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James R. Beniger: The Control Revolution:
technological and economic origins of the information society
(Harvard University Press: 1986)


“To say that the advanced industrial world is rapidly becoming an Information Society may already be a cliché.... But why...[and] why now? Material culture has also been crucial throughout human history, after all, and yet capital did not displace land as the major economic base until the Industrial Revolution. To what comparable technological and economic ‘revolution’ might we attribute the emergence of the Information Society? My answer...is what I call the Control Revolution, a complex of rapid changes in the technological and economic arrangements by which information is collected, stored, processed, and communicated, and through which formal or programmed decisions might effect societal control.... Once we view national economies as concrete processing systems, engaged in the continuous extraction, reorganization, and distribution of environmental inputs to final consumption, the impact of industrialization takes on new meaning. Until the Industrial Revolution, even the largest and most developed economies ran literally at a human pace, with processing speeds enhanced only slightly by draft animals and by wind and water power, and with system control increased correspondingly by modest bureaucratic structures. By far the greatest effect of industrialization, from this perspective, was to speed up a society’s entire material processing system, thereby precipitating what I call a crisis of control, a period when innovations in information processing and communication technologies lagged behind those of energy, and its application to manufacturing and transportation.... This explains why so many of the computer’s major contributions were anticipated along with the first signs of a control crisis in the mid-nineteenth century.”
(Beniger, pp.v-vii)

There has probably been more nonsense talked - and written - about what comes after industrialism/modernism than almost about any other topic, and whilst social scientists may have been less foolish in the main than their literary/artistic counterparts, they’ve also far too often betrayed an even shallower understanding of history than that of the self-proclaimed “postmodernists”. However, as always, there are exceptions - and James Beniger’s Control Revolution can easily justify its entry into that select group of works which are necessary for the comprehension of our current state of affairs.

Moreover, its highly detailed exploration of the way industrialization has driven subsequent reforms offers us all genuine insight into the deep complexity of real social change...something all too easily forgotten when we’re scratching about, looking for instant “explanations” for whatever’s puzzling us right now. Instead, we’d be far better served by an appreciation of the long entangled chains of causation which Beniger explores, since they still clearly dominate the world of today...


“The processing of matter and energy and information develop simultaneously and in parallel - neither can be said to precede the other in any general sense.... Because industrialization involves the utilization of inanimate sources of energy by society as a concrete processing system, it cannot develop unless an adequate infrastructure for the movement and processing of matter, energy, and information already exists.... [Therefore,] initial development of the tertiary (transportation and utilities) and quaternary (trade, finance, and insurance) sectors may just as well be viewed as a precondition of industrialization than as a harbinger of postindustrial society.... What made the Commercial Revolution truly revolutionary was that, for the first time, distributional and control systems...could be sustained indefinitely on a global basis. [And] industrialization became revolutionary when the energy harnessed vastly exceeded that of any naturally occurring or animate source; the resulting throughput and processing speeds greatly exceeded the capacity of unaided humans to control. What made the Control Revolution in fact revolutionary was the development of technologies far beyond the capability of any individual, whether in the form of the vast bureaucracies of the late nineteenth century, or of the microprocessors of the late twentieth century. In all cases, it was not the novelty of the commodities processed (whether matter, energy, or information)...but rather the transcendence of the information-processing capabilities of the individual organism, by a much greater technological system.”
(Beniger, pp.180-5)

Just as the long-term changes potentiated by widespread printing eventually led to both the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution - see Elizabeth Eisenstein - and the Scientific Revolution led to innovative social/intellectual networks that were crucial to the incubation of the Industrial Revolution - see Joel Mokyr - so too the chain continued, with the latter’s widespread impact fomenting the subsequent shift. And, rather than the tipping point being reached with the spread of electronic computing, Beniger makes the far stronger case that it occurred in the late nineteenth century, with subsequent changes basically a continuation of the pattern which was firmly established by then. And the employment trends over time strongly support this reading...because, rather than showing any radical discontinuity in recent times, the trend towards information work clearly began in the mid/late-nineteenth century - and the only marked discontinuities in the trend since have come from severe economic slowdowns.

