Information: A Historical Companion

edited by Ann Blair, Paul Duguid, Anja-Silvia Goeing, and Anthony Grafton  
Princeton University Press, 2021, 881 pp. Hardcover, $65.00; Ebook, $45.40 
ISBN: 9780691179544 

While information and its related technologies are typically viewed as contemporary phenomena, some scholars have pushed us to consider them as a frame for viewing human and social history across time. In the ways humans have recorded and shared ideas, we can find the continual use of external tools and devices to capture data, spread rules and regulations, and organize a collective around shared thoughts and identities. This type of thinking questions any claims for ours as the information age, suggesting instead that human existence has always relied on information; thus, we might more fully understand ourselves by recognizing its impact over the history of humanity.   

The present text represents, in the words of its editors, an ambitious effort to explain “how information has shaped and been shaped by human society across ages past and present” (vii). Including the work of multiple scholars, with a mixed form of 13 long chapters addressing core developments from the fifteenth century onward (though with considerable reflection on earlier times) supplemented by 101 shorter entries on tools, methods, and concepts, this tome is not for the feint-hearted. At almost 900 pages it reflects a significant effort by the editors (not to mention by any serious reader) and the contributors to place information at the center of world history. In its scope and form, this is a highly original and impressive work—though how well it suits an interdisciplinary audience is open to question. 

This book really is two works in one. For the first, we have long-form chapters, totaling 284 pages, which cover specific eras and regions where information was pivotal over the last 500 years. Thus, we get chapters on premodern regimes and practices, the emergence of periodicals and commercialism, early media technologies, and the rise of search engines. Each is presented as a vehicle in which we can explore a particular time and social concern. But these chapters also reflect specifically on place, covering the emergence of European statehood, networks of trade and travel in the early Islamic world, and the impact of printing on modern east Asia. The challenge, when the chapters do not follow a strict timeline or attempt genuinely global coverage, is to maintain thematic coherence, and it is to the editors’ credit that the long chapters are both individually strong contributions and conceptually connected.   

In the main, this coherence derives, perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, from the contributors’ intentional avoidance of defining “information,” instead choosing to focus on practices around information that seem to reflect important developments at various points in time. While the purported spread is the last five centuries, the authors actually cover far greater terrain: from the spice routes of 3,000 BCE in the case of Grafton’s opening chapter on premodern regimes and practices to the eighth-century paper mills of what is now Iraq in Elias Muhanna’s exploration of information practices in the medieval Islamic world. The chapters generally follow a forward trajectory through time, but they approach the twentieth century only in the last quarter of the book. It’s left to the final two chapters (Paul Duguid’s “Communication, Computation and Information” and Dan Rosenberg’s treatment of Search) to deal directly with what many folks would consider contemporary information topics. On balance, historians might view this proportion as correct, but for readers of a different discipline (especially the modern informatics readers for whom a decade or two might seem like the distant past) you can be reassured that the treatments of epochs and practices in all chapters are sufficiently fluid to highlight and suggest themes and parallels that transcend narrow temporal considerations, although one might wish for these to be developed further in several entries.  

While the long chapters capture the attention, much of this volume, more than 500 of its 881 pages, is taken up with a series 101 short essays and entries covering accounting to xylography. Along the alphabetical way are such topics as bells, coins and government documents, manuals, sermons, and surveilling. Each entry ranges typically from three to five pages with the occasional six-pager thrown in, too. It might be tempting to view part two of this volume as an appendix, a form of encyclopedia with supplementary material to be dipped into briefly. While one certainly could approach these entries in this manner, it would be a mistake to treat the short essays as mere appendices. In most cases they provide a sufficiently detailed account of a topic that is both engaging and sometimes surprising. Earle Havens’s entry “Forgery,” for example, might allude to misinformation practices of the current time but is more a swift coverage of fake records and accounts that have characterized religious writing and collector mania for millennia. The challenge for a reader lies in understanding what gets included among these entries, and in many cases you can only appreciate this by reading each fully. John Carson’s short essay on intelligence testing might seem to stretch even these editors’ elastic boundaries on information history, but he claims relevance by suggesting the move toward DNA analysis for assessment reflects a historical frontier for gaining information about people (an idea that might remind some readers of the primitive and racist theories that predated early research on IQ testing). 

While the sheer scope of this volume is impressive, by combining broad inclusion with limited capacity (yes, even this many pages is a constraint) the editors have made choices on what to include and, of course, what to leave out. As a result, they emphasize certain eras, but in so doing have focused on certain regions and thereby privileged particular voices. The contents here are not entirely Euro- or US-centric; a very real attempt has been made to include parts of Asia and the Middle East, but there is little inclusion of African or South American contexts in this history of information, the reasons for which might have been made clearer in introduction. These choices will surely place this volume within its own historical context in the decades ahead. Similarly, while information technologies are conceived broadly in this work, the concern with their design as an important driver of adoption and use does not even warrant an index entry.  And speaking of usability, the only way to find out what the short essays contain is to look at an alphabetical or thematic listing of terms or one-word titles at the front, none of which offer page numbers for any entry, a curious example of how far we still must go in helping people find the information they seek.  

In conclusion, while I wish the content choices had been different, I recognize the importance of this volume. It is a book that will reward readers over the long haul. The editors deserve credit and, if anything, are paying the price of attempting to cover so much terrain. I know of no other book quite like this and it resonates with my own view of information as meaningful lens on human progress over time. Omissions and usability aside, I certainly recommend Information: A Historical Companion to those who want to understand better how information and its associated technologies has helped shape the world and our place in it.  

Andrew Dillon, University of Texas at Austin