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Charlemagne's Scribes: Why There's More to IT Than Computer Programs

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History shows us that information technology has been around since runners carried messages up and down the Great Wall of China. Bob Reselman explains that there's more to IT than computer programs and digital networks.
Bob Reselman is the author of Active Server Pages 3.0 By Example (Que, 2000, ISBN 0789722402). He can be reached at bob@CodingSlave.com. This article is adapted from Bob Reselman's new novel, Coding Slave (newTech Press, 2004), available online at www.codingslave.com; from most online bookstores; and from selected bricks-and-mortar booksellers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and New York City.
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Language Rules

Charlemagne (742 to 814 A.D.) was emperor of most of what we know today as Europe. His empire included France, Switzerland, Belgium, and the Netherlands, as well as half of present-day Italy and Germany, and parts of Austria and Spain. Yet, despite his power, Charlemagne was functionally illiterate. He used scribes to document the information he wanted to keep, and messengers to deliver it. He was completely dependent on these people to run his empire. Charlemagne's information technology, his technological framework, was a bio-robotic word processor/mail system with voice recognition features.

Charlemagne had political greatness and military power, but without his information technology, he was nothing. Outside of his castle he was just another one of the majority of men in the world who couldn't read or write. The scribes and messengers controlled Charlemagne's world. The scribes were his coders, the messengers his human transport packets. What would have happened if a scribe had created some buggy code by writing, "Invade Paris" instead of "Invade Vienna"? The course of the Holy Roman Empire would have been forever altered, and Charlemagne most likely would never have known until it was too late. Data packets took a long time to transport in those days. The physical network infrastructure (roads and waterways) didn't allow the packets to move very fast. Although Charlemagne may have decreed the rules, the scribes got the rules into the system and the messengers delivered them.

I tell this story to make two things clear:

  • The commercial, cultural, and political needs served by information technology have largely remained the same throughout history.

  • For as long as there has been information technology, there have been people who can "work" it and people who can't. Those who can, control the world.

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