Much of the difficulty we have in seeing the scale of the picture Beniger draws lies in our easy acceptance of the innovations of times past - and our consequent failure to grasp their actual impact in context. Moreover, our labels all too often elide major changes, offering up the illusion of strict continuity when, in fact, the real story may be of radical change, as is the case with terms such as “commerce” and “bureaucracy” when applied to the nineteenth century:


“In view of the cultural and market control achieved in even the simplest societies using kinship, religion, ritualized exchange, law, and social networks...it is certainly not obvious why the nineteenth century should bring a crisis of control.... [Western] commercial capitalism, born in the Mediterranean, had sustained an increasingly international exchange and processing of material goods...[via] stay-at-home merchants who conducted their business through similar merchants living in other trade centers, and willing to execute transactions on commission. These resident merchants introduced a series of innovations in the control of commerce beginning in fifteenth-century Venice, including the systematic collection and processing of market information, the standardization of commission rates, reliance on private arbitration to settle disputes, and formation of joint ventures to spread risk and preserve mobility.... This last characteristic of the resident merchant, diversity of investment and function, constitutes a major difference between commercial capitalism and the industrial capitalism that would begin to supplant it in the nineteenth century.... Diversity of function resulted, in part, from the relatively low volume of trade...[while] the primitive telecommunications of the same period...constituted a less often cited but equally important cause of the resident merchant’s diversification of investment and resistance to specialization.... Although protecting the individual merchant from risk...the world commercial system foundered for centuries in a vicious cycle, in which poor communications and the resulting lack of information prevented the increased specialization and control that would have made specialization itself less necessary.... Profit sharing had worked as the information-processing system of the [earlier] travelling merchant only because the merchant ordinarily went out with his wares, so that profits could be calculated among partners after goods had been at least partly sold, and unsold goods thereby appraised at current market price. Commissions afforded a much better information-processing system, although not without a half-dozen other informational innovations: invoices, bills of lading, ship’s manifests, a postal service, systematic accounting methods, official clerks (scrivani), and the standardization of prices, shipping practices, and handling charges.... [However,] agents retained the one shortcoming common to all controllers (like bureaucracy in general) based on individual human brains: independence of purpose.... [The typical] solution was to distribute the most dependable information processors available: an immediate family member, relative, or at least a legal partner, friend, or close acquaintance.”
(Beniger, pp.121-6)

“Just as the need to distribute control, in the absence of any better control technology, caused traditional values to persist in commerce, the rapid disappearance of at least the American general merchant and his family partnership in the early decades of the nineteenth century seems to be due less to ideological or religious changes than to the development of alternative and less centralized means of control.... Even in this preindustrial period...the rationalization of commercial structures paralleled the development of a national and international infrastructure...[as] the personal networks of the colonial merchant gave way to increasingly specialized and impersonal market exchanges...and a parallel informational system of commercial control, which increased the merchant’s ability to maintain distant and hence less distributed control.... These same systems, it would seem, and not changes in ideology or religious belief, constituted the most important vehicles of transition from traditional to modern commerce, and from commercial to industrial capitalism.... Internal (family) controls could be abandoned only as external (economic) controls became stronger...[and] industrialization of the external control technology of information processing, transportation, and communication, as we shall see in the remainder of the book, comes at the expense of that transitional control.”
(Beniger, pp.129-168)

“Organization is more than mere order; order lacks end-directedness: organization is end-directed.”
(Colin Pittendrigh, quoted in Beniger, p.35)

“Foremost among all the technological solutions to the crisis of control - in that it served to control most other technologies - was the rapid growth of formal bureaucracies....[as] bureaucratic administration did not begin to achieve anything approximating its modern form until the late Industrial Revolution.... Perhaps the most pervasive of all [bureaucratic] rationalization is the increasing tendency of modern society to regulate interpersonal relationships in terms of a formal set of impersonal and objective criteria...[so that] the amount of information about them that needs to be processed is thereby greatly reduced, and the degree of control - for any constant capacity to process information - is greatly enhanced.... [And] the rapid growth of rationalization and bureaucracy...led to a succession of dramatic new information-processing and communication technologies. These innovations served to contain the control crisis of industrial society in what can be treated as three distinct areas of economic activity: production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.”
(Beniger, pp.13-16)

Selectively skimming through The Control Revolution for insights in this manner, however, gives too little sense of the density of Beniger’s chronicle of these changes - and, in particular, the careful analysis he accords each stage of the tortuous route by which rationalization occurred. For example, the key role of auctions in these shifts is exhaustively analyzed...as is their (swift) decline, once commercial networks had improved sufficiently. Overall, however, the key finding of Beniger’s enquiry is the multitude of different causal factors driving the process - as well as their close (and intricate) interconnection...


