A few fingers in the air can be interpreted in many different ways. A sign of victory. a symbol of evil, an insult (visar med fingrar i luften). But many more times will they represent something much less intriguing like a number. If I raise three fingers in the air like this. It means three. Now latin for finger is digitus. So digitalization of knowledge or information means that it is packaged as numbers.
To package knowledge as numbers has turned out to have consequences. Since world war two, more and more information has been digitalized in order to be automatically processed in computers. Soon the effects were noticed, for instance in meteorology delivering improved weather forecasts relying on these new tools to calculate movements in the atmosphere. Later, the same technology was used to put Americans on the Moon. Nowadays, there no longer seem to exist information or knowledge that cannot be expressed as numbers.
But digitalization is also something more, a transformative social and cultural process with elusive repercussions. We have tried to develop digital information processing since at least the 17th century. Then, the idea caught on of the universe as a clockwork with regular movements which could be calculated in advance. God had created the world and was the prime mover. But divinity was no longer needed to make the world turn just as the watchmaker who had made the clock, was no longer needed to keep it ticking in the pockets of the wealthy.
This mechanistic worldview brought new perspectives on reasoning. Rational thinking could also be understood in terms of predictable claims and propositions and thus potentially the object of the same type of analyses as the clockwork universe. Thinking was compared to calculating. Advanced mechanical computing machines were constructed as was chess-playing automata, both expressing the view of thinking as something regular and deterministic. [NEW] Some of the greatest minds of this time tried to create a calculus that could be used to crank out all the possible logical truths there were, a rational language clean from all incorrections and lies.
As I mentioned, from world war two, computers provided new possibilities to begin realizing the dreams of the 17th-century mechanists of a perfect language free from errors and mistakes.
And when internet was developed from the late 1960s, it started to become possible to make large amounts of digital information available simultaneously to innumerable connected computers.
During more recent decades, smaller and lighter portable computers have been equipped with advanced radio technology while cell phones have transformed into computers relying on generation after generation of mobile telecommunications technologies. Consequently, many people today have access to enormous amounts of information also when they are away from home or work. The potential uses seem endless.
During past centuries, following the introduction of the printing press in the 15th century, information has been symbolized by books and libraries. Knowledge was contained on paper and in printed texts. Retrieving information was the same as looking through collections of paper. No matter if it was a Shakespeare quote or a pancake recipe. But digitalization seems to slowly change all that. We talk about storing something in cyberspace or in the cloud. If information used to be bound up in paper and ink, it nowadays seems to float freely in space. Today, the view of information is that it flows frictionless from one device to another. Information has become remarkably immaterial.
But this is a misconception. In fact, quite a lot of hardware is needed to move digital information from one place to another, satellites, base stations, cables and optical fiber to mention just a few. Take the research facility MAX IV here in Lund. One of their main problems right now is how to get the channel capacity needed to move the thousands of terabytes each experiment generates to where it is to be analyzed. In Luleå in northern Sweden, a well-known American social platform has built a big data centre because of the relatively cheap hydropower which in combination with the chilly climate guarantee reasonably high energy efficiency for their servers.
One of the main advantages when digitalizing information is nevertheless that it can be copied and spread much simpler, cheaper and more reliably than before. Where earlier a big copy machine was needed to produce bad copies of a book or a photograph, or advanced video equipment was needed to reproduce a film, and, more importantly, every generation of copies had lower quality than the preceding generation, digital copying is simple and it creates perfect copies.
It is of course well known how this feature of digital information has made it very easy to copy and spread information. You can ask anyone in the music or film industry, or any newspaper journalist. This feature of digital information has had consequences also for research, primarily perhaps by facilitating the process of making research results as well as research data open and accessible. The demands for Open Access and Open Data as this is called is often connected to the broader ideology, which since the 1960s has acted under the slogan “Information wants to be free”. Today, research funders often promote ideas of Open Access and Open Data by demanding that the research they fund is published in open-access formats and that the data it generates is equally available to anyone.
Taken together, it is today rather easy to acquire information and to some extent even knowledge without having to get to a certain location such as a library or an archive. To remember things is no longer very important since virtually anything can be looked up. If you are a historian like I am, there are of course many things that are still not on the net despite large multinational companies in the information business doing their very best to scan books and other prints from all over the world and all times and likewise archival material of any origin. For copyright reasons, many of these databases are closed to a large number of people. Sometimes, they can be opened for those who are willing to pay and today, research libraries as well as public libraries are spending larger and larger sums on digital databases.
In this way, demands for Open Access and Open Data are countered by commercial interests investing in the construction of databases that are accessible only to those who pay for them. In my own field of history of ideas, admission to a database can be purchased containing, say all published 18th-century texts in English fully searchable. With access to this database, it is relatively easy to publish research articles based on searches for terms such as “Manure” and then crank out publications on the development of sustainable agriculture in the 18th century. Just as in the natural sciences and medicine, it has become possible to buy expensive digital research infrastructure to boost the production of research publications and career advantages when innovativeness is lacking.
Taken together, the strive for Open Access and Open Data as well as the simultaneous commercialization of searchable data has consequences for research. Not only are competitive advantages in research more often relying on expensive research infrastructure such as big machinery or large populations of test animals, which can be used to create new or better datasets, or by commercial databases. It also seems as if creativity and originality, the stuff that cannot be collected in datasets or programmed into algorithms, at least not yet, that creativity and originality is becoming a more decisive edge when all the rest needed to produce truly salient research is either openly accessible or for sale.
Digitalization of data has thus created two somewhat contradictory trends. First, one where the ability to pay for information has improved the possibilities to pursue a research career relying on routinized efforts even though more and more research results and data are open and freely accessible. Second, one where the generally boosted access to results and data has made originality and creativity high in demand.
We know today that it took several centuries for the art of printing to be established as a new technology transforming information management. The consequences of digitalization will certainly be as great as those of the printing press. But although some of the signs of its impact are already showing today, it will most likely be several decades or even centuries until we will be able to fully understand all its consequences. If future research will be characterized by expensive databases or by Open Access and Open Data is for instance still an open question.