New College of the Humanities

How Information and Technology Made the Modern World

The Power of Knowledge
How Information and Technology Made the Modern World
Jeremy Black
Yale University Press   504pp   £30

Professor Jeremy Black is one of our great adventurers: author of over 100 books to date, encompassing a wide range of geographical, chronological and intellectual topics, he is a resolute voyager of the mind. In The Power of Knowledge Black draws together his breadth of scholarly interests in support of a seductive argument: that, historically, power has been related to the search for information and the capacity to coordinate, depict, control and make practical use of it. 

Black writes of the decline of the Mongol Empire and the rise of China, of early Islamic cartography and the maps of the Aztecs, Incas and Maori. Much attention is devoted to technological advances that helped further the quest for information: in cartography, astronomy and medicine, in printing, publishing, glassmaking, road-building and the applications of steam power and successive attempts to measure space, weight and time. Towards the end of the book, Black considers the implications of such information technologies as the Internet and mobile phone. Most of the great innovators are there (Galileo, Newton, Humboldt), while cameo appearances are made by Marco Polo, Magellan, Mercator and many others. The exigencies of war, he emphasises, have often stimulated the search for new knowledge. Scanning and spanning many centuries of world history, Black strives to transcend parochial perspectives, aiming at a narrative of global reach.  

Running through much of the text like a rondo theme is the contentious question of western superiority. It may be true that many of the great innovators in the history of information and its utilisation were found in the West and that for several centuries western commercial, military and political power was dominant. But that is not tantamount to arguing in favour of – or seeking blanket condemnation of – what we now regard as western imperialism, Black insists. He may be focusing on what proved to be an important source of western power, but as a historian he feels no need to defend or apologise for the ways that power was implemented. 

Similarly, when describing how new information about native peoples came to be classified in the 19th century, Black notes the emergence of attempts to categorise ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ racial types and skin colours and the attendant interest in phrenology, crime and racial ‘degeneration’. This may make uncomfortable reading, but Black clearly has no time for the kind of history that is relayed through the prism of what we know happened later;  he can be quite scathing about ‘teleological’ history or ‘presentism’.

The Power of Knowledge is not always an easy read. Typically, Black will introduce a fresh topic, followed by several paragraphs outlining a dizzying range of subsequent developments and those responsible for them. At times the book feels over-packed, but stay on board if you can. Like a latter-day Captain Cook, or Darwin on the Beagle perhaps, Jeremy Black evidently relishes the chance to journey to faraway places of the mind and to observe, collate and systematise all he has learned for the benefit of the rest of us.   

Daniel Snowman is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research.

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