“Despite the modest technological and economic innovations in control under commercial capitalism, the world distributional system, even in the early nineteenth century, simply did not require anything approaching the degree of control that would become necessary under rapid industrialization. Because capital remained so mobile under the centuries-old commercial order, it served as the major medium...for communication and control of the world system.... Not until commercial capital came to be tied down in the British power-driven industries did profit begin to depend upon the ability to manage not the totality of one’s investments, but the processing of relatively much smaller investments in raw materials. [Then,] the faster one moved these throughputs past one’s fixed capital, the greater the returns on one’s investment... [And] by the time Britain decided to enforce the mercantilist Navigation Acts in its American colonies in the 1760s, it was clear that many of the former luxury goods from the New World had already become...everyday staples: sugar, tobacco, tea, molasses. Because such goods could be obtained only in exchange for others, the so-called nation of shopkeepers found itself transformed into what would come to be known in the nineteenth century as the ‘workshop of the world’.”
(Beniger, pp.169-74)

“Machinery itself came increasingly to be controlled by two new information-processing technologies: closed-loop feedback devices like James Watt’s steam governor (1788) and preprogrammed open-loop controllers like those of the Jacquard loom (1801).... Further rationalization and control of production advanced through an accumulation of other industrial innovations: interchangeable parts (after 1800), integration of production within factories (1820s and 1830s), the development of modern accounting techniques (1850s and 1860s) , professional managers (1860s and 1870s), continuous-process production (late 1870s and early 1880s), the ‘scientific management’ of Frederick Winslow Taylor (1911), Henry Ford’s modern assembly line (after 1913), and statistical quality control (1920s), among many others. The resulting flood of mass-produced goods demanded comparable innovation in control of a second area of the economy: distribution. Growing infrastructures of transportation...depended for control on a corresponding infrastructure of information processing and telecommunications...[and,] controlled by means of this infrastructure, an organizational system rapidly emerged for the distribution of mass production to national and world markets. Important innovations in the rationalization and control of this system included the commodity dealer and standardized grading of commodities (1850s), the department store, chain store, and wholesale jobber (1860s), monitoring of movements of inventory or ‘stock turn’ (by 1870), the mail-order house (1870s), machine packaging (1890s), franchising (by 1911 the standard means of distributing automobiles), and the supermarket and mail order chain (1920s).... Mass production and distribution cannot be completely controlled, however, without control of a third area of the economy: demand and consumption. Such control requires a means to communicate information about goods and services, in order to stimulate or reinforce demand for these products; at the same time, it requires a means to gather information on the preferences and behavior of this audience - reciprocal feedback to the controller from the controlled (although the consumer might justifiably see these relationships as reversed).”
(Beniger, pp.16-20)

“Increasing the speed of an entire societal processing system, from extraction and production, to distribution and consumption, was not achieved without cost.... Thus was born the crisis of control, one that would eventually reach, by the end of the century, the most aggregate levels of America’s material economy. Problems began with a crisis of safety on the railroads, first with the intersectional lines of the early 1840s, and then in the early 1850s with the great trunk lines connecting East and West. By the 1860s, this safety crisis had given way to the the railroads’ continuing struggle to control their vast systems to maximum efficiency. As late as the 1870s...railroad companies actually delayed building large systems, because they lacked the means to control them. Meanwhile, the control crisis spread to distribution [as], with the proliferating network of grain elevators and warehouses in the 1850s, mercantile firms and other transporters had increasing difficulty in keeping track of individual shipments [of commodities].... In the 1860s, this crisis in the control of distribution also began to affect the movement of goods in the opposite direction: from manufacturers westward to consumers. Commission merchants found it increasingly difficult to handle the distribution of mass-produced consumer goods; wholesalers struggled to integrate the movement of goods and cash among hundreds of manufacturers and thousands of retailers, [and] by the late 1860s, with the rise of department stores and other large retailers and wholesalers, the control crisis had become one of maintaining high rates of ‘stock turn’ in inventory. At about the same time, the crisis of control also reached the producers themselves...[who] worked with difficulty to maintain competitively fast throughputs, [while]...finally, in the 1880s, the control crisis reached the area of consumption.... In 1882, a single miller adopting...continuous-processing technologies to oatmeal produced at twice the national rate of consumption. Clearly, the need to create new markets - and to stimulate and control consumption - had reached a crisis level in oatmeal.... As this crisis of control spread throughout the material economy from the 1840s to the 1880s, it inspired a stream of innovations in information processing, bureaucratic control, and communications...[and] by the turn of the century, the crisis of control had largely been contained. [But] only through the dynamic tension between crisis and control, with each success at control generating still new crises, has the revolution in technology continued.”
(Beniger, pp.219-20)

