How inventive methods for condensing communication have driven innovation since civilization began
For thousands of years, humans have been tasked with delivering briefings, where wide-ranging information is condensed so that only the essential insights remain. The analysis and abbreviation of content for business purposes goes back ten millennia. The cuneiform script, first used in Mesopotamia around 3200 BC, was the earliest form of writing. Its precursor can be traced back even further, however. In the same region, 10,000-year-old tokens have been excavated that were engraved with single symbols used to capture information necessary for agriculture and trading: the first business briefings.
Not very long ago, monitoring distant events in real-time was still as difficult as it had been in ancient times. Now, finding remote sources for content and other data is no longer an issue. With a few clicks on a device, a modern-day information professional can search news databases, RSS feeds, online subscriptions, email alerts, independent blogs, app-based content, and intranets. Together, these sources represent a form of Big Data: information of such volume, velocity, and variability that more conventional means are insufficient when seeking to analyze it.
Twenty-first-century problems like extracting insights from Big Data may feel far removed from the past. From the first writing in recorded history to the augmented reality solutions of today, the communication of dense business information is always one of the first uses for any new, relevant technology. By transmitting the most important data at any given time, briefings have been both a reflection and a driver of innovation. A look back at how timely information was found, condensed and delivered in the past offers instructive concepts that may show a way forward in today’s struggle with information overload.
The evolution of business briefings continued as other civilizations progressed. During the Roman Empire, the Acta Diurna functioned as one of the first periodic briefings. A daily tablet carved to cover the latest political, business, and social news, the Acta Diurna was made of stone or metal and displayed prominently on the walls of major cities.
At the same time, major advances were occurring in East Asia. Paper was invented around 100 AD in China. One use of this invention was to create more trustworthy contracts when trading; papyrus could be washed clean, but paper left traces of any attempts to manipulate it, making financial transactions more secure. Also invented in China, the printing press was used to produce short Buddhist and Taoist pamphlets in large volumes, helping to spread those religions across Asia.
Then the printing press came to the West in the form of a machine that could mass-produce information like never before. The creation of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press in the early fifteenth century led to the historical equivalent of Big Data: over 500,000 books were published within 50 years of its conception. With this powerful machine, news could be shared widely and quickly. By the sixteenth century, advancements in technology gave rise to newspapers. Soon after, all major European cities had such periodic publications.
As newspapers developed, a professional service arose called news clipping or press cutting. According to the Encyclopedia of Journalism, such services became commonplace in the cities of the nineteenth century. The increase of available newspapers made keeping up with them quite challenging. Merchants, politicians, and other celebrities came to rely on news clippings to monitor an overwhelming flow of printed information. The services became especially respected within the rapidly developing business world, secured by many companies that needed news about their respective industries.
Eventually, instead of outsourcing press clipping, some firms hired dedicated in-house staff to complete these tasks. Based on the important keywords of the given company, readers would pore over newspapers and magazines in order to flag important articles. Such pieces would then literally be cut out of periodicals with a razor and often placed onto color-coded paper. Finally, the clippings would be organized and delivered as briefings.
Information overload is much older than the Information Age. The printing press led to the first kind of Big Data. To deal with the increasing number of books and newsletters, humans monitored, evaluated, and selected the most important content of the time using keywords. This content could then be summarized to share essential insights drawn from it, creating a briefing. In the process, a way was found to deal with Big Data that still works today.
With the invention of the telegraph, the rapid expansion of communications infrastructure allowed reporting from distant areas to be included in a paper the following day or sooner. Mass media arose in America and Europe, with radio and newsreels both taking shape in the 1910s. After the invention of the teleprinter, Telex, a global communication network, was developed in the late 1920s. Through advanced telegraphy, teleprinters sent every keystroke from a typing journalist to a distant printer to be recreated instantly.
From readouts to punch cards, teleprinters became instrumental to the invention of computing. The development of the computer in the 1950s and 1960s led to information retrieval systems, requiring the indexing of information and the formalization of algorithms to rank documents relative to a query. These search processes were being automated using the massive computers of the day. Manual clipping services seemed to wane in importance.
