Google copies websites it finds online so that it may index them). Because it was such a great collection, Alexandria and its library became the capital of knowledge, with many influential philosophers working at the library in the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC, including Euclid (founder of geometry), Homer (author of epic Greek poems), Plato (founder of the first Western university), and Socrates (founder of Western moral philosophy). Many of these philosophers would study at the library, and make pilgrimages to seek more scrolls to bring back to the library. Keeping the library functioning required much more than just the technology of papyrus scrolls and ink: it required building maintenance; staff to acquire and copy texts; security, as it was not public. And like any information system, it had tradeoffs: there were no backups and it was hard to access geographically. Also, it burned: Julius Caesar set the harbor aflame in a battle in 48 BC, destroying much of the collection.
Public domain Newsboys distributed recent information on an elaborate circulation route.
Whereas libraries are systems that are optimized for archiving and retrieving documents from a collection, newspapers are a very different kind of system. In its modern form, newspapers were invented in Europe7, which were handwritten news sheets circulated in the 16th century. These sheets contained information about wars and politics in Italy. Weekly newsletters like these flourished across Europe, especially after the invention of the printing press, which enabled thousands of copies to be printed cheaply each week or day. Newspapers, of course, followed a very different system architecture than libraries: journalists worked hard to gather and write news; photographers tried to capture these stories visually; these stories and images were then typeset in printing presses, then printed at scale. The copies of the newspaper were then sold on the street by “newsies”2 (often young boys in poverty, but also women), distributed by a circulation manager who designed the delivery routes throughout a city. All of this occurred in a weekly, and then daily cycle, broadcasting the latest news to the public. Keeping this system functioning required well-maintained printing machines, paid journalists, paid photographers, paid circulation managers, paid newsies, and a lot of paper and ink. And the system of newspapers had different tradeoffs than a library: rather than going to the information, it came to you, and rather than being archival, it was ephemeral, with a new update each day or week. The biggest tradeoff with the news, even today, is that there is little time to verify information before it is shared, leading some in the 20th century to describe it as the “first rough draft of history”.
Unknown Patrons peruse the requested materials at the world’s largest library
Systems, of course, evolve. Whereas the Great Library of Alexandria relied on papyrus scrolls and handwritten copying, today’s modern libraries are far different. Consider, for example, the U.S. Library of Congress, widely considered to be the world’s most comprehensive record of human creativity and knowledge. It contains millions of books, printed materials, maps, manuscripts, photographs, films, audio and video recordings, prints and drawings—even every tweet on Twitter from 2006-2017, and selective tweets since. It acquires all of these through exchanges with libraries around the world, through gifts, and through purchase, adding thousands of new items each day, with a full staff curating and selecting items for inclusion in its permanent collection. It stores the books in dozens of buildings in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere; none of them are publicly accessible. However, because the library is a research library, any member of the public can search the online catalog of more than 18 million records, request an item, and read it at the library. Maintaining this library is far more involved than the Library of Alexandria6: it requires maintaining dozens of buildings, building web scale cataloging and search software, staffing 3,000+ employees, archiving petabytes of data, managing a $600 million budget, and constantly refining policies and procedures to ensure the archive is kept intact and accessible to the world. Because of the library’s focus on archiving, it does not contain the most recent information in the world, but it does contain its most ancient, making it far better than Google at retrieving primary sources documenting human civilization and its history.
As should be clear from each of these examples, information systems are far more than a particular technology: they are processes that combine skilled people, systems of organization, and information technologies to provide access to information, each optimizing for particular kinds of information and information experiences.
NASA The internet is a network of computers
No discussion of information systems would be complete without discussing the internet, perhaps the largest and most elaborate information system that humanity has ever created. And as with any system, it is a history of more than just technical innovation. It started in the 1950’s4, after the invention of the modern digital computer. Various engineers and policy makers had discussed ways of connecting computers to make a global network, and in 1969, the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA, originally ARPA) funded the ARPANET, a government project to network computers. Project lead Bob Taylor and science policy lead J.C. Licklider published The Computer as a Communication Device5, describing a future in which computers would be used to share information much more broadly and rapidly than telegraphs, telephones, or television had ever done before. They made bold predictions about the impact of this imagined global network
When people do their informational work “at the console” and “through the network,” telecommunication will be as natural an extension of individual work as face-to-face communication is now... life will be happier for the on-line individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity. ... communication will be more effective and productive, and therefore more enjoyable... there will be plenty of opportunity for everyone (who can afford a console) to find his calling, for the whole world of information, with all its fields and disciplines, will be open to him—with programs ready to guide him or to help him explore... Unemployment would disappear from the face of the earth forever, for consider the magnitude of the task of adapting the network’s software to all the new generations of computer, coming closer and closer upon the heels of their predecessors until the entire population of the world is caught up in an infinite crescendo of on-line interactive debugging.
