The Information Age? Part two

Continuing from the previous installment, inspired by a conversation at a grocery store checkout and looking at the rise of the Information Age. Here, I return to that conversation, which concerned whether Camila Parker-Bowles was about to become Queen of England, based on a single magazine cover.

First of all, why do the British Royals seems to be such an endless source of fascination for Americans? I mean, we did fight that whole war to get rid of them at one point, right? But thanks to new technology, they suddenly started landing in our backyards again.

The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on June 2, 1953, was televised in the U.S. — sort of. We didn’t have the capability yet to transmit television signals across the ocean, but they could transmit radio waves, and send images via a primitive sort of fax machine, even called MuFax, that could send a still image by wire in “only” nine minutes.

Apparently, though, probably the moment when the former colonies started to have a thing for the Royals started with the investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales on July 1, 1969 — right before the Moon landing — but it was broadcast around the world, quite likely in a convenient test-run of satellite technology twenty days before the Real Big Event.

Twelve years later, Charles would be back in American consciousness when he married Lady Diana Spencer on July 29, 1981.  Their worldwide TV audience comprised 750 million people. And, of course, his bride would capture worldwide attention upon her death on August 31, 1997.

I definitely remember that evening, because my then-boyfriend and I had just come home from a Sunday evening movie date, got to his place and he turned on the TV. There it was — the top story on American network news on every channel.

While the previous weird fascination seemed to be just a fluke of technology making delusions of monarchy appealing to some Americans in a sort of fantasy/soap-opera way, the growth of the Internet also seemed to blur borders, at least in another way.

By this century, the only cultural divides among the English-speaking countries seem to be superficial, like word-choices, culinary decisions, and major brands. And Americans have continued to fawn over Charles and Diana’s kids, and then their grandkids, and his second marriage, and no, I don’t get it.

What I did get, though, when the woman finally turned the magazine to us after asking, “When did Camilla become the queen?” I realized that it was a copy of InTouch, which answered everything.

While it’s an American magazine, it has a particular fascination with the British Royal Family. It also lies its ass off, and their cover accuracy (from the editors and publisher) and content accuracy (from the writers) are both well below 25%. — although I knew that without looking, because the drug store next to my place that’s been a really convenient quick drop-in during the pandemic stocks it by the registers, so I’ve had plenty of time to look at their cover stories and just shake my head.

Then again, I kind of know stuff about British royalty and how it works, outside of this pop culture fascination with them. Why? Because I learned a lot of history in school, as well as on my own, because I’m just curious like that.

Like the British stuff before our revolution that was later important to the Western world. I’ve also paid attention to the stuff behind the tabloid headlines on the Royals, which led to a nice moment, actually, because if this woman had just gone off of the very inaccurate and IRL click-bait headline, she could have walked away thinking that Camilla Parker Bowles was about to become Queen of England.

Fortunately, I knew enough to be able to tell her — and the checker, who seemed to be going along with the headline — that InTouch was incredibly unreliable and, if anything, the cover title was satirical at best, because “Queen Camilla” would never happen.

And that much is definitely true, because part of the deal of allowing Charles to marry Camilla after Diana died was the specific stipulation that she would never become the queen should he ascend to the throne, but rather only gain the title of princess consort, which is a polite royal way of saying “the chick the king is fucking, but his relatives totally disapprove.”

I didn’t explain it in quite those terms. I just said that because of her divorce and the deal Charles made, she could never become queen, and that seemed to settle the issue.

On the way out, it struck me — and this article was born — how is it that modern humans (and it’s not just Americans) can have access to so damn much information and yet seem to know so little about what is really going on?

No, I’m not pushing conspiracy-theory bullshit there. It’s a legitimate question. How is it that so many people do not seem to engage with actual, fact-based information?

Unfortunately, I think a big part of it is that in modern culture (late-stage capitalism largely to blame) too many people have been ingrained with learned helplessness.

“You cannot get ahead, so you never will, so just soldier on and buy our shit! It’s better than trying to learn, because learning is hard, right?”

Well, wrong. But this is the message that has kept people disengaged from curiosity and education. Consumer culture, particularly in the west, is focused on one thing: Selling you artificial substitutes for happiness.

If they let you learn and get smart, then you’ll learn to not buy into their bullshit, so they start to try to get you when you’re young. McDonald’s Happy Meals, anyone?

Modern capitalism has really adopted an old idea that has been attributed to several sources, but which really has none. St. Ignatius Loyola never said anything like, “Give me the child until seven and I will give you the adult” (original version, substitute “boy” and “man” for the subjects in the sentence.) Not was it said by Aristotle.

But… it somehow crawled into the Zeitgeist, especially in marketing, and voila… your kids became targets. How do you think that companies like McDonald’s and Disney became so damn huge in the first place? Each of them had you as kids, probably your parents as kids, they’ve got your kids, and they’re going to get your grandkids.

And how do these companies do their thing? Oh, they will never, ever tell you, “Not happy? Maybe you should learn a new skill!” Instead, they’ll hide the question, make the problem seem like it’s your fault, and then sell you the solution.

