Tools versus ideas - the role of inventions in changing society

In the history of information systems post, I outlined my goal with introduction to information systems class that I'm teaching. One module I'm particularly proud of is the one on "Tools versus Ideas" lecture. In this lecture, I start with the question "Which of the two, tools or ideas, is more fundamental to changes in business and/or society?" After spending a few minutes getting student feedback, I provide my answer through analyzing six different historical cases at the societal level. These six are:
  1. Invention of writing
  2. The Greeks
  3. Emergence from the Dark Ages
  4. Invention of the printing press
  5. The industrial revolution
  6. Invention of the electronic computer
For each of these cases, I explore the causes and effects. For example, the invention of writing is largely credited to be a solution to ever growing cities around 4000 BC. With improved irrigation and better farming techniques, more food was produced by fewer farmers, allowing people to migrate to cities. But with larger cities came larger bureaucracies and more commerce. In order to manage the increased complexity of the information flow throughout these cities, people start using a standard form of communicating with pictures and symbols.

Yet, even with the advent of writing, society did not change much. Empires became larger, but they were still despotic. Whoever had the strongest mob following him ruled the land. The invention of writing did not fundamentally change how society operated.

Compare that with the Greeks. What was fundamentally different about the Greeks? Why did this one culture discover the beginnings of science, philosophy, literature, great art, and a systematic study of history? And the answer lies with the Greeks unique ideas. The Greeks worshiped man. The believed that each individual man should become the best that they could be, physically, but more importantly, mentally. It was this respect for individual achievement and reason that fundamentally changed society as we know it.

The rest of the cases highlight this same theme. The inventions did effect society, but merely accelerated the transmission of ideas already present. When it accelerated the right ideas, such as when the printing press allowed more scientific and secular writings to be printed leading to the reformation, scientific revolution, and enlightenment, society started to change for the better. But if ideas are bad, such as the despotic form of government, inventions like writing did not make life any better or more enjoyable.

The major take away from this module is that information systems are only as good as the ideas that they transmit. The old notion "garbage in, garbage out" applies to any information system and its application to individual changes, business changes, or societal changes. Ideas matter! They matter far more than the tool. But once the right ideas are discovered, tools can accelerate the transfer of those ideas. Knowing which tools are right for which job is an entirely different subject and is the focus of the remainder of the semester.

No comments:

Post a Comment