Thursday, February 7, 2013

Information: Production, Circulation and Comprehension

Consider the months between August 1774 and July 1776, a pressure cooker period during which many Americans made up or changed their minds. Two periods stand out during which the North Atlantic winter held up information--November 1774 to April 1775, then essentially the same calendar of icebergs and adverse winds a year later--thereby slowing down decision making or implementation. British policy makers and military commanders, and American Patriots and Loyalists alike, waited for news or instructions. In retrospect, it seems implausible that cross-pressured colonists could have seen much hope for reconciliation with Britain in early 1776, but they did--and information took three to four months to make a superficial round trip and probably five to six months to sink in and be absorbed.

Britain and the North American colonies had two of the world's best-educated and most literate populations. Besides, many historians view the American insurgency as one of the first--if not the first--modern popular revolutions. While the role of public opinion was modernizing, communications between the two sides of the Atlantic, even in the 1770s, were almost premodern, trapped in drawn-out sea crossings not much faster than the seventeenth-century Spanish voyages undertaken just after navigators first understood the circular wind pattern over the Atlantic. In 1775 knowledge and technological improvements were accelerating--the discovery of the longitudes in the 1760s, the mapping of the Gulf Stream in the 1770s. (Benjamin Franklin, an early oceanographer, took measurements even while returning from England to America in 1775.) Other breakthroughs were imminent, like the turn-of-the-century fitting of steam engines into vessels and the 1840s invention of the telegraph. None, though, were at hand to permit the American Revolution to unfold at the more rapid decision-making pace of the Civil War. We can only speculate on what might have been different.

--Kevin Phillips, 1775: A Good Year for Revolution, pp. 24-25.

This raises the question: We know that the circulation period within which information makes "a superficial round trip" has shortened dramatically. How long, however, does it take for it to "sink in and be absorbed"? Has the lag between the receipt of information and the mass, popular comprehension of that information shortened, remained the same--or perhaps even lengthened--as a result of new communications technologies?

This is a question that can and should be rigorously investigated, and upon whose answer much depends.

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