Review – Beniger, “The Control Revolution”

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James Beniger, “The Control Revolution: Economic and Technological Origins of the Information Society” (1986) – This is a history of the technologies and techniques of controlling industrial processes. It’s both as interesting and as boring as it sounds. Beniger exhaustively surveys the industrial landscape, from materials processing to production to transport to distribution, digging up every kind of feedback mechanism from thermostats to cereal box-top contests and placing it in the context of an ongoing narrative of broadening and deepening control capacities. These control mechanisms both relied upon and were necessitated by the explosive growth in the speed of movements and the mass of productivity unleashed by the Industrial Revolution. Much of the “Control Revolution” begins in the same places the Industrial Revolution did: coal and steel, textile manufacturing, and especially the railroads. It really comes into its own — and develops a class of specialists in control and feedback mechanisms (i.e. industrial bureaucrats) — with the Second Industrial Revolution of the late nineteenth century, which paved the way for a mass consumption society. It’s a truly impressive work in its depth and scope.

 

It’s also pretty dry. It’s not completely lacking in historiographical zeal- in fact, it makes some big claims about seeing societies as processors of matter and information, organizing itself and the world around it from lower to higher degrees of control as a (ultimately futile) struggle against empathy… but at the end of the day, learning about accounting techniques, factory arrangements, and bureaucratic structures is something that only works for me in small doses. Two things also seemed to be missing. First, the rest of the world- this is a very America-centric story. It would make sense if the US was the center of the Control Revolution, but it would be good to get more of an explanation as to why. Second, not a ton about workers- stuff about Frederick Taylor and other (exploiter/)managers of labor, but not a lot about what seems like a key ingredient- producing and reproducing a labor force to make the whole thing go. That might complicate the picture of a self-organized informational society some, and I guess Beniger prefered to stick with his vision. Either way, an interesting dive into some of the undergirdings of modern society. ****

Review – Beniger, “The Control Revolution”

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