Sunday, April 09, 2006

Information Costs

The basic idea of an information cost is pretty simple: it costs something to learn something. We all know that books cost money, reading takes time, universities charge tuition, archival work and fieldwork are expensive, file folders need to be stored, computers need to be replaced (frequently) and people are forgetful. Once you start to take information costs into account, however, there are surprising consequences for economic history, property rights, law, and many other fields (see, for example, the work of Douglass North, Yoram Barzel and Ronald Coase.)

We are at a point where it is possible to imagine that nearly all historical sources could become digital and readily accessible over the next few decades. This means that the relative cost of accessing any particular source will be near zero, and the practice of history will be completely transformed as a result.

Past historical projects were largely shaped by information costs, although not explicitly framed in those terms. It was easier to read through the contents of one archival box than to go through a number of different boxes: typically, each box had to be requested, retrieved from storage, stored in the reading room while someone was looking at it, and then returned to storage. For practical reasons, archives limited the number of boxes that could be requested at a time, and often took a substantial amount of time to process each request. It was easier to use the resources of a single archive than a number of archives. The costs of access were multiplied by travel between archives and by the need to learn the ropes at each one. Furthermore, much of the material in archives was not indexed in finding aids, and it was even more difficult to search effectively across archives.

As archives digitize their holdings, historians can no longer expect to face these costs. At the moment, it is much easier for me to examine the 80,000 historical photographs online at the BC Archives in Victoria, BC (3,285 kilometres away) than it is to study historical photographs in the regional collection of my own university library. Eventually, these kinds of discrepancies will vanish. In the meantime, however, historians are confronted with an unfamiliar and counterintuitive set of information costs as they approach new projects, or advise students beginning research.

In the long run, the complete digitization of our archival base may be accompanied by the emergence of a separate field of historical informatics. The current situation in biology is instructive. At first glance, the stuff of biology—genes, cells, organisms, ecosystems, and so on—would seem to have little to do with information processing. The past few decades, however, have seen the emergence of bioinformatics, an explicitly computational form of biology. Students in many areas of the life sciences now find that they need a basic understanding of statistics, applied math, and programming. Precisely the kind of things that young historians need to start learning now.

In a sense, the information-processing revolution in history is one part of a much larger and longer-term trend that J. R. and William H. McNeill have traced in The Human Web. Patterns of interaction and exchange have become ever denser and faster over the course of the Holocene, with a consequent reduction in information costs.

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