The vision, while not perfect in its clairvoyance, laid out several hard problems that needed to be solved to realize the networked future: how to format and send messages reliably; where to store data; and most importantly, how to ensure everyone could have access to a computer to participate. This led to the U.S. APRANET project, which sought to solve many of these problems through government-funded research and innovation. This history is told by Robert Kahn, discussing the motivations behind the beginnings of the internet:
The first foundation was that the internet is a graph: a collection of nodes, each a computer, connected by edges, each some hardware allowing messages to be transmitted between computers. Getting information from one node to another requires finding a path from one node in the network to another. Therefore, when you access the internet on a phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop, your computer has to send a request to another computer for that information, and that request itself has to find a path to that computer, before that computer can respond with the data, sending it back along a path.
Unknown North America can’t connect to Europe without this undersea internet cable that spans the Atlantic Ocean
All of these back and forth messages between computers requires a protocol to organize communication. For example, when we send physical letters in the U.S. mail, there is a protocol: put a message in an envelope, write an address for where you want to send it, write a return address in case it cannot be delivered, put a stamp on it, then submit it to a post office or post office pickup location. The internet required something similar; Vint Cerf invented the protocol we use today in 1973, naming it TCP/IP. The TCP stands for Transmission Control Protocol, and defines how computers start a conversation with each other. In a simplified form, TCP defines two roles for computers on the internet: clients, which request information, and servers, which deliver it. TCP works in three phases:
- The server starts listening for connections.
- The client asks for a connection.
- The server acknowledges the request.
After this, data is sent in chunks called packets, which are a sequence of bytes defining where the information is coming from, where it is going, and various other information for checking whether the information has arrived intact, along with the data itself. After the data is received, the server indicates that it is done sending information, the client acknowledges that it was received intact and requests the connection be closed, and then the server closes the connection.
TCP, of course, is just one part of transmitting information. The other part in the acronym TCP/IP is IP, which stands for Internet Protocol. This defines how computers on the internet are identified. An IP address is a unique number representing a computer; all computers connected to the internet have one, though they may change and be shared. IP addresses are four 8-bit numbers and look something like this:
The first two chunks are a unique number assigned to the network your computer is connected to; the last two parts are a unique number on your network. More modern versions of IP addresses (IPv6) contain 128 bits, allowing for more uniquely identifiable addresses. These addresses ultimately end up encoded in TCP packets to indicate the source and destination of data.
Thomas Jensen Routers accelerate the movement of packets to their destination
If the internet was just a bunch of computers connected to each other via TCP/IP, it wouldn’t work very well. Every computer would need to know the IP address of every computer that it wanted to communicate with. And clearly, when we use computers today, we don’t have to know any IP addresses. The solution to this problem is two fold. First, we have routers, which are specialized computers that break up the internet into smaller networks, and are responsible for keeping records of IP addresses and finding paths for a packet to get to its destination. You probably have a router at home to connect to your internet service provider (ISP), which is essentially one big router that processes TCP requests from millions of customers. Second, we have domain name services, which are specialized computers that remember mappings between IP addresses and unique names (
www.seattle.gov), which are organized into top level domains (
.gov), domains (
seattle), and subdomains (
www). Your internet service provider also maintains DNS lookups, so you don’t have to memorize IP addresses. Combined, TCP, IP, DNS, and routers are what allow us to enter a simple domain like
www.seattle.gov into a web browser, establish a connection to the UW web servers, request the front page of the Seattle city government website, receive that front page, close the connection, and then render the front page on our computer.
There is one more important detail: TCP/IP alone, plus some network hardware to connect computers to routers via ethernet cables or wireless protocols, is sufficient to create the internet. But it is not sufficient to create the web, which is actually an application built on top of the internet using yet more protocols. The most important of these, HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol) (or the encrypted version, HTTPS), is how computers use TCP/IP to send and request entire documents between computers. It wasn’t invented until the early 1990’s. The basis of HTTP is simple: clients send a request for a particular document via a URL (uniform resource locator), which consists of a domain (
www.seattle.gov) plus a pathway to the desired document (
/visiting-seattle). When we combine the transfer protocol, the domain, and the path, we get
https://www.seattle.gov/visiting-seattle, which specifies how the request will be formatted, which computer we want to send the request to (by name, which will be used to lookup an IP address on a DNS server), and which document on that computer we want (
/visiting-seattle). If the computer has a web server running that knows how to handle HTTPS requests, it will use the path to retrieve the document, then send it back to the client.
