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The Control Revolution

The Control Revolution

Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society

James R. Beniger

ISBN 9780674169869

Publication date: 03/15/1989

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.


  • As systems involving people and machines increase in size, complexity and speed of operation, they confront recurring problems of coherence and control… The contribution of The Control Revolution by James R. Beniger is to describe and analyze the range of methods modern societies use to keep things from falling apart… It argues that today’s dependence on information technology has its origins in practical needs spawned by the Industrial Revolution… The book offers a skillful cross-disciplinary synthesis that draws on hundreds of scholarly studies in the history of technology, business history and social science… [A] challenging, highly readable work.

    —New York Times Book Review


  • James Beniger was Associate Professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communications.

Book Details

  • 508 pages
  • 6 x 9 inches
  • Harvard University Press