Hyperhistory and the Philosophy of Information Policies
More people are alive today than ever before in the evolution of humanity. And more of us live longer and better today than ever before. To a large measure, we owe this to our technologies, at least insofar as we develop and use them intelligently, peacefully, and sustainably.
Sometimes, we may forget how much we owe to flints and wheels, to sparks and ploughs, to engines and satellites. We are reminded of such deep technological debt when we divide human life into prehistory and history. That significant threshold is there to acknowledge that it was the invention and development of information and communication technologies (ICTs) that made all the difference between who we were and who we are. It is only when the lessons learnt by past generations began to evolve in a Lamarckian rather than a Darwinian way that humanity entered into history.
History has lasted 6,000 years, since it began with the invention of writing in the fourth millennium BC. During this relatively short time, ICTs have provided the recording and transmitting infrastructure that made the escalation of other technologies possible, with the direct consequence of furthering our dependence on more and more layers of technologies. ICTs became mature in the few centuries between Guttenberg and Turing. Today, we are experiencing a radical transformation in our ICTs that could prove equally significant, for we have started drawing a new threshold between history and a new age, which may be aptly called hyperhistory (Fig. 1). Let me explain.
Prehistory and history work like adverbs: they tell us how people live, not when or where. From this perspective, human societies currently stretch across three ages, as ways of living. According to reports about an unspecified number of uncontacted tribes in the Amazonian region (survivalinternational.org/), there are
Fig. 1 From prehistory to hyperhistory
still some societies that may be living prehistorically, without recorded documents. If one day such tribes disappear, the end of the first chapter of our evolutionary book will have been written. The greatest majority of people today still live historically, in societies that rely on ICTs to record and transmit data of all kinds. In such historical societies, ICTs have not yet overtaken other technologies, especially energy-related ones, in terms of their vital importance. Then there are some people around the world who are already living hyperhistorically, in societies or environments where ICTs and their data processing capabilities are the necessary condition for the maintenance and any further development of societal welfare, personal well-being, as well as overall flourishing. The nature of conflicts provides a sad test for the reliability of this tripartite interpretation of human evolution. Only a society that lives hyperhistorically can be vitally threatened informationally, by a cyber attack. Only those who live by the digit may die by the digit (Floridi and Taddeo forthcoming).
To summarise, human evolution may be visualised as a three-stage rocket: in prehistory, there are no ICTs; in history, there are ICTs, they record and transmit data, but human societies depend mainly on other kinds of technologies concerning primary resources and energy; in hyperhistory, there are ICTs, they record, transmit and, above all, process data, increasingly autonomously, and human societies become vitally dependent on them and on information as a fundamental resource. Added-value moves from being ICT-related to being ICT-dependent.
If all this is even approximately correct, the emergence from its historical age represents one of the most significant steps taken by humanity for a very long time. It certainly opens up a vast horizon of opportunities as well as challenges, all essentially driven by the recording, transmitting, and processing powers of ICTs. From synthetic biochemistry to neuroscience, from the Internet of things to unmanned planetary explorations, from green technologies to new medical treatments, from social media to digital games, from agricultural to financial applications, from economic developments to the energy industry, our activities of discovery, invention, design, control, education, work, socialisation, entertainment, care and so forth would be not only unfeasible but unthinkable in a purely mechanical, historical context. They are all hyperhistorical in nature.
It follows that we are witnessing the outlining of a macroscopic scenario in which an exponential growth of new inventions, applications, and solutions in ICTs are quickly detaching future generations from ours. Of course, this is not to say that there is no continuity, both backward and forward. Backward, because it is often the case that the deeper a transformation is, the longer and more widely rooted its causes are. It is only because many different forces have been building the pressure for a very long time that radical changes may happen all of a sudden, perhaps unexpectedly. It is not the last snowflake that breaks the branch of the tree. In our case, it is certainly history that begets hyperhistory. There is no ASCII without the alphabet. Forward, because it is most plausible that historical societies will survive for a long time in the future, not unlike the Amazonian tribes mentioned above. Despite globalisation, human societies do not parade uniformly forward, in synchronic steps.
-  This is the way I understand the reference in the Manifesto to a computational turn.