A Seminar about Information History: Why?

On May 18th, I hosted a seminar about information history, a topic that seems to have gained momentum in recent years. My interest in information as a historical phenomenon began as an attempt to inquire into the prehistory of the Danish public libraries.1 For some years, I have also had a strong interest in the history of knowledge. Framing things this way might cause readers to think that I assume clear and evident differences between the two. I am, however, much more interested in how they supplement each other than in how I can characterize each as a unique field. It is no secret that the history of knowledge has gained quite a different resonance within history than information history has experienced.

To see information history growing and taking shape in several publications that explore information as a historical and cultural phenomenon is really inspiring and holds promise for the future.2 Another stunning feature of this interest in information as a historical phenomenon is that it spans many different research communities. My thought was to take advantage of the recent publications and have people meet and talk. In short, the seminar aimed to bring people together in order to explore information as a topic for historical research. Besides showing the wide variety in approaches to information, the seminar evolved into a general discussion regarding how to study information historically.

One of the most conspicuous differences between information and knowledge relates to the present topicality of the former and what could be termed an appropriation of information by modernity. Presentism and anachronism lurk as dangers stemming from the highly topical nature of information technologies, their benefits, and their widely accepted potential misuses. Contemporary associations of information with (digital) technologies and an immanent ideology of technological solutionism make information a rather difficult phenomenon to work with historically.3 Another issue is that what we conceive of today as information seems to be a relatively new “invention” stemming from the aftermath of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War. Even this notion is a myth that helps to politicize and ideologize information as hypermodern, as always modern and new.4 This tendency, however, is also why it is so important to understand information as a historical phenomenon and to provide it, so to speak, with a history before 1948.

In a Danish context, a history of information is further complicated by the fact that information as a term or concept was rarely used until the 1940s. Does this reflect a linguistic difference between English-speaking countries and others? Anatoly Detwyler pointed out at the seminar that information was an exclusively Western and contemporary phenomenon. Peter Burke also suggests that there might be a cultural distinction to be aware of:

The choice of the term “information” rather than “knowledge” illustrates the empiricist culture of the USA, contrasting in particular with the German concern for theory and Wissenschaft, a term often translated into English as “science” but referring more widely to different forms of systematically organized knowledge.5

I have often wondered why I simply do not surrender to the history of knowledge, which also seems to include many of the questions that I find interesting. For example, why did absolutist government in Denmark find it important and necessary around the beginning of the nineteenth century to obtain specific kinds of information about different types of deviance from accepted norms and to systematize it in certain ways?

Despite all the problematic issues surrounding information, it possesses great potential as a heuristic tool (as framed by Toni Weller at the seminar) for historical inquiry—also compared to knowledge.6 Major proponents within the history of knowledge contend with demands from neighboring fields to offer precise and distinct definitions of knowledge in order to distinguish the field from intellectual history, the history of science, and so on. Historicizing knowledge means being interested in the fluid borders of what people at a specific time held to be knowledge and thus what they held to be true.7 Information is also a phenomenon defined by its historical context. It is a human construct and thus always embedded in communicative actions. It is, however, not defined by truth or falsity.8 As part of communicative actions, information is formed by people and their intentions (to mislead, for instance). From this perspective, information might be a useful way to understand rumors because the focus turns toward their function in a given social setting and not a derogatory classification as rumors (or fake news or propaganda).

Another advantage, as Anja-Silvia Goeing has also argued, is that information makes it possible to follow tangible flows of knowledge through dissertations or the book as an overall media. Books or documents in general are well-known forms or media of information, but we should also find ways to go beyond the familiar forms and detect similarities across forms. Using the example of the quipu (khipu), Bonnie Mak discussed how similarities are not necessarily based on materiality. Information can also be circulated by a variety of ephemeral means such as storytelling or the singing of broadside ballads, widening the forms of source materials still further. Information and perceived needs for information interact as communicative actions in different genres, making it somehow rather concrete to trace the movements of information. My own research has explored how Danish police at the beginning of the nineteenth century used tables, ledgers, reports, verdicts, and so on to record and control information about deviant and criminal behavior.9 It has also looked at how such genres helped produce, shape, communicate, and circulate information. This topic might even reflect the “information ecosystem” suggested by James Cortada as a way to grapple with how people use information as a tool in everyday life.

