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Information Revolutions in the History of the West

Author(s):Dudley, Leonard
Reviewer(s):Jones, Eric

Leonard Dudley, Information Revolutions in the History of the West. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2008. xi + 347 pp. $150 (cloth), ISBN: 978-1-84720-790-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Eric Jones, Melbourne Business School.

Leonard Dudley, a Canadian now at the University of Montreal, once formalized part of Harold Innis?s work on the role of communications in the history of empire. In his current book, Dudley (in part with co-authors) tries to isolate the effects of information revolutions in the whole grand sweep of the history of the Western World. This project is worthy of Innis and is a logical one for our time, when changes in IT and their societal impacts are so visible. Others have been nibbling at the cherry but Dudley has been left plenty to investigate.

A full 85 percent of Information Revolutions is devoted to nine episodes where the proposition is that new technologies, including developments like the standardization of languages and scripts, were followed by rapid changes in society, politics and economics. The author does not assert outright that the inventions and their diffusion caused the wide changes that followed but he obviously thinks this was the case. The nine episodes center on the following phenomena: the consolidation of the Carolingian empire, the Norman Conquest, the impact of Lutheranism, the fall of Charles I, the Reform Bill of 1832, the American Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the entry of the United Kingdom into the First World War, and a supposed link between the dissolution of the USSR and the fall of the Twin Towers. Each of these events is recounted in well-informed, well-documented and well-presented detail. Their precursors and the historical context tend to get more space than the consequences.

Most readers will learn a great deal from these sections, since few will be familiar with every episode. The accounts of the Spanish-American War, of Alfred Harmsworth and his mass production of debased newspapers, and of the Cold War seem the most compelling, despite the fact that the last two are much the most familiar among the cases. Yellow journalism is always fun to read about, though it is unclear just how much we should glory in the spread of literacy (exaggerated, by the way, in the figures Dudley cites) if its crowning achievement is an ability to read the tabloids. Education, judgment and literacy are different things. Any hesitation with which the reader may be left will not, however, concern the narratives but be a faint uncertainty as to why this, rather than some other set of cases, has been selected. Dudley?s answer will be plain: the examples serve as well as any to demonstrate the recurrent force of richer mixes of information.

A slightly greater hesitation may attach to the dramatizing nature of the expositions. Each invention, and its dissemination, is portrayed as rupturing the historical continuum. The thought may arise in the skeptical mind that the economy was often reshaped by less discontinuous change. For example, Yrjo Kaukaninen has shown (European Review of Economic History, 2001) how the transmission of information was being speeded up in the early nineteenth century, before the introduction of the electric telegraph. Dudley gives a lot of space, more conventionally, to Morse and pays special attention to the fact that Grant used the telegraph for coordinating simultaneous attacks on the Confederacy. Kaukianinen presents the argument for less punctuated change, involving broad front improvement via mail coach connections followed by railways, and sailing packets followed by steamships, with the result that more days were saved on most routes between 1820 and 1860 than after the adoption of the telegraph. Although the subject has not hitherto received proportionate scrutiny no one doubts that IT has repeatedly made a big difference to the world, but it remains a tad moot whether Dudley?s emphasis on revolutions is always warranted.

One difficulty with jump-starting history by means of new technologies is that on their own the devices remain inert. Something, or rather somebody, has to put them into the productive system: innovation trumps invention. Hence if we consider the example of Gutenberg?s printing press, we find Dudley makes the large claim that it began to generate a new type of society in early seventeenth-century Britain. This proposition follows the line to which he hews throughout ? that new information technologies spark off great social, political and economic changes. Yet if the printing press were so potent why had it not already succeeded in remolding the societies of China, Japan and Korea? Special interests and the political order muzzled the effects there. New technologies may be necessary conditions for certain types of change but they are not sufficient ones. Dudley is well aware of the significance of processes of diffusion and devotes half his space to them but does not pay much attention to contrary cases.

He frames the consequences of novel technologies in terms of network effects and economies of scale in information storage. The insistence that each episode supports his contention that IT necessarily has a revolutionary impact, as opposed to playing one important role among many in complex processes, is less easy to concede. When he introduces reports of two cruel psychological experiments which, he asserts, altered group behavior in ways analogous to the effects of IT, I am unpersuaded. The analogies are strained and seem mainly to demonstrate the fact that team sports inculcate violence. The historical narratives in this book, on the other hand, are exceptionally worth reading for their own sake.

Eric Jones is Professorial Fellow, Melbourne Business School, and Visiting Professor, University of Exeter. He is the author of The European Miracle (Cambridge University Press, third edition, 2003) and Cultures Merging: A Historical and Economic Critique of Culture (Princeton University Press, 2006).

Subject(s):Military and War
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):Medieval