Perhaps the best way to convey the surprisingly fascinating nature of the detail in Beniger is to hone in on the specifics of the railway revolution - and its aftermath - as there are many surprises therein...even for readers who considers themselves familiar w/nineteenth century history. However, when looked at with fresh eyes, it is the details of commercial/industrial systems which prove crucial...and which are neglected in all but the most specialist of histories. There’s clearly more than one lesson to be learnt here, I think...


“The American Industrial Revolution cannot be said to have begun before the 1840s, and the major application of steam power in the tertiary sector: the railroad. Not the steam engine itself, nor the knowledge of steam-powered machinery, nor established manufacturing in textiles and metals, nor the growing supply of domestic coal and iron - not even together did these factors bring rapid industrialization to the United States. The explanation, once again, involves speed. As concrete open processing systems, societies cannot produce goods faster than they can move, process, and distribute throughputs to production, and still maintain control of the system...[so] until this system moved at the speed of steam power, steam could not be extensively applied to factory production.... Railroads greatly surpassed canals in speed, regularity, and predictability - what we have already found to be the key factors increasing the need for control, [and] even the earliest railroads could increase the speed of a shipment tenfold.”
(Beniger, pp.207-13)

“Dramatic problems of control first appeared, as might be expected, on the railroads, the first part of the material processing system to harness the speed of steam power on a large scale.... For Western Railroad, America’s first intersectional rail link, the inability to control even a half-dozen trains quickly ended in tragedy...[and] as a result...the Western management instituted a wide range of innovations in bureaucratic organization, programming, information processing, and communication.... Control of each train became centralized in its conductor, who had standardized detailed programs for responding to delays, breakdowns, and other contingencies, who carried a watch synchronized with all others on the line, and who moved his train according to precise timetables.... They are possibly the first persons in history to be used as programmable, distributed decision makers in the control of fast-moving flows through a system whose scale and speeds precluded control by more centralized structures. This use of human beings, not for their strength or agility, nor for their knowledge or intelligence, but for the more objective capacity of their brains to store and process information, would become over the next century a dominant feature of employment in the Information Society.”
(Beniger, pp.221-5)

“That the degree of control enjoyed by the directors of...interregional and national rail systems was truly new and revolutionary in the mid-nineteenth century is reflected in the fact that few of their innovations drew on previous experience in large business, government, or military bureaucracies.... Alfred Chandler describes the difference: “The management of such enterprises did not require the constant, almost minute-to-minute supervision...of the railroads...[with] the coordination and control of so many different types of units, carrying out so great a variety of tasks that demanded such close scheduling.’ [Interestingly,] most of the early innovators of the control revolution were civil engineers, with experience in the construction of roadbeds and bridges, hardly an obvious preparation for the control of dynamic systems...[although,] in times of true crisis, it would seem, experience with the old technologies provides little help in devising revolutionary new ones - more theoretical and general disciplines better fill that need.”
(Beniger, pp.236-7)

“By dramatically increasing the speed and reliability with which raw materials arrived at a factory, and the speed and volume with which finished goods could be distributed, the railroad created a niche in the societal processing system for manufacturing at comparable speeds...[but] maintaining control of these accelerating throughputs proved to be a continuing struggle.... The essential insight: to construct [factories] as processors explicitly, with structures and procedures so determinate that information extraneous to any particular function would be eliminated on the designer’s table, so to speak, and hence pose no further need for control. [And] because metal-making proved more difficult to control than any other major manufacturing process, steel producers became the first to design, build, and maintain - on a scale that involved thousands of individuals - the concrete open processors that distinguish all living entities.”
(Beniger, pp.237-8)