Together, TCP, IP, routers, DNS, and HTTP, and their many versions and supporting hardware, make up the modern internet and web, and allow it to be as simple as typing in a URL and seeing a web page. Every computer on the internet must follow these protocols for any of this to work. And if anything goes wrong in the process, the internet will “break”:
- If your computer loses its wired or wireless connection to a router, it won’t be able to connect to other computers.
- If your router loses its connection to the rest of the internet (e.g., your ISP loses its connection), it won’t be able to send packets.
- If your router can’t find a path from your computer to the computer from which you’re requesting information, your request will “time out”, and result in an error.
- If the computer processing your request can’t find the document you’re requesting (e.g.,
https://www.seattle.gov/not-a-real-page), it will send an error.
- If the web browser on the computer processing your request hangs or terminates, it won’t process requests.
- If the computer processing your request experiences a power outage, it won’t process requests.
wocintechchat.com This woman maintains the cloud on her laptop
Much of what industry calls the cloud is meant to deal with these reliability problems. The cloud is essentially a collection of large data centers distributed globally that contain large numbers of powerful computers that redundantly store large amounts of data. Computers then request that data for display, and send requests to modify that data, rather than storing the data locally. For example, when you edit a Google Doc, the document itself is not stored on your computer, but redundantly stored on many servers across the globe. If one of those data centers has a power outage, another data center will be there to respond, ensuring that you’ll rarely lose access. (Of course, when you go offline, you won’t have a copy of your data at all).
Erik Mclean 404 is the HTTP error code for a resource that could not be found.
Is the internet the best information system?
Humanity has invented many forms of information systems in history, all with different strengths and weaknesses. But it is tempting to imagine that the internet, being the newest, is the best of them all. It is fast, it is relatively reliable, it connects us to nearly anyone, anywhere, and we can access nearly anything—data, information, even goods and services—by using search engines. When we compare this to older types of systems—word of mouth, libraries, newspapers—it is hard to argue that they are in any way superior, especially since we have replicated most of those systems on the internet in seemingly superior forms. News is faster, books are easier to get, and even informal systems like chatting with friends and sharing gossip, has never been more seamless and efficient.
But if we think about information systems in terms of qualities, it becomes clear that the internet is not always superior:
- Accuracy. Much of the data on the web is misleading or even false, which is far less true for information from carefully curated, edited, and fact-checked sources like books and leading newspapers, or from experts directly.
- Reliability. A print book doesn’t depend on electricity or a network of computers to operate. As long as the book is the only information you need, it’s much more reliable that a computer connected to the internet.
- Learnability. Learning to talk, whether verbally or non-verbally, is still easier for people to learn than the many skills required to operate a computer (mice, touch screens, keyboards, operating systems, applications, web browsers, URLs, buttons, links, routers, wifi, etc.).
Of course, the internet is superior in somethings: it wins in speed, as well as currency, which refers to how current information is. To the extent that humanity is only concerned with getting recent information quickly, then it is superior. But when one wants expert information, information from history, or private information that might only be stored in people’s memories or private archives, the internet is inferior. And more importantly, if you want to live life slowly, take in information in a measured, careful way, and have time to process its meaning, the speed and currency of the internet will be a distraction and nuisance. Thus, as with all designed things, the internet is optimized for some things, and fails at others.
Information systems, therefore, aren’t better or worse in the absolute sense, but better or worse for particular tasks. Choosing the best system for a particular task then isn’t just about choosing the latest technology, but carefully understanding the task at hand, and what types of systems might best support. And as society is slowly discovering, the internet might be fast, but it isn’t so good at tasks like helping people find credible information, learn online, or sustain local communities. In fact, it seems to be worse at those things, when compared to systems that rely on authoritiative, credible information, systems that center physically proximal teachers for learning, and physical spaces that bring communities together to connect.
These podcasts explore some of the strengths and weaknesses of modern information systems.
- Seduced by Substack, What Next TBD, Slate. Discusses why some journalists are shifting from traditional journalism to a paid newsletter model on Substack, and the tradeoffs of the new model for editorial oversight, labor, and chasing audience.
- Brown Box, Radiolab, WNYC Studios. Discusses the information systems used to rapidly provision online orders and some of inhumane work they cause. Also discusses the complexities of name changes for those with records of archived, credited work. (The reporter is transgender.)
- Barry M. Leiner, Vinton G. Cerf, David D. Clark, Robert E. Kahn, Leonard Kleinrock, Daniel C. Lynch, Jon Postel, Larry G. Roberts, Stephen Wolff (2009). A brief history of the internet. ACM SIGCOMM Computer Communication Review.
- Joseph C.R. Licklider, Robert W. Taylor (1968). The computer as a communication device. Science and technology.
- Gary Marchionini, Catherine Plaisant, and Anita Komlodi (1998). Interfaces and tools for the Library of Congress national digital library program. Information Processing & Management.