- All the Facts: A History of Information in the United States Since 1870 by James W. Cortada
The title of James Cortada’s latest book offers a taste of the ambition of the project. While All the Facts does not really offer all the facts, it offers a lot of them. But that’s not the only thing that makes this book so ambitious. Rather, it’s Cortada’s attempt to redirect the historiography of information and computing history. He suggests that what’s important is not the technology of information processing but rather the information being processed: what information, where it comes from, how it’s used, what effects it has. All the Facts outlines a new approach to the history of information, one focused on content and context. It also offers a new approach to the social and cultural history of the United States, one that puts information at its center.
All the Facts covers large swaths of the information ecology of American economy and society. The focus is on big business and government, a topic Cortada knows well, and this overview will be a very useful introduction to students or historians starting a new area of research. For example, I found Cortada’s discussion of Information at work a useful overview for my present project on skills. He develops an argument here about blue-collar workers becoming knowledge workers, identifying the sources of information that helped them learn their trades and do their work, which offers insight into labor, management, and technological change.
All the Facts also covers cultural information and information used by individuals for their own purposes. For the most part, I found those chapters of the book less convincing and less useful. Cortada acknowledges that cooking, gardening, raising children, sports, and hobbies, for example, had their own information infrastructures, and outlines them in general terms, but it’s too quick an overview to offer much insight. He acknowledges that “gossip and oral communications” are an important part of the information ecosystem, especially outside of bureaucracies, but his focus on the written sources that survive makes it harder to get at some areas than others.
Cortada is explicit in his goal that the book serve as an outline, an entryway to this new approach. Historians, he writes, need an “Inventory,” a description of the “broad lines of patterns of use” of information (pp. xvii), and that’s what he offers. There’s some theorizing here but not much. He wants to name the topic, to declare its importance, to set up a way of looking at it. Cortada establishes a schema for understanding information in use—“an information ecosystem buttressed by an infrastructure”—but it’s more of a heuristic than an argument. It allows him to make preliminary explorations in a wide range of topics and offer direction to those that follow.
One of the most famous titles in recent historiography is Joan Scott’s “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” published in 1986. One might think of Cortada’s book in a similar way: “Information: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis.” Cortada argues that “information was one of the glues that held together American society, that made possible for it to go about its affairs” (pp. 465). He’s convinced me, in a general way; but he hasn’t spelled out the ways in which that glue held some areas better than others or how it occasionally came undone. This is, for the most part, a book about white, male, middle-class Americans, many of them working for large firms, the government, and the military. Cortada acknowledges that African Americans “had access to less of everything related to information,” (pp. 128), noting especially the disparity in education, but doesn’t explore how this shaped their lives or the lives of white people. His model doesn’t offer a way to explore the ways that ideas and practices of race and gender shaped information ecologies and infrastructures. He suggests that, in the case of books...