“Whether or not a particular industry required new technology to control its throughput processing, however, all sectors, because of the increasing speed and volume of industrial production, experienced crisis in controlling the distribution of outputs on a comparable scale.... As with the control of production...early control of distribution came mostly through innovations in preprocessing, in this case to facilitate market transactions, the processing equivalent of throughputs to production. These marketing innovations included - within a fifty-year period - standardized methods of sorting, grading, weighing, and inspecting, packaging in containers of fixed sizes and weights, fixed prices, standardized sizes, and periodic presentation to consumers via catalog. New types of retailers (like the five-and-ten) came to be specialized by price as well as by commodities sold, with general purpose containers (like grocery bags) and self-service intended to cut transaction costs while at the same time speeding sales...[whilst] all successful continuous-line food processors in the 1880s resorted to consumer packaging, brand labelling, and mass advertising to control consumption.”
(Beniger, pp.248-78)

Having read quite a lot of economic/business history by this point, what most impresses about Beniger, I feel, is his marshalling of a myriad of details to support a highly complex narrative - without either confusion or oversimplification. And whilst he’s not a poor writer, he’s certainly no stylist. His real strength, however, is structural - as perfectly befits a writer on this topic. In consequence, even when the story becomes more familiar in the twentieth century, he maintains our interest by stressing the multiple continuities we had not properly understood.


“The smooth transition from control crisis to Control Revolution in the 1880s and 1890s can be attributed to three primary dynamics, each of which has sustained the steady development of information societies through the twentieth century. First, control technologies have co-evolved with energy utilization and processing speeds in a positive spiral, advances in any one factor causing or at least enabling improvements in the others.... Second, increased control brought increased reliability, and hence predictability of processes and flows, which in turn meant increasing economic returns on the application of information-processing technology. When ships depended on wind power, Atlantic crossings took from three weeks to three months; hence little could be gained from attempts to coordinate transatlantic shipping with production, distribution, or consumption flows. Steam power not only reduced the trip to ten days, the improvement most noted, but also made possible the prediction of arrivals to the day, and even hour, and hence increased profits through planning, scheduling and coordination.... Third, information processing and flows, increasing in response to the crisis in material control, needed themselves to be controlled, so that new control crises have appeared and been resolved throughout the twentieth century, at levels increasingly removed from the processing of matter and energy....[As a result,] contrary to prevailing views which locate the origin of the Information Society in World War II [or after,]...the basic societal transformation from Industrial to Information Society had been essentially completed by the late 1930s.”
(Beniger, pp.291-3)

“General Motors became, more than any other organization, the model for...large industrial enterprises in the 1920s and 1930s, [and] according to [Alfred] Chandler, the structure remains today the basic organizational type for companies ‘manufacturing several lines for a number of product and regional markets.’ Central to [the] plan was the idea that production flows and resource allocation be controlled by market feedback...[which] served to integrate formerly independent divisions into a coordinated enterprise, that optimized its response to changing consumer demand.... In short, [the system] extended control of production from the factory through his distributors and dealers, to the customer himself - toward the ideal that literally no automobile would be built unless a customer had already agreed to buy it.”
(Beniger, pp.310-11)

“In the supermarket, well established by the late 1920s, retail distribution approached the ideal of an open processing system, dependent on organizational, preprocessing, and related control technologies to sustain rapid throughputs of both products and purchasers, for healthy profits at low margins, but high volumes. This can be clearly seen in the institution’s most modern form: check-out cashiers now slide each package past a laser scanner which reads a bar code printed on the label, searches its computer memory for the current price, displays it to the customer, adds it to the total bill, and reduces inventory records by one unit. This processing system, in which a package not only sells itself to the customer, but also serves as its own price sticker and inventory check...could not have evolved, no more than shopping centers and other modern retail institutions, without the stimulation and control of consumption by national advertisers.... [For] local and national advertising, keyed to modern packaging, promotional and retailing techniques, would provide the foundation for the Control Revolution’s final phase: bureaucratic control of mass consumption.”
(Beniger, pp.342-3)

Even this story - of packaging/advertising/p.r., which I’d thought I was entirely familiar with, by now - takes on new dimensions in Beniger’s treatment. By viewing the entire economy’s throughput as one (highly variegated) system, he’s able to show us exactly why these developed when they did...and the result is a surprisingly compelling narrative:


“Economic depression in the mid-1890s had demonstrated the shortcomings of the holding company - so named because it had no operating facilities of its own, but merely ‘held’ stock in a number of single-unit firms not centrally controlled. If a holding company maintained prices high enough to earn even a reasonable return on investment, it would attract to its market competitors not encumbered by the need for second-order earnings, [and while] price wars often brought ruinous loss of profits; buying out the competition could lead to equally disastrous over-capitalization.... Instead, the president of National Biscuit, Adolphus Green, decided to imitate the strategy of Quaker Oats: to shift from production in bulk to consumer packaging, with control of consumption by means of trademarks, brand labelling, and national mass advertising, vertical integration backward into purchasing and forward into marketing, and economies of scale resulting from the centralization of production.... [For] if advertising can be used to induce brand loyalty in consumers, and thereby reduce the elasticity of demand for branded products, then their producers could charge higher prices relative to costs.... National advertising may also enable producers to control entry into a market by competing firms...[and] better control...the giant wholesalers and new mass retailers...rapidly monopolizing the distribution channels for their products.... Such advertising also served as a substitute for further vertical integration into retailing, [as] consumer demand alone could force a store to stock an item...[while] so potent a weapon was the advertising campaign (the word itself connoted battle) that even the relationship of the [advertising] agency to its client became transformed...into one of alliance and conspiracy...[in which] an agency ought not to handle competing accounts. Thus it might be said that advertising afforded a company greater control not only of competitors, wholesalers, retailers, and consumers, but even - ironically enough - of the agencies that helped them wage their campaigns.”
(Beniger, pp.344-9)

“From early industrialization...increasing control of consumption had come through the coevolution of mass media and their messages to attract, hold, and imprint the mass attention. Power-driven printing, the major mass medium before broadcasting, developed rapidly through the period of control crisis, with a steady stream of innovations: the electric press (1839) and rotary printing (1846), wood pulp and rag paper and the curved stereotype plate (1854), paper-folding machines (1856), the mechanical type-setter (1857), high-speed printing and folding press (1875), half-tone engraving (1880), and linotype (1886). These new technologies reduced costs even as they speeded printing, enabling daily newspaper circulations to stay ahead of population growth even in the largest and fastest-growing urban areas.... [Moreover,] half-tone illustrated mass printing brought about a new medium of mass advertising: the mass-circulation magazine...a new channel for advertising, and hence the stimulation and control of mass production itself.... Thus did the power of visual communication to stimulate and control consumer demand come to be realized - nearly a half-century before commercial television.”
(Beniger, pp.356-8)

What’s more, broadcast technologies then further upped the ante, as broadcasting could reach people (including social groupings) engaged in virtually any waking activity with a constant flow in which the advertising could not be simply skipped over.


“Market research developed rapidly, [from an extremely low level,] only after 1900...[and] by 1935 separate professions of market and survey research had differentiated around a specialized arsenal of feedback technologies: ad testing (1906), systematic retail statistics (1910s), questionnaire surveys (1911), coded mailings (1912), audits of publishers’ circulations (1914), specialized market research departments and house-to-house interviewing (1916), research textbooks (1919), saturation (1920) and dry waste (1926) surveys, a census of distribution (1929), sampling theory for large-scale surveys (c.1930), field manuals (1931), retail sales indices (1933), national opinion surveys and audimeter monitoring of broadcast audiences (1935).”
(Beniger, pp.378-80)

With the evolution of modern bureaucracy from the programmable template provided by the railroad systems in the 1860s, there commenced a wealth of innovation in office machinery and systems explicitly designed to exploit this form. At the most general level, there were arguably no less than four major precursors to modern computing all well established by 1890 - mechanical calculators, punch-card processors, and early (mechanical) analogue and digital computers - although none of these were as versatile as their descendants. Moreover, both practical and theoretical developments were rapid over the early decades of the twentieth century, to the extent that:

“The concepts of information processing, programming, decision, and control, and the intellectual stimulation of the relationships among them seemed ‘in the air’ among European and American engineers, mathematicians and philosophers by the mid-1930s.”
(Beniger, p.403)

And the links were often astonishingly direct. Herman Hollerith - punch-card innovator, and hence the creator of the crucial modern information-processing system prior to modern computers - explicitly named the railroad system as his prime inspiration...demonstrating both the rapidity and interlinking of innovation in the late nineteenth century, and the extent to which such links have now been forgotten in the age of electronics. This take-home lesson from Beniger is astonishingly simple - our much-vaunted digital age is the direct descendant of the crisis caused by industrialization. Moreover, the form of the crucial innovations - when viewed from a sufficient distance - reveals a type of patterning which also still prevails overall, as different sectors drive the process at different times...


