- All the Facts: A History of Information in the United States Since 1870 by James W. Cortada
In All the Facts, Cortada seeks to enlarge our thinking about information and its role in the broad sweep of American history. In this ambitious project, Cortada tracks the growth and cumulative effects of information in business and industry, government and education, and work and home life throughout a period of 150 years. He treats each of these domains in turn, using World War II as a chronological fulcrum. The narrative is encyclopedic. Studies of bureaucracy and information technology sit alongside discussions of cookbooks and baseball box scores. In addition to focusing on textual information—reports, surveys, manuals, newspapers, and books—Cortada also emphasizes the role of informal networks—civic, professional, and religious organizations—as embodied conduits of knowledge sharing and community building. The history of information, in Cortada’s telling, includes both management consultants and the Boy Scouts.
At a basic level, All the Facts documents the sheer volume and variety of information that flooded the United States after the Civil War. The book is filled with tables illustrating undeniable patterns of multiplication. Yet “more information” is only part of the story. As Americans became habituated to information, Cortada argues that they also became increasingly dependent upon its use. Corporate managers relied on filing systems and accounting; farmers turned to new agricultural science; government officials consulted statistics; academics chased after the latest research in new journals; and citizens looked to a growing array of guidebooks for instruction in the care of their homes and children. Defining information as an instrumental resource, Cortada’s history is primarily concerned with the application of useful facts and data to practical problems. According to Cortada, information ecosystems in every sphere of life “thickened,” and new ecosystems emerged, [End Page 282] as Americans pursued economic prosperity, technological advancement, and self-improvement.
Cortada’s effort to capture the totality of America’s long information revolution is well organized and often insightful. Sections about office work, industrial research, management, computing, and the internet display his prodigious knowledge. Strangely, however, this book largely ignores three of the twentieth century’s most potent information-disseminating technologies—film, radio, and television. Although millions of Americans have spent countless hours in movie theaters, around radio sets, and in front of their televisions, Cortada has little to say about how these media added to the nation’s information ecosystems. He acknowledges television’s outsized influence (“it would be difficult to overstate the significance of television in creating shared identities, experiences, and collectively known information” ), but devotes only three pages to the topic. Likewise, he neglects to examine advertising, one of the most pervasive features of the American information environment, despite his charitable view of promotional messaging as a genre of information rather than propaganda (304).
A more serious problem, however, is the book’s lack of engagement with power relationships. Framing the book rather benignly as a descriptive “catalog of the American experience” (xvii), Cortada avoids wading into debates surrounding the politics of gender, race, and class. Despite paying lip service to social disparity—women relegated to the home, African Americans lagging behind whites in literacy and education, and income inequality worsening—he tends to ignore, or brush to the side, gender dynamics, discrimination, and structural barriers in the larger story of forward motion and plentitude.
Social and cultural historians will find much to dispute in this account, as Cortada correctly anticipates. In a book that attempts to cover so much material, Cortada could certainly be forgiven for bracketing certain subtopics and themes. But power is not ancillary to information; it is fundamental to it. Political, economic, and ideological commitments determine what information is produced and how that information is distributed and deployed. Because information is never apolitical, histories of information cannot be apolitical either. All the Facts offers an expansive account of institutional and technological change, but its buoyant narrative of progress and informational enrichment conceals as much as it reveals.