Bayeux and Information History

Chris Mellor at El Reg has a nice digestible crumpet of a piece considering the Bayeux tapestry as a storage device.

It’s a member of a genre I think of as Information History. By analogy with the field of economic history, information history studies the information environment of past societies, using later scholarly techniques to analyze it and its impacts. Economic history sometimes gives us rich context, to estimate, say, grocery or property prices in ancient Rome, and give us knowledge the Romans had but we do not. It can also throw up startling and beautiful perspectives on the past and the future that have not been explored systematically before, as in this classic paper, The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development:

We exploit differences in the mortality rates faced by European colonialists to estimate the effect of institutions on economic performance. Our argument is that Europeans adopted very different colonization policies in different colonies, with different associated institutions. The choice of colonization strategy was, at least in part, determined by whether Europeans could settle in the colony.

Acemoglu et al here use sophisticated stats techniques and painstaking colonial scholarship to accumulate evidence for their thesis.

Mellor wrote a newspaper article, not a paper, and we shouldn’t hold him to a scholarly standard he didn’t claim. Even given that, what distinguishes it as a document of information history, rather than just a neat analogy, is that he calculates the read / write rates. (2.168 bytes/per hour write speed, on the back of Mellor’s envelope.) He puts it in systematic terms only given meaning in the last fifty years or so, and thereby enriches our understanding of their time, and ours.

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