“Feel like a loser today? Pick yourself up with Pakolyze candy!” (Hidden message: Because you’re a stupid, useless loser without us.)

This is literally the basis of every single ad that is trying to sell you shit you don’t need, including those fact-free magazines in grocery store check-outs, but also including most of what you read on the internet.

The only way to unlearn learned helplessness is to ignore the (corporate) voices that tell you, “Nah, I can’t,” and instead focus on your inner voice, which tells you, “Oh, fuck yeah, I can, and I am going to!.”

And you will. Just become your own gatekeeper and filter info — after you find the least biased sources, which an internet search actually will give you.

Then stop obsessing on the Royals because, after all, while Queen Liz Jr. is hella cool, we did kick her ancestor out a couple hundred years ago via violent revolution.

So… honor, but don’t obsess. Hey, Elizabeth II is my 36th cousin (and I think also 35th and 37th — no, really), but… no American needs to waste that much head canon on any of the Royals, okay?

Unfortunately, we moved from The Information Age into The Post-Information Age, or maybe even the Dis-Information Age at least five years ago. We’re only just making an attempt at crawling out of it now, but please stand by.

After all, if an otherwise apparently intelligent, affluent, and educated woman in a very liberal suburb in a very liberal county in a very Blue state can almost, for a moment, think that Camilla Parker Bowles is about to become the Queen of England and that Elizabeth II can do nothing to stop it all because of a trash tabloid magazine cover, then there is definitely some breakdown in keeping the people informed.

Which leads to the either/or salvation or danger of the Internet as it is now, because, in essence, it empowers anyone on it to be their own media platform.

Think about it. If you’re reading these words, then you probably have a device that is capable of allowing you to become any or all of the following kinds of creators: film or TV producer and distributor/broadcaster; radio producer and/or broadcaster; magazine or newspaper writer and/or publisher; artist with gallery and shop, or museum curator with likewise; designer with online store; adult entertainer with your own private studio, theatre, and fanbase; and I’ve probably missed quite a few.

The point is that the technology that capitalism has given us, ironically, will also be the tool we can use to destroy the monolithic entities that have come to dominate market share of everything. The trick is that we have to be willing to let go of the stories and franchises we’ve been sold, trust our friends and acquaintances, and then trust the acquaintances of acquaintances, and so on, to create our market.

That and… tax the fuck out of the super-rich, just like Republican Eisenhower did, and look how well off the Middle-Class was at the time. Hell, his policies created the Middle-Class in the U.S.

Combine that with progressive policies to give everyone access to education, health care, affordable housing, equal treatment under the law, and equal representation at the ballot box, and we could create America’s Middle-Class 2.0.

That is the real way to Make America Great Again.

Image source, Old computer that used punchcards, found in the London Science Museum, (CC) BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Information Age? Part one

This was originally going to be a single piece but, as often happens, I got so into the subject at hand that I had to split it. The second installment will appear tomorrow.

“When did Camilla become the queen?” a voice behind me in line at Ralphs suddenly blurts out. The clerk and I look over to see a thirtyish woman who otherwise seems well-off and intelligent holding up a magazine with a cover story title along the lines of “Elizabeth and Camilla face off over the crown!”

The course of that conversation was rather illuminating for me — and I hope for the woman — but before I can get to that part, let’s take a little detour, shall we?

The so-called Information Age, also called the Computer Age, among other names, began around the 1970s, and its major hallmark was that the gathering, processing, and dissemination of information was rapidly moving away from analog media and devices — snail mail, paper files, and typewritten documents among them.

Telephone landlines were also moving away from using analog encryption and decryption of signals, as well as rotary dials that literally told the switches what digits you’d dialed by the number of clicks.

I could swear I’ve written about it here before, but can’t find the link. But this “number of clicks” thing is why the most populous regions at the time they instigated area codes got the ones with the fewest number of “clicks”: 212, 312, and 213 going respectively to New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Digital technology had existed by this point, ever since the invention of the transistor, first demonstrated in 1947. However, the earliest computers were huge — the size of entire rooms — very expensive, and ran ridiculously hot because they used vacuum tubes instead of integrated circuits, which didn’t exist yet anyway.

In addition, they were programmed either by physically flipping switches to set parameters, or in the more “advanced” models, data was fed into them — and read out of them — using either punch-encoded paper tape, or the infamous punch card, yards of the former and tons of the latter. To store just one gigabyte of data would have taken over 16,000 typical punch cards, at 64 bytes per card.

That’s bytes, using the 8-bit standard. The highest eight-digit number in binary is 1111 1111, which equals 255. Add in the extra number zero, 0000 0000, and that is why the number 256 is so important in digital technology.

In contrast, a 16-bit system gives you 65,536, which happened to be the original number of possible colors on the first VGA monitors eons ago. Beyond 16-bit, you’d need scientific notation. A 64-bit system would give you 1.85×10^19.

These are physical limit on how big a number any sized system can generate and use at one time, as well as how many binary digits can pass through a serial bus at one time.

