My name is Sean McGrath, and I am a student in Dr. McClurken’s History of the Information Age class (HIST 427). I am a history major, and I am in the 5-year Master’s in Education Program, and am a senior. I am interested in learning about what historians in modern times consider to be historically relevant regarding the Information Age, including what is important in modern times, with the rise of social media and all of the chaos that came with such a development.
Looking at the previous class’ assignments, I like the idea of creating a fake dictatorship and a propaganda campaign tied to it. This can help demonstrate to us how a government can control the news media, and would likely look far different in 2019 compared to 2014, with the advent of social media and the various ways that dictatorships have tried to limit its power or utilize it for their own gains. From the advice, the one I’d follow the most is to “Reserve your space in the HCC far ahead of time.” I have personally known the pain of going to reserve a space for a class in the HCC, only to find that every spot is taken. I intend to avoid this pain as much as possible in the future, so that I and any groupmates I may have can work together in a more effective manner.
My time in History of the Information Age was great and highly informative. I thoroughly enjoyed my time as a part of this class, and I learned a great deal about how information technology developed across the years and how it affected people and the public. Overall, the assignments were fun and helped provide a tangible way to research further into the topics presented and show what we had learned, but there were some things that could be improved regarding the specifics of them.
The readings that we did were of varying qualities due to the fact that individual groups selected the readings that we were to do. While I am aware that these readings were reviewed and pre-approved by Professor McClurken, some of the readings were easier and more digestible for reading and interpretation than others. In particular, the infographics that some groups presented were of varied quality, with some being clean and easily interpreted and one in particular being excessively long and hard to follow. I would have also liked to see more readings provided from Professor McClurken. While the rest of the class was able to provide enough good readings for the class to discuss, I would have loved to see what Dr. McClurken could have found regarding the topics we covered. The discussions were also generally good, but could be slow on occasion when the presenters were stuck with awkward questions or were not ready to continue. I did like the trend of doing in-class activities that was started, though I did empathize with the sentiment that people were growing tired with Canva by the end of the semester that Professor McClurken brought up. These in-class activities did allow me to grow more familiar with things like Canva and Paint, which I am sure that I will be able to take advantage of in the future.
The out-of-class assignments were interesting to work with. The idea that the class was to create the assignments that we did was an interesting and engaging one, and led to some very creative projects like the Silent Films, but at the same time, there was a lack of guidance regarding how the projects were to be graded which tripped me up in regards to the Memes Infographic project. We rarely had a good idea as to what we needed to do well in order to get a good grade, which I found somewhat confusing, particularly when I was trying to figure out how to work with new systems such as Canva and TimelineJS (TimelineJS in particular proved to be a difficult system to use, as the Google Sheets system that it required us to use did not lend itself well to the longer descriptions that we needed to write for our events). I would have very much appreciated some more guidance when it came to figuring out how our projects were to be graded.
Of all the topics that we covered, I particularly enjoyed the topics regarding the modern internet and how people interact and use it. These topics were ones that I was looking forward to, as they are and continue to be highly relevant to how we use the internet and how the internet affects people today. These topics, including the Fake News and misinformation topics and the advertisement and corporate influence topics in particular, were highly fascinating to me, and I learned a good deal about how to identify fake news and advertising in my daily internet usage. I was also pleasantly surprised by the depth of the discussion that we had on memes, particularly surrounding the Darwinist perspective on memetics.
Overall, History of the Information Age was an engaging and fun class, though it was a class that shot all over the place due to the focus on students and how we were to shape the curriculum. It is certainly a class that I would take again if I could do it over again.
Memes and memetics has a long-standing history that expands beyond the boundaries of the modern internet. Richard Dawkin’s theory of memetics is a very interesting one when applied to how modern internet memes are born and spread. The idea that a random piece of culture, from a funny image to an important even, can be spread through the proliferation of ever evolving jokes and other methods of transmission is a frankly strange idea when thinking about memes. Börszei makes an excellent case regarding how modern internet memes have developed through this Dawkinist ideal, and tracks the history of the meme from what is said to be its earliest incarnation: the emoticon. I personally would not want to call emoticons the earliest memes, but the spread and massive amount of variety in emoticons, especially nowadays, fits the definition. The article even includes some very old memes that I did not know of, such as the Bert is Evil photoshops that are echoed today by gritty and offensive edits of Sesame Street screencaps known as BertStrips. After that, Börszei talks about early memes, including one of my favorites: all your base are belong to us. Börszei has certainly done her research, as this article contains discussion about a variety of memes that most people have not heard about, such as the Tourist of Death and Sarkozy Was There, which is mildly reminiscent of the early proto-meme Kilroy was here that I wrote about. However, Börszei’s article only looks up to 2012, where the Advice Animal format was king. In modern internet culture, the Advice Animal has fallen out of favor in exchange for an even wider variety of more complex meme. From photoshops to hyper-edited “deep-fryed” memes, alongside the re-emergence of emoticons as a key ingredient of memes, the meme culture has evolved dramatically in the seven years since this article was written. And yet, even as these new memes are made, they all follow the path laid out by Richard Dawkins all those years ago. If memes are the DNA of the soul, then modern soul’s DNA is an ever evolving thing shifting around preset systems of modification.
Kilroy was an interesting example of an early meme, as defined by modern memetic culture. It was a phenomenon that was initially observed as a practical, if mildly humerus method of preventing workers in World War II from being overpaid, and quickly spread across the world as US soldiers hooked onto the funny image as a symbol of safety and progress in the war. Much like modern memes, Kilroy was spread through word-of-mouth and iterated upon, with various styles of the image being found across the war, much like a modern meme will evolve its appearance as people try to apply it to different circumstances. While Kilroy himself might not be a popular meme, his presence made him an icon of US troops in World War II, and his popularity made him among the most historic examples of a meme.
The process of creating a silent film was an interesting and eventful one. Compared to a standard film, there were fortunately some considerations that we did not have to worry about, such as background noise or extensive scripts that needed to be memorized. We were able to simply film using a basic script with the general theme of individual scenes, editing out the sound and replacing it with the classical ragtime music associated with silent films. However, since there were no spoken words, we had to make use of extensive body language to get across the information in a scene, though this wasn’t a huge deal and was actually fairly entertaining. The editing process, on the other hand, was a bit more tricky, as we had to splice together sections of the recorded clips, remove unusable footage, obtain appropriate music, and apply the thematic coloration to the film. Additionally, we did run into one somewhat major snag: the video editing software we used placed a massive, obstructive watermark on exported videos unless the full license was paid for, which required us to pool our money to purchase it, as the watermark was too obstructive to keep in the film. Overall, this was an entertaining and enlightening experience, and provided an interesting look into what constitutes a silent film.
Downey’s book provides an interesting look into the history of the Information Age and the development of communications technology. While the book is exceptionally short, each section is clear and concise, carefully detailing all the important parts of the topic at hand. Of these segments, the one that stuck out to me the most was the third chapter, primarily due to its coverage of the radio. The radio as a historic innovation has always fascinated me, thanks primarily due to the Fireside Chats of FDR. Downey covers the evolution of the radio and the debate that raged over its usage in a very interesting manner, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
Additionally, I enjoyed reading about how each innovation in communications technology built off of a previous innovation, creating a chain of inventions and changes that is heavily interconnected. The idea that these innovations build off of each other allowed Downey to inter-relate each topic to each other, and demonstrated that information technology is an industry that builds off itself and learns from the past.
Downey, Gregory. Technology and Communication in American History. American Historical Association. 2011.
Of the selected introductions to the Information Age, I read the introduction from the book Media Technology and Society, A History: From the Telegraph to the Internet and the introduction from The Cybernetics Moment: Or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age. The first introduction creates the idea that the Information Age as a concept is the next step in the continued evolution of human communication, creating the idea of a “social sphere” that is affected by the ideation, prototyping, and invention of various information-spreading devices, and how these inventions transformed the way society transfers information and how these devices were diffused across society, which the author claims that the telegraph is the beginning point of. Based on these ideas, the author seeks to create a set of steps that developments in communications and media technology progress through, using this process to explain how these inventions affected greater society and how they were developed in the first place.
The second introduction takes a very different approach: instead of describing a process that the author seeks to use to describe the advancement of information technology, this author begins by describing a specific event in history, dropping directly into the last Macy Foundation Conference, which occurred in 1953. The author discusses here the impact that the Conference had on one attendant, Margaret Mead, and how she would later become one of the founders of cybernetics. From this, the author seeks to explain how the Information Age became known as such, and how cybernetics became one of the cornerstones of the burgeoning Information Age at the close of the Cold War. The author believes that the invention of cybernetics is as important as the creation of information technology when it comes to describing the Information Age. 1 Additionally, the author seeks to discuss how the Cold War itself pushed forward developments that would lead to the beginning of the Information Age, and the impact these developments had on the Cold War itself.
1: Robert R. Kline, The Cybernetics Moment: Or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age (Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 2015) 6.