Information Overload

David Abulafia

Jeremy Black is unquestionably the most prolific academic historian in Britain and quite possibly the world.  Born in 1955, he has already earned 143 entries in the Bodleian catalogue, while Cambridge University Library accords him over 200 entries, always assuming that he might be the same Jeremy Black as the one who wrote Sumerian Grammar in Babylonian Theory, which is one of the less riveting books to appear under that byline. The J. Black under consideration here is particularly well-known for his studies of 18th-century British foreign policy, his long and lively sequence of books on warfare since the 15th century, and for his innovative books on cartography, which move beyond the traditional interest in map-making towards a fine appreciation of the political significance of the lines on a map. Such a flow of writing puts him in the category of P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie and Barbara Cartland, though needless to say he is far more serious than any of them. You only have to look at his dazzling array of footnote references to realise that this is someone who has not just written but read more than his peers.

It is no surprise that someone of such prodigious learning and forceful intelligence should now draw together his interests between two covers in what he suggest may be one of his most significant works.  The range of the book is astonishing, as he encompasses China, Japan and India as well as the West, though the emphasis tends to be on the West for good reason: the subject is the way that its agile manipulation of information ensured the ascendancy of the West over other parts of the world. He takes the story back to the early contacts across the Eurasian landmass afforded by the rise of the Mongol empire in the 13th century, an empire that embraced China, Russia, Persia and much else, and continued to link different parts of that landmass even when it had become divided into three great realms. Indeed, in a much admired book by Janet Abu-Lughod called Before European Hegemony, which he cites, the claim has been made that the Mongols were in a sense the architects of the first global economy, by imposing (through war and extermination) peace across this enormous area. Never mind that Abu-Lughod ignores the rich evidence for maritime contact across the Indian Ocean long before the Mongols, or that the silk trade between China and Europe was a mere trickle; this was what some historians wanted to hear when the pack had been sent out to hunt down those whose approach was deemed too “Eurocentric”. Black is in a sense Eurocentric, as his subject is the rise of the West, and yet his openness to evidence from other civilisations is refreshing. He is no ideologue, as was Joseph Needham who devoted so much of his long and learned life to the history of Chinese science, and whose central question-why China with its remarkable technological head start did not experience industrialisation and economic take-off-was cast in a rigid Marxist mould. Here we have Black revisiting the comparison between China and the West in stimulating new ways.

The key to the Western advantage is the handling of information, Black insists. He also reminds us that “information, modernity and power are porous categories, necessarily so in the case of this book in order to encompass the variety of working definitions by period, area and topic”. This is honest but also worrying. The word “information” is used a great deal. Sometimes it refers to the printing of books and maps or, better, their diffusion once printed. Even so it is not always clear who used the information.  Take the wall-size world map produced in Lorraine by the theologian and cosmographer Martin Waldseemüller in 1507, which he mentions. In tribute to Amerigo Vespucci, the mapmaker added the label “AMERICA” to part of what is now known as South America, but removed the name in later editions. Somehow, though, the name filtered into public consciousness. So how did that happen? This needs to be explained if the concept of “information” is to be shown to be useful. On the other hand, Black makes a characteristically astute point when he says that by marking out South America Waldseemüller effectively created the idea of the Pacific. This was much more effective than the achievement of Balboa in crossing the Isthmus of Panama, immortalised, though erroneously under Cortez’s name, by Keats:

 Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific-and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise-
Silent, upon a peak in Darien. 

If one is looking for someone who absorbed information about the natural history of the New World, and about its native peoples, one could not do better than cite the 16th-century Spanish polymath Oviedo, who is not mentioned, but maybe with good reason: his voluminous works took centuries to be put into print, and this question of how and whether information is transmitted is as important as the knowledge that certain types of information were collected. As Black shows, the diffusion of information about the world in Victorian Britain was achieved through great exhibitions and new museums. This reminds one that there is an     important question about who might have been the intended target of information: maybe the wider public, but maybe a select group sitting in a lead-lined room in a Soviet embassy.

Yet the term “information” is still worryingly vague. Is it too broad to be of real use?  Black devotes a particularly valuable chapter to “Government and Information”. Governments like information about citizens, as we know all too well. It is difficult to tax a population you cannot count. The Bible, much read in Protestant Europe, denounced rulers who “numbered” their subjects. Really a study of government and information has to take the reader into the dusty stacks of the great European archives, where all that information was stored, not always very systematically, which Black does not do; on the other hand, he produces fascinating details about the 16th-century postal service, with messages reaching Venice from Milan in 24 hours. When living in Italy a while ago I was led to think that three weeks was about the time it would take for a letter to reach a domestic destination, assuming it ever did so. Admittedly, things have improved since then, but back in 1500 rapid communication, at a time when resident ambassadors thronged the courts of Italy and other parts of Europe, was a political imperative. Or there was the exact information about longitude that sailors were so keen to have, and that only became available when Harrison constructed his celebrated chronometer in 1761-66, a moment whose importance is well brought out by Black.

A book about knowledge and information is bound to be filled with knowledge and information, to the point of overload: Tibetan language smart-phones, advice on contraception in the Third World, antibiotics in meat production, the scourge of cold calling, goblins living at the centre of the earth who control kinetic energy (and gave us the name Bovril) are all featured. All of this is interesting information to the reader, but is it in each and every case the history of information? The reader may feel the need for anti-dizziness pills, as Black leaps across the continents and backwards and forwards across the centuries to find germane examples, and busily fills in any relevant details of what was going on during, say, the French Revolution that might bear on his theme. 

A book of such impressive geographical and chronological range might work better were it constructed around, say, 100 or at any rate 1,000 pieces of information that have changed the world — a History of the World in 1,000 Pieces of Information, on the model of Neil MacGregor’s 100 Objects or Jerry Brotton’s 12 Maps. That said, Jeremy Black has opened up an exciting approach to the past and to the dilemmas of the present.

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