The ubiquity of information makes it potentially meaningless to use it as an organizing concept for historical studies, as Alistair Black polemically pointed out. Is there a field if boundaries cannot be drawn? On the other hand, Black also pointed to what he termed a sense of inferiority in information history because it has been debating its own legitimacy since it came into existence forty years ago. I think the seminar in this respect (and in all modesty) showed that continued debates about legitimacy as such can now be put aside. Discussions about definitions and demarcations, however, still serve as inspiration to continue thinking about information history’s relevance, an important part of every discipline. At the same time, definitions and demarcations should not become (in the worst case) disciplinary instruments that allow only specific views and perspectives. Instead, they should encourage continued clarifying discussions about the role of the historian and how we construct representations of the past. Information history is characterized by an internal heterogeneity and an external porousness that make it continuously open to new ideas and lines of inquiry.

Laura Skouvig is an associate professor in the Department of Communication, University of Copenhagen. Her Twitter handle is @LauraSkouvig.

Featured image: “Budget bureau’s files. These girls are mail and file room employees of the Bureau of the Budget which is at the peak of its activity preparing for the next session of the 74th Congress.” November 29, 1935. Source: Harris and Ewing Collection, Library of Congress.

  1. Laura Skouvig, “Broadside Ballads, Almanacs and the Illustrated News: Genres and Rhetoric in the Communication of Information in Denmark, 1800–1925,” in Information History in the Modern World: Histories of the Information Age, ed. Toni Weller (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 89–107. ↩︎
  2. See, e.g., Ann Blair, Paul Duguid, Anja-Silvia Goeing, and Anthony Grafton, eds., Information: A Historical Companion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021); Michele Kennerly, Samuel Frederick, and Jonathan E. Abel, eds., Information: Keywords (New York: Columbia University Press, 2021); and Jack W. Chen, Anatoly Detwyler, Xiao Liu, Christopher M.B. Nugent, and Bruce Rusk, eds., Literary Information in China: A History (Columbia University Press, 2021). ↩︎
  3. The term “technological solutionism” has been used by Evgeny Morozov. Here from Eugenia Siapera, Understanding New Media (London: Sage, 2018), 263. ↩︎
  4. Colin Koopman, How We Became Our Data: A Genealogy of the Informational Person (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2019); and John Durham Peters, “Information: Notes toward a Critical History,” The Journal of Communication Inquiry 12, no. 2 (1988): 9–23. ↩︎
  5. Peter Burke, What Is the History of Knowledge? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016), 6. ↩︎
  6. I have discussed the relationship between information and knowledge in Laura Skouvig, “The Raw and the Cooked,” in Forms of Knowledge: Developing the History of Knowledge, ed. Johan Östling, David Larsson Heidenblad, and Anna Nilsson Hammar (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2020): 107–121 (open access). ↩︎
  7. Simone Lässig,”The History of Knowledge and the Expansion of the Historical Research Agenda”, Bulletin of the German Historical chInstitute 59 (2016): 39–40. See also Mark R. Stoneman, “Knowledge as an Object of Historical Research,” History of Knowledge, April 28, 2021. ↩︎
  8. Sille Obelitz Søe, “The Urge to Detect, the Need to Clarify. Gricean Perspectives on Information, Misinformation, and Disinformation” (PhD diss., University of Copenhagen, 2016). ↩︎
  9. Laura Skouvig, “Records and Rumors: Surveillance and Information in Late Absolutist Denmark (1770–1849),” Surveillance & Society 15, no. 2 (2017): 314–25. ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Laura Skouvig, “A Seminar about Information History: Why?,” History of Knowledge, July 6, 2021, https://historyofknowledge.net/2021/07/06/information-history/.