The likely reason that the Information Age finally took off is directly tied into the birth of what would become the Internet in October 1969. It developed on into the 1980s. At the same time, the first small-ish computers that were affordable — at first to business, and then eventually to more affluent consumers — started to come onto the market.

Those early machines didn’t do a whole lot, but they created the first generation to go digital: Gen X. To this day, that seems to be the dividing line, and I know very few Boomers who seem comfortable with computers if they were never exposed to them during their professional lives.

I’m not generalizing Boomers, though — I know Millennials who couldn’t even manage to turn on a laptop, and I’ve met octogenarians who can work their way around a computer like an expert.

And then, about a decade after the first really affordable personal computers, the Internet happened. Well, I think it was the World Wide Web (WWW) at the time, although people didn’t used to distinguish the two.

The short version is that the WWW is the stuff you see online — the web pages that actually come to your machine. The Internet, meanwhile, is the vast network of computers that hosts the WWW, along with lots of other stuff, and which makes the magic happen that gets a document on somebody’s private server in Tierra del Fuego through an elaborate route that can sometimes cross the entire planet before it shows up on your laptop while you’re on vacation in Iceland, usually in under a second.

Another way to think of it is that the WWW are the letters and packages, and the Internet is the postal service. Of course, anyone who refers to the World Wide Web nowadays will just get looked at funny. There’s a reason that the “www.” Part of a URL hasn’t been required for a long, long time.

End result? The Information Age, which has been a wonderful thing.

If I’d tried to write this article, or something like it, in 1970, with all of the above information, it would have involved one or more trips to a physical library or a few, lots of manual searches and pulling out books to look for information in a very analog way — by reading it.

Notes by hand, or by using the library’s copiers, paying per page. And if said information weren’t in the library, I would have somehow had to find someone with expertise in the field and either (gasp!) call them on the phone, or send them a neatly typed letter nicely asking for info and waiting for however long it took them to respond, if they ever did.

I could never have adulted in that age. So that’s the upside of The Age of Information.

But there are several downsides, one having to do with quantity (and quality) of information, and the other having to do with a frequent lack of engagement, which is not unrelated to the first part.

I have a terabyte hard drive in my computer, and another terabyte external drive connected to it. These are ridiculously huge amounts of data, something we couldn’t even have conceived of needing back in the 1990s.

Now, multiply those two drives of mine by five to bring it to ten terabytes, and that’s enough storage space to hold the entire collection of the U.S. Library of Congress, digitized.

The amount of information available via the Internet dwarfs that number by a lot. It’s been estimated that just the “Big Four” of sites — Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook — store at least 1.2 petabytes of data.

Note that it’s not clear from my source whether this data includes YouTube and Instagram under the umbrellas of Google and Facebook respectively.

A petabyte is two steps up from a terabyte, meaning that one petabyte is a million terabytes — and the figure above doesn’t even include all the other storage spaces out there for all the other people. Granted, a lot of smaller sites contract to Google, Amazon, or Microsoft for cloud storage, but I’m sure that many of them don’t.

Have an email account that isn’t Google or Microsoft? Multiply the storage they allow by their users and add it in. Toss in all the university and library servers, as well as private industry servers — banking, real estate, finance, healthcare, retail, manufacturing, media.

And then don’t forget publicly accessible government servers which, in every country, go from a national to regional to an administrative to a local level. In the U.S., that’s Federal, state, county, city. The U.S. has 50 states and well over 3,000 counties. A county can have any number of cities, townships, unincorporated areas, boroughs, parishes, or whatever.

It all adds up.

Again, on the one hand, it can be the greatest thing ever. I certainly love it for writing and researching, because when I want to create a link, I just need to tap a couple of keys and do a quick search.

Since I’m a stickler for getting it right if I happen to be writing a period piece, and I want to know what the weather was in a certain place on a certain day, or what was on TV on a certain day and time, boom, done. The information is out there.

Nerd stuff. But that’s what I’m into, that’s what I love to do, and I know how to filter — as in which news and websites to ignore, which to use with caution, and which to trust.

Speaking of which, the main thing that Wikipedia is good for is a broad overview, but if you want the real story, always follow their external links to sources. Yes, I will link to them if I’m only going to give a superficial dash of info, especially if it involves pop culture, but they’re the card catalog, not the book, to dredge up an old analog metaphor.

But we live in a paradox in which information very much fits the old line from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “Water water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

This referred to being stranded in the ocean, so surrounded by water, but since it’s sea water, it is too salty to be drinkable.

Modern version: “Info info everywhere, oh fuck, I’ve got to think?”

A lot of people, for various reasons, don’t or can’t take the time to filter, and each of us is getting bombarded more in an hour than, say, our grandparents would have been in a week when they were our ages.

The interesting part is that analog media — like checkout lane magazines and TV and radio ads — are still very much a part of the mix. So back to the story I started with.

(To be continued…)

Image source, Old computer that used punchcards, found in the London Science Museum, (CC) BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons