Facts about facts

There’s something wonderful about a book titled All The Facts. Ambitious or what? The subtitle narrows it down, a bit, to “A History of Information in the United States since 1870.” One country, one and a half centuries. Needless to say, it’s still ambitious in its scope, embracing not just the technologies of information management – from account books and filing cabinets to punch cards and the Internet – but also how information has been created and used across all aspects of life: housework, healthcare, factory work, national security, you name it. Boxes have headings such as “The car salesman as a knowledge worker in the 1980s” and “Growth in Medical Information in America: evolution in a doctor’s training 1870-1940”.

It’s a hefty tome, whose basic point is the central role information plays in modern society. I’m with the programme; for example, agreeing with such statements: “A company’s success, is based on its experiences, what knowledge or information it and its employees posess … what a company knows is the source of all potential, and indeed actual, increases in productivity.” (p94) Information ecosystems structure markets and the economy as a whole (p282).

Although I did read it through, it might be more appealing to some readers as a book to dip in to, or to refer to for some specific issues (such as information in medicine or in houeshold management). I found it to be – yes – stuffed with facts, and a mixture of enjoyable and excessive detail, depending on how interested I was in the specific examples. It brought to mind the scale and ambition of Vaclav Smil’s books on energy & other matters, which are similarly both engrossing and challenging reads.