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The Power of KnowledgeHow Information and Technology Made the Modern World$

Jeremy Black

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780300167955

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: September 2014

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300167955.001.0001

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Information and the World Question

Information and the World Question

(p.315) 12 Information and the World Question
The Power of Knowledge

Jeremy Black

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter briefly discusses how the United States became the foremost imperial, military, and industrial power in the twentieth century. It also describes the rapidly changing means of information acquisition, processing, and representation, which includes forms of surveillance and exploration linked to technological progress. The availability of information in the twentieth century increased with the development of space shuttles, satellites, satellite-linked global positioning systems (GPS), drones, and submarines.

Keywords:   United States, information, surveillance, exploration, space shuttles, GPS, drones, submarines

THE USE OF information to help expand territorial power has been a theme in the matching chapters in the earlier sections. Mapping offers a key instance of this, as it helped provide both the imaginative and practical means to grasp control, as well as recording and enhancing the control that had been gained. This theme remains relevant for the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, but the discussion becomes more complex, both because of the extension of the means of geographical information and cartographic depiction, and due to the different ways in which power has been exerted.

At the global level, the change has been largely due to the use of aerial means (planes and satellites) in order to obtain information. In terms of goals and context, imperial power has tended to become less direct in its control or, at least, colonialism has been replaced. At the same time, as in earlier periods, military institutions and requirements have played a central role in defining and meeting information needs for surveillance and control. In the twentieth century, the military has also played a major part in the development and use of the relevant technology, not only mapping but also, notably, radio, computers and the Internet. Whereas Britain, the foremost imperial, military and industrial power, played the leading role in the nineteenth century, that role was taken over by the USA in the late twentieth.

The processes of obtaining information and exercising control were linked, but also separate. The current system of surveillance from the air dominates attention as a key form of quasi-imperial power, as with the American use of satellite-linked GPS systems and drones, the latter employed successfully both for reconnaissance and to attack ground targets, as in Afghanistan and Yemen. However, this surveillance system, and its integration into a rapid-response capability, is best approached not simply as a recent phenomenon due to novel technology, but rather in terms of an already dynamic situation, with rapidly (p.316) changing means of information acquisition, processing and representation all already in play in the late nineteenth century.

Mapping Territory

In the early decades of the twentieth century, information about the world was in part obtained in a process that essentially involved filling in the gaps in Western knowledge on the ground, as the exploratory drives that had been so prominent in the late nineteenth century were pushed to completion in previously closed and/or seemingly inaccessible areas. This achievement was largely due to the continued Western exploration and mapping of inland regions, especially in Central Africa and Central Asia. The context was one of a high point of imperial expansion, as Western control was rapidly extended into areas where it had hitherto been weak or absent: for example, around Lake Chad. The interior was thus overcome.

This process ensured requirements for information that were more extensive than those of the early nineteenth century. Precision was sought in acquiring and using information about remote areas, far from coastal littorals, and was pursued as an official goal. Thus, with reference to the boundary between Uganda and Congo, respectively British and Belgian colonies, the British Colonial Office suggested to the Foreign Office in 1906 that the British commissioners carry out a geodetic triangulation along the meridian 30° east of the Greenwich Meridian as a matter of international importance.1 Such data was important as a check on information from other, less ‘scientific’ and certainly less official sources, such as periodical publications2 and discussions with commercial bodies.3 To be accepted as accurate, data had to be official.

There was also exploration in the Himalayas and Tibet. In 1913, the source of the River Brahmaputra was traced to the Tsangpo in Tibet. The successful British military advance on Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, in 1904 under Francis Younghusband greatly increased Britain’s opportunities for gaining information and underlined the dependence of the latter process on the availability and use of power. Tibetan forces trying to block the way were beaten aside, in part by the use of machine guns. The resulting discrepancy in casualty rates between British and Tibetan forces was enormous.

