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  • "An Informational Synthesis"
  • Andrew L. Russell (bio)
James W. Cortada. All the Facts: A History of Information in the United States since 1870. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. xix + 636 pp. Figures, tables, notes, bibliographic essay, and index. $99.00.

Information has been the subject of scholarly treatments from a variety of disciplines over recent decades—sociology, economics, media studies, and computer science all immediately come to mind. Origin stories of the information professions begin with documentation professionals working in New Deal-era libraries, government agencies, and professional societies. After World War II, these and other experts converged on the term "information" to characterize their collective endeavors, catalyzed in part by Claude Shannon's information theory (published in 1948 as "A Mathematical Theory of Communication"), and codified in 1968 when the American Documentation Institute changed its name to the American Society for Information Science. Discussions of an "information economy" and "information revolution" began to flow in the 1970s. The rapid adoption of the Internet in the 1990s ushered euphoric proclamations of a world-historical shift, for example with the sociologist Manuel Castells' landmark trilogy, "The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture."

Historians have responded to these developments by following a script that has, in essence, two arcs. The first downplays the claims of novelty and rupture that are implicit in the "information revolution" genre. For example, one lesson from Ann Blair's excellent 2011 book Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age is that the distressing experience of information overload is not new. Blair is one of many historians who dutifully push back against presentism by describing informational precedents—literacy, numeracy, printing, telegraphy, and so on—that remove the veneer of novelty from our present encounters with information. In the process, these historians contest the periodization that Castells and others have suggested. In one of the funniest lines in All the Facts: A History of Information in the United States since 1870, James Cortada quips that "we do not live in a purely information age, just as we do not live in the age of the potato, despite how many Americans eat" (p. 23). [End Page 699]

The second line in historical scripts about the information revolution emphasizes the varied and changing meanings of this phenomenon we now call "information." In other words, they underscore the great diversity of types, uses, and users of information. A recent (2011) volume titled Everyday Information: The Evolution of Information Seeking in America, edited by William Aspray and Barbara Hayes, embodies this eclectic approach. With the loose (but powerful) construct of information-seeking behavior established as a central focus, the book contains fascinating chapters with no apparent connection, other than the basic fact that they are forms of information-seeking by middle-class Americans: car buying, airline travel, genealogy, sports statistics, gourmet cooking, and several others. Elsewhere, Aspray has worked to cultivate similar studies—as the editor-in-chief of Information & Culture: A Journal of History and as the author of essays in the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing that establish a theoretical and empirical research agenda for histories of computation and information.

Information historiography thus sits in a compelling but inchoate state. Having rejected grandiose pronouncements of a new and unprecedented era, information histories privilege nuance and specificity. One consequence is that these histories lack connective tissue. Cortada's All the Facts joins this literature as a synthesis—a meta-narrative in a field that consists mostly of micro-histories. All the Facts does not attempt any theoretical or trans-historical synthesis of the information concept, and its primary audience is not a niche group of information historians or media theorists. Instead, the main goal and lasting contribution of All the Facts is to write information into histories of the United States since the Civil War.

Cortada's core claim is that information was "ubiquitous, pervasive, and integral in American life" (p. 460). His goal is to establish information as a defining feature of American society and history, alongside several other features of American history textbooks and survey courses: political and legal institutions, shared social and religious values, the shift from an agricultural to industrial society...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6628
Print ISSN
0048-7511
Pages
pp. 699-705
Launched on MUSE
2017-12-21
Open Access
No
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