Thursday, May 5, 2016

James W. Cortada's "All the Facts"

James W. Cortada is the author of over two-dozen books on the history and use of information and computing in American society, including The Digital Flood: The Diffusion of Information Technology Across the U.S., Europe, and Asia. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota.

Cortada applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, All the Facts: A History of Information in the United States since 1870, and reported the following:
Page 99 perfectly illustrates what this book is about. On that page you find out quickly that big companies could only be large if they could collect and share information across the organization to control operations. On this page, we learn that accounting—the language of business—becomes a big deal in the late 1800s and across the entire twentieth century. We are introduced to the kind of information needed for the first time by manufacturing companies, insurance firms, and other types of enterprises.

The book is about an even bigger story: how Americans used greater amounts of information after the American Civil War (1861-65) than ever before in all aspects of their lives: work, play, raising kids, religion, politics, hobbies, and vacations. I argue that they could do this more than in most countries because it seemed almost everyone learned how to read, beginning in the 1700s, except slaves and Indians. Americans created a strong economy that made collecting, storing, and using information affordable. The Constitution made the movement of information legal, such as your point of view in a newspaper or book. The U.S. Post Office was everywhere delivering letters, newspapers, magazines, and books since the 1790s. Americans invented new ways to collect and move around information, including the telephone, typewriter, adding and calculating machines, television, PCs, smart phones, and computers. Other countries dabbled with these, but Americans went over the top sooner in using every new form of info-technology.

My book tells the story of how that all happened. I found it amazing that everyone seemed involved, including kids as young as 2 years old with their favorite websites, Cub Scouts with their manuals, women with their cookbooks and others about how to raise babies, sailors with 800-page “how to be a sailor” type books, and so it goes on. The topic goes into every corner of American life.

But I wrote this book so that you can read it in pieces—no law says you have to go cover-to-cover. I don’t even do that with other people’s books. I wrote it so that it would also be a good read. Enjoy!
Learn more about All the Facts at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue