Can the history of information explain the dominance of western cultures over the rest of the world? And if the control and analysis of information has been key to western economic power, what does it mean for the current situation, in which China and India are catching up?
Jeremy Black’s new book is a massive compendium of facts that suggestively interrogates the entanglement between information and western modernity. He follows others in noting that the modern nation state depends upon information about demographics, taxation and industrial output; and that the nation state itself produces huge quantities of information. But he also notes that technologies, from printing to the internet, have enabled information to be spread beyond the walls of government with potentially disruptive effects.
Rulers throughout world history have used information as a source of authority. Black begins in medieval Europe, but the bulk of his narrative is post-1450. He is particularly fascinated by maps, and chapters are full of examples of the collection of geographical knowledge, from Mercator’s 16th-century cylindrical map projections to the Hubble space telescope. But he’s also concerned with the ways in which information and politics are entangled in the modern world.
His impressive survey takes in censuses, literacy rates, medicine, time- keeping, trains, telegraphs and space shuttles, the Holocaust, the Star Wars films, and, of course, the internet. The discussion of state scrutiny and control includes Stalin’s USSR, modern China, and Assad’s Syria, and is dealt with as bare reportage rather than polemic.
The answer to the question about western distinctiveness must be comparative, and this book is littered with fascinating details from Black’s extensive reading on China, Japan, Persia, Mughal India and even Lapland. We learn that the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad, in the 9th and 10th centuries AD, had a good long-distance postal service and that there were spectacle shops in Japan in the 17th century. And we learn that printing in China was done by engraving whole pages of characters onto blocks of wood, which was cheap and simple enough that printing by moveable metal type seemed to offer few advantages. Yet, for all that, this remains principally a book about Europe.
Although Black is impressed by the improvements in the capacity for information gathering and analysis over the past two centuries, he argues that western societies have been distinctive since the early modern period, due to their predilection for trans-oceanic exploration, adventure and exploitation.
Other empires had ruled over large distances, and peoples of varied cultures, faiths and languages, but the Mongols, Persians, Chinese and Mughals all ruled by land, not sea, and based their economies on land, not trade. It was the exigencies of long-distance trade, Black argues, that drove westerners to develop the sophisticated information-gathering and analysing techniques, which in turn led to their global dominance in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The book’s final part is full of recent examples, pointing out the challenges now that other cultures have developed their own information systems and the latest technologies have the potential to spread information far more widely. But, despite nods to HG Wells and George Orwell, Black wisely refrains from attempting to predict the future.
Dr Aileen Fyfe is a reader in history at the University of St Andrews