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How Information and Technology Made the Modern World

by Jeremy Black

Pub Date: Jan. 14th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-300-16795-5
Publisher: Yale Univ.

A comprehensive chronicle of the collection and uses of information during the last six centuries.

Prolific historian Black (History/Exeter Univ.; War and Technology, 2013, etc.) sets out to explain how the acquisition and uses of information since the late Middle Ages contributed to the development of cultures around the world and to Western cultural, political and military hegemony. During this period, the nature and perception of information changed as reliance on classical and ecclesiastical authority gave way to a greater respect for empirical facts. Governments needed information primarily for taxation and military purposes, and businesses used it to expand trading opportunities. As more, and timelier, information became available, new uses for it emerged, and new demands as well. For example, in the 20th century, "understanding and addressing social problems and economic issues on an unprecedented scale became of greater importance for governments than heretofore and helped direct their engagement with information gathering.” These developments built on one another, particularly in the West, though Black devotes much attention to tracking similar developments in Asian and Islamic societies as well. Despite these nods to multiculturalism, the author is compelled to admit that advances in information gathering and processing ultimately faltered there, or as he puts it, these "technologies were open to all Westerners but were only slowly or poorly adopted by non-Westerners….The ability to gather, manipulate and deploy information therefore gave the Western nations a distinct and significant strategic advantage." Erudite and prolix, this is a book by an academic for other academics. Clearly the product of exhaustive research, it is a torrent of facts but, ultimately, to no clear purpose. Far more valuable and readable would have been a more selective use of facts to support an overarching thesis, but nothing of the sort ever emerges; it is all trees and no forest.

General readers will leave better informed but little wiser.