As earlier, however, the provision of geographical information did not necessarily mean a comparable official search for cultural understanding. Indeed, the knowledge of imperial powers of the societies and cultures of the areas they ruled, or sought to rule or influence, was often very limited. In part, there was a lack of information and, in part, the information available was understood and analysed in a bigoted, or at least partial, fashion, as with the (p.317) treatment of Islamic societies. In these cases, poor intelligence was linked to prejudice in an instance of what was later termed Orientalism.4

That term and its use, however, are misleading as they have served both to run together (and disparage) a much more complex process of information gathering and assessment, and to neglect the ambiguities and cross-currents in the resulting views. Nevertheless, the frequent failure in imperial governance, whether of Islamic or of non-Islamic societies, to integrate into policymaking the information that was available to experts was serious. So, even more, was the general inability to appreciate that key information, particularly about the content and viability of local social and cultural norms, was lacking. Instead, it was as if the most important information was geographical, for such information would explain how best to exploit and use power. Thus, imperial boundaries were clarified and colonial governments went about their business of collecting taxes, planning railways and administering their territories. Exploration was accompanied, or followed, by surveys, as mapping was seen as crucial both to government and to competition with other imperial powers.

Campaigning outside the West was important in the conflicts of 1914–45, notably in Africa and Oceania. Poorly mapped regions became the site of large-scale operations, such as German East Africa (now Tanzania) in 1915–18 and New Guinea in 1942–4; and these operations encouraged mapping and the acquisition of other types of information: for example, about the location of water supplies. The process of gaining precise geographical information was also given a fresh burst of life as colonial territories were reallocated by the victors after the First World War, again in 1935–6 as Italy conquered Ethiopia, and again after the Second World War. Thus, having gained control from the Ottoman (Turkish) empire in 1917–18, Britain published a 1:100,000 topographical map of Palestine, in sixteen sheets, between 1934 and the end of the British Mandate in 1948. As a demonstration of the uses such materials were intended to serve, these maps were only printed in English. During the Second World War, the plates were handed over to army units serving in Palestine, for updating and printing for military needs.5 Censuses also proved significant, as in Lebanon where the dubious French census of 1932 strengthened the position of the pro-French Christians in this French Mandate.

In addition to these political and military episodes, there was a more general increase in available information as a result of colonial rule. For example, in Swaziland in southern Africa, the British, the imperial power, had initially relied on sketch maps. Subsequently, the precision and volume of available information increased. The first official survey was carried out in 1901–4, at a scale of 1:148,752, followed by another in 1932 at the more detailed scale of 1:59,000. In the case of Britain, this process of mapping was expanded and given greater central direction after the Second World War. In 1946, the (p.318) Colonial Office established the Directorate of Colonial (later Overseas) Survey, and instructed it to map 900,000 square miles of Africa within ten years, using aerial photography as well as ground surveys.

Developing Empires

A prime objective was the employment of information for economic benefit, and that meant the benefit of the colonial powers. The development of colonies became a more pronounced theme in the 1920s and 1930s, and again after the Second World War, in part because they were seen as key resources in a world where economic protectionism had replaced the pre-1914 liberal order, but also to help ensure greater support for empires from within the colonies. The building of new communication routes, notably railways, and the related exploitation of minerals and cash crops – for example, cotton in Sudan and cocoa in Ghana – were linked to surveying. Aside from cultural concepts of imperialism and colonialism, the ideas of colonialism were expressed in developmental terms and pursued through related technologies.6 The same was true of imperial powers, notably the USA and the Soviet Union, that did not rely on colonial control in the way that the Western European imperial powers did.

The emphasis on development was linked to a stress on scientific research and its application. Alongside the understanding of particular aspects of colonial environments, notably climate, landforms, soil and drainage, came research into possibilities for improvement, most obviously by cultivating specific plants and lessening their vulnerability to particular parasites. This theme looked back to Enlightenment projects, notably those of Joseph Banks, and forward to the post-imperial ‘Green Revolution’ and to current efforts, especially with rice, efforts in which Western scientists continue to play a major role. Imperial goals played a role in the past. For example, a fund for scientific research was established in Britain by the 1940 Colonial Development and Welfare Act. This was used by the Colonial Office in an effort to stimulate development in Britain’s colonies, and thus to strengthen the credibility of colonial policy.7 American policy in the Philippines and that of the Soviet Union in Central Asia were similarly promoted.

