ENGL 575 B1: The History of Information

Jonathan Cohn

We are living through the age of information, so they say. And we are certainly in a moment when everything and everywhere—from the color of poop to the wi-fi and radio signals in the air we breathe—registers to us as chock-full of meaningful information that shapes us far more than we shape it. But like everything else, information has a long history and our definitions, experiences and usage of it can shift as quickly as our economy, culture, politics, weather... Using examples from pre-Colombian art to the Renaissance on, this course considers how various cultures have conceived of information (and how “we," in response, conceive of them as primitive or advanced, savage or civil). We will ask: What counts as information vs data vs knowledge? What does information do? How is it separable from media? Where does it live? Where does it go? What is it’s connection to the concept of networks? How did it become an ownable and exchangeable good? How does information (both in content and as concept) shape individuals, communities, and worlds. In attempting to answer these questions, this course will examine various methods for the research and analysis of information in its many forms.