Martin’s Weblog

20th Century Industrial Processes: Culture, Identity and Information

This blog takes a brief look at how industrial processes have shaped our culture, identity and our ideas of information.

The defining factor of the 20th century was fossil fuel (especially oil) which today provides an energy equivalent to 22 billion slaves and allowed an exponential extension of 19th century industrialism to do things faster, bigger and more. The 20th century as an industrial age was dominated by material things, materialism and industrial processes – manufacture, distribution, consumption, disposal and the identity, political and power structure consequences of this.

Fossil fuel became abundant and cheap and 20th century systems could afford to be energy intensive – the globalisation of material things became possible – the earth became a global factory. China for example could manufacture from raw materials transported from multiple countries using oil transported from multiple countries and then transport manufactured goods to multiple countries. Transportation is present at every stage – the energy and pollution costs are now apparent.

Politics and economics became focused on production and people’s identities became focused on consumption – we have become defined by what we have – the things we buy rather than the things we do or make. The consequences of political and economic power can be read from this.

Information is intangible and must be represented in some way and given that the Internet didn’t exist through most of the 20th century then information was by necessity locked up in material forms of representation and the necessary 20th century industrial systems associated with material things – energy intensive manufacture, distribution, consumption and disposal along with the political and power structure issues that result.

The 21st century Internet provides a new perspective on 20th century information – the energy intensive manufacturing and transportation costs involved and the advantages pertaining to those who own the means of production and distribution. Consider what is required to produce a magazine – from the felling and processing of trees to make paper to the printing and distribution and the eventual disposal and waste.

Information was constrained and limited by its physical embodiment in objects – it was expensive, scarce, difficult to change and to share. You may need to travel to a bookshop or library to get a book – there would only be a limited number of books, you couldn’t easily make and distribute your own book or comments on a book. The same issues apply to other forms of information such as audio and visual information – consider the industrial processes involved in the music business to manufacture and distribute CDs.

Embodying information in physical objects slows it down and freezes it – in the same way that paper is a dead tree you could regard a book as dead information – there is no interaction. It seems a bit extreme but you could regard a library like an information graveyard where you can go to read inscriptions on the tombstones – the books as tombstones – dead information.

Computers and software as information technology have themselves also been part of the 20th century industrial production-consumption dynamic. Mainframes were born in the middle of the 20th century and naturally created a centralised information and control model. Punk music and the personal computing trend both started in the late1970s as an attempt at personal production – both were eventually assimilated by the very mainstream industry processes they were a rebellious response to. Personal computing is dominated by major industry businesses. Software “production” is still dominated by manufacture, distribution and installation – it is partially “dead” software. Computers and anything digital are subject to rapid produce and consume cycles – we need ever faster machines to run ever bigger software. The irony is that the machines of the information age had become the epitome of the industrial age.


March 1, 2009 - Posted by | ICT, IT and society | , ,


  1. […] The success factors were different. Raw material access was not the differentiator. In the new transformative economy, one could convert resources into products in places independent from where the raw materials or […]

    Pingback by Social media as the platform of work « Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation | February 9, 2011 | Reply

  2. Thank you! Great post!

    Comment by eskokilpi | February 9, 2011 | Reply

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