The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   2

The Control Revolution

Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society

by James Beniger

Harvard University Press, 1986
I was going to say that this is undoubtedly the best work ever done by a professor of communications, but that would be praising it with faint damns, and it deserves better. This is not a speculation or a vague schema but a very detailed history of the rise of technologies and techniques of communication and information-processing, and their use for controlling social and economic processes, prefaced by a general discussion of these subjects and their importance for history. His thesis is that modern information technologies, and with them the ``information society,'' began to take shape in the 1830s with the introduction of railroads, and really took off after 1880 with full industrialization. Because machine industry involves huge, fast flows of goods, it cannot be managed without a high level of information technology (in which Beniger includes things like product standardization, bureaucracy and advertising, as well as the usual mechanical devices): and if it isn't managed it simply cannot work. The first part of the economy to move at industrial speed were the railroads, and the accompanying jump in the size of the information sector is dramatic. So industrial production is a good reason to improve your information technology; and conversely, improved control technology makes new industrial developments possible.

Beniger puts the modern synthesis (not his phrase) of industry and information in the period 1880-1920. By the latter date, the technology of control had been so perfected that the economies of all the warring powers in the Great War could be managed by central planning --- those of the Allies, by combined planning. (Since this performance was repeated during the Second War, I'm tempted to say that market forces are simply too inefficient to be trusted with anything important, but this is not the place for those rants.) Since then, he says, we have been in essentially the same industrial-economic-technological phase. The advent of computers was obviously very important, but they didn't usher in the information society, because we already were one (which, I suspect, is why they were able to spread so quickly --- Beniger does not, alas, discuss computerization in detail).

I can find only four-and-a-half flaws with this book. One, he says very little about the influence of the military on this process, which is strange, since it lives by command-and-control, and mechanized warfare was invented in this country in the 1860s, well within the period he covers. Two, it is almost entirely confined to American history; but the book would have had to have been immensely expanded to cover even Western Europe in similar detail, to say nothing of Japan, or Eastern Europe, or South America.

Three, the period Beniger focuses on was also one of incredible ferment in art, literature, philosophy and general culture, and it would be fascinating to know if there were any connections between this and the control revolution (perhaps even more fascinating to learn there were none); but again, this amounts to demanding a new book, if not a new scholar.

Four, the first chapters of the book, where Beniger discusses such notions as control, communication, programming and information, gives something of their history and argues for their importance in the study of society, is long-winded, excessively detailed (do we really need mini-articles on Principia Mathematica, Gödel, Talcott Parsons, the origin of molecular biology in physics, Structuralism, and even an ``addendum'' on the nature of life?) and not as well-grounded as the remaining, historical parts of the book; but perhaps this is demanded but Beniger's audience, historians and social scientists who are unfamiliar with these matters.

Four-and-a-half, Beniger's style is far from brilliant, and especially in the introductory chapters he is tempted to lapse into sociologese. This too may be demanded by the audience, but it is not a demand which should be met.

x + 493 pp. plus 37 pp. bibliography, plus index, black and white illustrations
Economics / the Information Society / Sociology
As of July 1995, the book was in print as a trade paperback, ~US$15.
18 August 1995; minor typos fixed and links added 24 June 1999