As computer terminals became commonplace in the 1970s, the term “online” began to be used to describe access to a variety of subscription content resources. Digital services arose requiring paid subscriptions that provided ways to access databases full of valuable information, such as the full text of US State codes and legal cases, the latest medical research, and more. By the early 1980s, a personal computer and modem would allow remote access to much of this information – usually at a high price point.
At the same time, free sources of information were becoming more widely available. Usenet groups were started in the 1980s. Usenet is the first widely used worldwide distributed discussion system. Before the Internet became commonly affordable, Usenet connections via bulletin board systems made long-distance or worldwide discussions and other communication widespread. This opened vast amounts of free information to users worldwide.
Desktop publishing also hit in the 1980s. Small companies became capable of quickly and easily creating their own publications. Harvard Business Review stated that this technology helped to bring 10,000 new publishers into the market within the decade. Special interest publications were able to proliferate at this time because of the low cost and speed that this technology offered. A massive expansion of published information enabled by technology became another predecessor to the modern-day phenomena of Big Data.
As the 1990s arrived, the dawn of the World Wide Web provided vast new possibilities for a searcher looking to create a briefing. Physical news sources started creating homepages and publishing content on the Internet. CNN and the Chicago Tribune were some of the first media entities to create an Internet presence in the mid-1990s. As the years progressed, more niche publications arose online. Regarding the volume of content, the Association of Research Libraries published a 1991 directory called “Directory of Electronic Journals, Newsletters, and Academic Discussion Lists,” which listed about 70 online newsletters, newsletter digests, and e-journals. By 1996, that directory showed 1,688 such Internet publications.
News aggregation websites also started to proliferate. Information expanded in a new way at a faster rate than ever before. RSS feeds (Really Simple Syndication) were first created in the 1990s by Netscape. RSS has become a way of getting the latest content and other data in one place via an aggregator as soon as publication occurs. RSS was to become even more powerful with the rise of blogging. In 1997, Jorn Barger called his body of writing on RobotWisdom.com a “web log.” Other people started using that term until it was shortened to “blog.” The modern blog evolved from the online diary, where people would keep a running account of their personal lives. Blogs became popular and powerful when political ones first arose. Bloggers developed a reputation for bringing key information to public light before the mainstream media, making them a crucial source for information in briefings.
Microblogging also became a force in the 2000s. This tool allowed users to write and publish concise and timely online communications and “hashtag” important words or phrases, enabling the latest posts to be followed. Microblogging sites such as Twitter have become an important source of real-time news information updates for briefings. They represent the shortest form of widely shared information, sometimes covering the content of an entire briefing in 288 characters or less. Such brevity allows users to post news items quickly, reaching a worldwide audience in seconds. During natural disasters, the timeliness of microblogging has made it hugely influential.
Also starting in the 2000s, other forms of social media influenced the way information from business briefings has been shared. Publications started allowing readers to forward articles to various social media platforms such as LinkedIn and Facebook with the click of an icon. As a result, many users of social media networks continue to obtain their news from items that are posted there by “friends” on timelines or in groups. Likewise, publishers can be followed to keep up with headlines.
As the smartphone became widely available in the late-2000s, the delivery of condensed information became even more powerful. On a global scale, the smartphone has replaced personal computers as the most used digital device. Apps for news are often required on these devices, as they are often easier to use than portals or websites designed for PCs. Media outlets each have their own apps, but the technologies that deliver news from multiple outlets have recently grown in prominence.
As of the 2010s, newspapers are now placing augmented reality “icons” that appear in physical paper articles. A mobile app can then scan these icons and display interactive content on a smartphone screen, enhancing the experience for readers.
With so many ways to acquire information, the Big Data problem that began in the time of Gutenberg is getting exponentially larger all the time. One effective way to deal with it remains using humans to monitor, evaluate, and select only the most important information on any given day. Some organizations use tools to accomplish this in-house, while others seek a service to achieve the task. Regardless, briefings featuring human insight and curation remain one effective way to deal with information overload.
The application of technology to enhance communication has been a driver of innovation since ideas were first written down. From ten-thousand-year-old tokens to email briefings, people have been condensing important information to its essence to share it with others. In the era of Big Data, organizations are best served to do anything they can to overcome critical information challenges. Augmenting human expertise with the latest technology remains an effective way to master the data of the day. This augmentation presents a way forward for any organization that wants to transform Big Data into even bigger opportunities.