The Power of Knowledge

The Power of Knowledge: How Information and Technology Made the Modern World

Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 504
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  • Book Info
    The Power of Knowledge
    Book Description:

    Information is power. For more than five hundred years the success or failure of nations has been determined by a country's ability to acquire knowledge and technical skill and transform them into strength and prosperity. Leading historian Jeremy Black approaches global history from a distinctive perspective, focusing on the relationship between information and society and demonstrating how the understanding and use of information have been the primary factors in the development and character of the modern age.

    Black suggests that the West's ascension was a direct result of its institutions and social practices for acquiring, employing, and retaining information and the technology that was ultimately produced. His cogent and well-reasoned analysis looks at cartography and the hardware of communication, armaments and sea power, mercantilism and imperialism, science and astronomy, as well as bureaucracy and the management of information, linking the history of technology with the history of global power while providing important indicators for the future of our world.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-19854-6
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature, Technology, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Background
    • 1 Introduction
      (pp. 3-27)

      How we understand the world is a measure and forcing-house of intellect, but also a definition of capability, and thus power – the power to know, to analyse, and to plan and act employing both knowledge and analysis. This book will take information as a cause, measure and product of power, and show how the relationships between information, modernity and power changed, and how these changes made the modern world. This book therefore discusses the relationship between information, and its use notably to affirm and strengthen power, and the making of a modern world in which Western analytical methods and concepts...

    • 2 A Global Perspective
      (pp. 28-50)

      Developments in the West have to be set in a global context in order to evaluate their significance. This point is particularly pertinent for a period without Western-based and defined globalisation, and when Western societies and states appear less important than their counterparts.

      Thus, for the subject of this book, rather than turning automatically to the West and the century 1450–1550 (dates, of course, in the Western Christian calendar), a different narrative for modern history can be offered, and a narrative with several other starting points. There were, in practice (to adopt a teleological perspective), false starts, in that...

  5. The Early-Modern
    • 3 The West and the Oceans
      (pp. 53-81)

      The maritime and the naval were to provide key aspects of the exceptional nature not only of Western power, but also of Western information. This chapter focuses on the importance of trans-oceanic Western activity in creating new information, and thus the pressure to understand and integrate it. After a review of the medieval background, the impact of the exploratory voyages of the fifteenth centuries is considered.

      The Western legacy was not initially one to suggest that the West would be at the forefront of either trans-oceanic exploration or of developing intellectual responses to the resulting information. The Vikings had sailed...

    • 4 Renaissance, Reformation and Scientific Revolution
      (pp. 82-119)

      This chapter offers a reading of the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution, each of which plays a significant role in standard accounts of the coming of modernity. These accounts focus on Western developments, and thus on the character of the West as it came to play an increasing role in the world. As a consequence, each repays consideration. This is particularly the case because the Renaissance, Reformation and Scientific Revolution, while clearly very important, are also linked to a number of somewhat questionable assumptions that together contribute to the established interpretation of the period in the West...

    • 5 Government and Information
      (pp. 120-140)

      Government and information are closely linked. Even localised government, which is largely face-to-face, requires information, albeit this information may be less formalised than that for, and produced by, bureaucratic structures. As far as the latter are concerned, the presence and activity of government were frequently necessary to information gathering and analysis, while access to information was seen as central to government. Moreover, the rise of what is presented as the modern state can be treated as being in a synergy with that of modern information systems, the quest for them and their provision. By their nature, administrative effectiveness and centralisation...

  6. The Eighteenth Century
    • 6 The West in the World
      (pp. 143-172)

      The distinctiveness of the West – one of the themes of this book – emerges more clearly in the late eighteenth century. This and the following two chapters consider key aspects of the eighteenth century, organised successively in terms of the West in the world; in chapter seven, new Western ideas, a process generally described as the Enlightenment; and, in chapter eight, the extent to which the use of information was changing within the West. As with the previous section of the book, this organisation may appear inappropriate, and the last two themes may seem much more central. However, the salience of...

    • 7 Enlightenment and Information
      (pp. 173-200)

      Western society was increasingly impressed by the idea that authority should take rational form, as seen in the attempts in Britain to reconcile revealed religion to the insights gained by Newtonian science. From 1714, with a new ruling dynasty in power, the monarch no longer touched to cure those suffering from scrofula. To use the term ‘rational’ to describe this situation smacks of a presentist critique of what came before, but there was even at the time a self-conscious use of a rationalist language only indirectly grounded in sacral origins. This usage was distinctive, although it would be mistaken to...

