Why do we find ourselves living in an Information Society? How did the collection, processing, and communication of information come to play an increasingly important role in advanced industrial countries relative to the roles of matter and energy? And why is this change recent—or is it?
James Beniger traces the origin of the Information Society to major economic and business crises of the past century. In the United States, applications of steam power in the early 1800s brought a dramatic rise in the speed, volume, and complexity of industrial processes, making them difficult to control. Scores of problems arose: fatal train wrecks, misplacement of freight cars for months at a time, loss of shipments, inability to maintain high rates of inventory turnover. Inevitably the Industrial Revolution, with its ballooning use of energy to drive material processes, required a corresponding growth in the exploitation of information: the Control Revolution.
Between the 1840s and the 1920s came most of the important information-processing and communication technologies still in use today: telegraphy, modern bureaucracy, rotary power printing, the postage stamp, paper money, typewriter, telephone, punch-card processing, motion pictures, radio, and television. Beniger shows that more recent developments in microprocessors, computers, and telecommunications are only a smooth continuation of this Control Revolution. Along the way he touches on many fascinating topics: why breakfast was invented, how trademarks came to be worth more than the companies that own them, why some employees wear uniforms, and whether time zones will always be necessary.
The book is impressive not only for the breadth of its scholarship but also for the subtlety and force of its argument. It will be welcomed by sociologists, economists, historians of science and technology, and all curious in general.