“[Our overview of the] Control Revolution...reveals a steady development of organizational, information-processing, and communication technology over at least the 1850s through 1880s, a period that lags industrialization by perhaps ten to twenty years. Remarkable...is the sharp periodization of the listing. Among the three economic sectors, virtually all of the major innovations in control through the 1860s can be found in distribution; much of that in the 1870s and later comes in production or consumption...[albeit] major innovations in generalized control appear more sporadically throughout the period. No less remarkable is the similar periodization in the development of information-processing, communication, and control technologies. Each of the major sectors of the economy tended to exploit a particular area of information technology: transportation concentrated on the development of bureaucratic organization, production on the organization of material processing, including preprocessing, division of labor, and functional specialization; distribution concentrated on telecommunications, marketing on mass media.”
(Beniger, pp.429-32)

“Most bureaucratic innovation arose in response to the crisis in the railroads; by the late 1860s the large wholesale houses had fully exploited this form of control. Innovation in telecommunications (the telegraph, postal reforms, and the telephone) followed the crisis of control to distribution. Innovation in organizational technology and preprocessing (the shop-order system of accounts, routing slips, rate-fixing departments, cost control, uniform accounting procedures, factory timekeepers, and specialized factory clerks) followed the movement of the control crisis into the production sector in the 1870s. Most innovations in mass control (full-page newspaper advertising, trademark law, print patents, corporate publicity departments, consumer packaging, and million-dollar advertising campaigns) came after the late 1870s, with the advent of continuous-processing machinery, and the resulting crisis in the control of consumption, [and] along with these came virtually all of the mass communication technologies still in use a century later.... By the 1890s...control began to be reestablished, by means of bureaucratic organization, the new infrastructures of transportation and telecommunications, and system-wide communication via the new mass media.”
(Beniger, pp.432-3)

James Beniger’s The Control Revolution (1986) remains the best treatment of - in the words of its own subtitle - “the technological and economic origins of the information society”...no mean feat, given that it is now well over the age of consent. That, of course, is not to say it should stand alone. As noted earlier, it continues the story whose earlier stages we can best trace via the work of Elizabeth Eisenstein & Joel Mokyr, but all these also clearly complement the intellectual/ethical stories detailed by Charles Taylor & Stephen Toulmin, not to mention Ernest Gellner’s synthesis in Plough, Sword, and Book (1988). Add in W.H. McNeill’s Pursuit of Power (1982) - unlike all the aforementioned, not yet reviewed here - for the coercive side of the story, and you’ll have a much better understanding of the origins of our modern world than most professional historians do, trammelled as they are by the demands of specialization.

Moreover, in a world so dominated by economic power, the story told by Beniger - exactly how that power overwhelmed its traditional rivals in creating our modern world - should be central to our collective self-understandings...rather than limited to the specialist readership this work currently is known by. Because, make no mistake. This is basically how and why we’ve become what we are...


“Beginning most noticeably in the United States in the late nineteenth century, the Control Revolution was certainly a dramatic if not abrupt discontinuity in technological advance. Indeed, even the word revolution seems barely adequate to describe the development, within a single lifespan, of virtually all of the basic communication technologies still in use a century later: photography and telegraphy (1830s), rotary power printing (1840s), the typewriter (1860s), transatlantic cable (1866), telephone (1876), motion pictures (1894), radio (1906), and television (1923). Along with these rapid changes...the Control Revolution also represented the beginning of a restoration (although with increasing centralization) of the economic and political control that was lost at more local levels of society during the Industrial Revolution. Before this time, control of government and markets had depended on personal relationships and face-to-face interactions; now control came to be reestablished by means of bureaucratic organization, the new infrastructures of transportation and telecommunications, and system-wide communication via the new mass media.... [Moreover,] the later Industrial Revolution constituted, in effect, a consolidation of earlier technological revolutions...[as] especially during the late nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, industrialization extended to progressively earlier technological revolutions: manufacturing, energy production, transportation, agriculture - the last a transformation of what had once been seen as the extreme opposite of industrial production. In each area, industrialization meant heavy infusions of capital for the exploitation of fossil fuels, wage labor, and machine technology, and resulted in larger and more complex systems - systems characterized by increasing differentiation and interdependence at all levels.... [And] never before had the processing of material flows threatened to exceed, in both volume and speed, the capacity of technology to contain them.”
(Beniger, pp.7-12)



John Henry Calvinist