    • 8 Enlightenment States?
      (pp. 201-234)

      The change in the use and understanding of information in the eighteenth-century West can be related to a transition in the nature of government and style of power. Reform impulses, drawing variously on cameralism, pietism, ‘political arithmetic’, mercantilism and/or Enlightenment thought, were all important. From the late seventeenth century, and more particularly from the 1710s, many Western intellectuals and some rulers and ministers hoped that, by using and also transforming government, they would be able to reform and improve society. A sense of the potential of government was captured by the French economist Jean-Claude-Marie Vincent de Gournay, who coined the...

  7. The Nineteenth Century
    • 9 Information and the New World Order
      (pp. 237-260)

      The nineteenth century saw Western powers become increasingly dominant on the world stage, with a particular impact in Asia, Africa and Australasia. This process was related to their use of information, while in turn this usage reflected the potential offered by their power. This relationship was seen not only in political power but also in other aspects, including economic activity. There were also attempts to advance a cultural dominance and to frame, discuss and use information accordingly.

      The charting of the oceans was a key theme of the nineteenth century, one that brought together the search for information, its accumulation,...

    • 10 The Utilitarian View
      (pp. 261-289)

      On the world scale, the West became clearly distinctive in the nineteenth century for its interest in information divorced from spiritual references and set in the guiding context of global information systems. This separation from a religious perspective on knowledge, especially new knowledge, was natural in countries where important sectors were increasingly impressed by the idea that authority should take scientific form. Indeed, the prestige of science as a key human achievement and means of further progress rose greatly in this period. In 1801, the committee of the Institut National in Paris recommended that scientific and mathematical instruments should be...

    • 11 The Bureaucratic Information State
      (pp. 290-312)

      The fictional figure of Mycroft Holmes reflected a conviction about the importance of information, but also the difficulty of deciding how best to conceptualise and manage it. The idea of the individual polymath as the solution to the problem remained attractive, not least in fiction, but the volume of material and the need for a structure of routine led instead to the development across the nineteenth-century West – as well as further afield – of new or newly formal processes, systems and institutions. As administration became more bureaucratic, so administrators were increasingly trained and made to specialise, leading to the bureaucratic information...

  8. To a Changing Present
    • 12 Information and the World Question
      (pp. 315-336)

      The use of information to help expand territorial power has been a theme in the matching chapters in the earlier sections. Mapping offers a key instance of this, as it helped provide both the imaginative and practical means to grasp control, as well as recording and enhancing the control that had been gained. This theme remains relevant for the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, but the discussion becomes more complex, both because of the extension of the means of geographical information and cartographic depiction, and due to the different ways in which power has been exerted.

      At the global level,...

    • 13 Information Is All
      (pp. 337-366)

      The search for the future, to unlock, foster, force and present it, became more important to modern culture in the twentieth century. This impulse had been present in the nineteenth century, but was more apparent in the twentieth. A cult of youth, which eventually became worldwide, contributed to the stress on novelty as part of a series of interacting and social factors that led to what has been termed a culture of anticipation.¹ At the same time, embracing the potential of change appeared functionally necessary, in the competitive nature of international power politics, in response to rapidly developing technologies and...

    • 14 A Scrutinised Society
      (pp. 367-394)

      Information systems were of great value to the political and economic movements and tendencies of the twentieth century. In seeking control and profit, these movements and tendencies required information about the location of people and assets, and about commitments and beliefs. Indeed, as information was a central means of governance and profit, so controlling it was of paramount significance, and was seen as such.

      Understanding and addressing social problems and economic issues on an unprecedented scale became of greater importance for governments than heretofore and helped direct their engagement with information gathering.¹ A good example of the number and range...

  9. Looking Ahead
    • 15 Into the Future
      (pp. 397-406)

      If new information systems are a definition and means of the coming of modernity, then the future stages of modernity will also probably see further new systems. These will be a matter of the development of existing practices and the creation of totally new ones. The enhancement of human capabilities will drive both processes, and a key element will probably be set by greater knowledge of the human brain, and thus the ability to use and influence it. For example, iPads now have retina displays to follow eyelines. There will probably be a development in virtual reality which will pose...

    • 16 Conclusions
      (pp. 407-412)

      Information is classically located in terms of a functional approach to modernity, with statistics both cause and consequence of the development of the modern state.¹ The availability and analysis of information are seen in terms of big government, able to plan and execute policies in an informed and predictable fashion, and also capable of integrating feedback readily into decision-making and policy implementation. In this scheme, information clarifies the links between the individual and the general, and thus permits the descriptive and prescriptive understanding of social laws. Information therefore apparently makes policy objective and, thus, both successful and unchallengeable.

      This understanding...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 413-457)
  11. Index
    (pp. 458-492)