An Early Information Society

By: Robert Darnton

See also Public Opinion and Communication Networks
in Eighteenth-Century Paris

[Page 1]

Standing here on the threshold of the year 2000, it appears that the road to the new millennium leads through Silicon Valley. We have entered the information age, and the future, it seems, will be determined by the media. In fact, some would claim that the modes of communication have replaced the modes of production as the driving force of the modern world. I would like to dispute that view. Whatever its value as prophecy, it will not work as history, because it conveys a specious sense of a break with the past. I would argue that every age was an age of information, each in its own way, and that communication systems have always shaped events.1

That argument may sound suspiciously like common sense; but, if pushed hard enough, it could open up a fresh perspective on the past. As a starting point, I would ask a question about the media today: What is news? Most of us would reply that news is what we read in newspapers or see and hear on news broadcasts. If we considered the matter further, however, we probably would agree that news is not what happened—yesterday, or last week—but rather stories about what happened. It is a kind of narrative, transmitted by special kinds of media. That line of reasoning soon leads to entanglement in literary theory and the World Wide Web. But if projected backward, it may help to disentangle some knotty problems in the past.2

I would propose a general attack on the problem of how societies made sense of events and transmitted information about them, something that might be called the

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