There’s a well-known distinction between prehistory and history. History, we say, is everything after the invention of writing. This first happened around 7,000 years ago.
But we shouldn’t think of history as referring to a period in the earth’s development, but rather as a descriptor of how people live. That is, even after writing was first invented, many societies still lived prehistorically—without writing. Indeed, writing was invented many times, independently, in different parts of the world (China, Sumer, Egypt, Mesoamerica…). Even today, there are some remote tribes that live prehistorically.
But is the prehistory/history distinction enough? The philosopher Luciano Floridi posits that many of us today have moved into a different way of life, which he calls hyperhistory. In hyperhistory, “societies or environments where ICTs [information and communication technologies] and their data processing capabilities are the necessary condition for the maintenance and any further development of societal welfare, personal well-being, as well as intellectual flourishing.”
We can summarize the distinction in this way:
- Prehistory – No ICTs
- History – Society is enriched by ICTs that store and transmit information
- Hyperhistory – ICTs have overtaken other technologies and now society depends on ICTs to function
Floridi very briefly discusses the concept of hyperhistory and what it means for warfare in the Computerphile video below.
Across Floridi’s many works on the topics, he discusses how hyperhistory plays out in economics, politics, warfare, information quality and other areas. The bottom line is that hyperhistory is new, and we are only beginning to grapple with its immense challenges. Floridi writes:
Processing power will increase, while becoming cheaper. The amount of data will reach unthinkable quantities. And the value of our network will grow almost vertically. However, our storage capacity (space) and the speed of our communications (time) are lagging behind. Hyperhistory is a new era in human development, but it does not transcend the spatio-temporal constraints that have always regulated our life on this planet.
It may take a long while before we shall come to understand in full such transformations, but it is time to start working on it.
When it comes to writing, what does hyperhistory mean? That’s a big question, but we can sketch some initial thoughts:
- When there’s more information, there’s less time to devote to any given information. Not only is there more of it to read, but we have to spend more time organizing it and searching for it. Commensurately we’re seeing writing take different forms: shorter sentences, more lists, etc.
- Non-text forms of information are proliferating. Big data visualizations, videos, etc.
- Things change fast, and so writing on many topics quickly obsolesces.
- Text is being processed more by other technologies than by humans. Machines cannot understand in the same way humans can—their “reasoning faculties” are quite different from ours. What does it mean to think of writing for the audience of both humans and machines?
Ah, things to think about…