Obtaining information about the colonial environment was not only seen as of significance for specific purposes. It also accorded with the environmentalism that was dominant in geographical thinking. Affected by developments in the natural sciences, especially Social Darwinism, intellectuals assumed a close relationship between humanity and the biophysical environment: for example, skin colour and the absorption of sunlight, with pale skin able to absorb scarce sunlight in northern climates. This relationship was not applied (p.319) to all aspects of biology and humanity, but it offered a way to analyse and seek to control circumstances and change. Environmentalism played a crucial part in organic theories of the country, nation and state, as well as in the treatment of the culture of particular peoples and countries as defined by the integration and interaction of nature and society. This emphasis on environmental influence encouraged the search for relevant information.

The process was particularly urgent in the drive to understand disease. In most colonies prior to the mid-twentieth century, diseases were a more deadly problem for imperial powers (or at least their representatives, both military and civilian) than political resistance by the native population. The resulting concern and uncertainty also led to an urgent need for information, and not only about the diseases themselves but also concerning the environmental conditions and native populations that could incubate and spread them. The administrators, soldiers and settlers of colonial states sought a measure of segregation from these populations, but it was necessarily limited in inhabited territories. Public hygiene, as conceived by the colonial powers, therefore became a priority, and this goal and process linked information gathering to the use of information in pursuit of what was presented as a civilising goal.

Thus, once the Philippines were conquered by the Americans from 1898, a public-health department was created in order to monitor, admonish and control. This process was directed at the native population, notably focusing on the disposal of its excrement, rather than at the Americans in the Philippines,8 parallel to the approaches taken by colonial powers with venereal disease and drunkenness. As if at war, colonial powers conducted campaigns against diseases such as malaria,9 a process that was, subsequently, to be enhanced by new means and techniques, notably the use of sprayed insecticides. Military terminology was employed in the selection of targets and resulting activity.

Control in the Philippines was not simply a matter of fighting disease. Information was also accumulated and used by the American colonial authorities in order to counter what was seen as the threat from radical nationalism, a theme that became important across the colonial world from the 1920s as the Russian Revolution and Communism were adopted as models by at least some nationalists, notably in China, and thus became sources of imperial anxiety. Surveillance in the Philippines extended to the employment of blackmail as a means to use and retain power.10 There were also changes in the metropole. In the USA, O.P. Austin (1848–1933), chief of the Bureau of Statistics, commented on the number of enquiries received during and after the war of 1898 for the latest information on America’s new conquests: Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico. The Philippines were incorporated into maps of the USA.11

(p.320) Concern with the colonial environment was also seen in the planning (both location and layout) of settlements, in other words, settlements for Western settlers, a process that brought together assumptions and information on power, social structures, ethnic culture and health. Hydrotherapy in new highland spas served not only as a way apparently to prevent disease but also as a means of escaping the native population. Thus, in the French Caribbean colony of Guadeloupe, certain highland spas were in practice racially segregated.12

Moreover, ethnography and anthropology were employed to categorise colonial populations, generally as tribes or native groups, and thus to classify the colonies beyond the level offered by the straight lines of territorial boundaries. The extent to which this categorisation was theoretically or empirically valid is contested, and in some colonies, such as those of Portugal, especially Angola, categorisation was linked to a governance that was exploitative and that, to this end, sought to exploit differences within the native population. Similar points have been made about Belgium and the drawing of distinctions between Tutsi and Hutu in its colonies of Rwanda and Burundi, distinctions, linked to patterns of rule, that played a role in the persistent violence that followed decolonisation there in 1960. So also with Britain and the Tamils and Singhalese in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). In the Middle East, the argument about the distinctiveness of Bedouin culture represented a self-serving attempt by Britain and France, the imperial powers, to separate the problems of tribal control from the growth of Arab nationalism. British and French tribal control policy failed to appreciate the economic interactions and cultural symbiosis between the two.13

At the same time, the emphasis in colonial rule on information reflected, as in French Africa, the prestige of a scientific bureaucratic method of government and a determination to use this in order to foster progress.14 Ethnographic studies of native populations played a role in urban planning, as in Algiers under the French from the 1920s.15

The search for information was not limited to colonial territories. Indeed, information was a major aspect of the process of informal empire. The latter created different information needs and opportunities from those of colonial rule, but in both cases efforts were made to obtain a regular flow of information. For example, the British consul in Shanghai provided a series of quarterly political reports and six-monthly intelligence summaries from 1920 until the Japanese occupation of the city in 1937.16 As in colonies, economic benefit was linked to the acquisition and use of information, and in the cause of modernisation and power. Thus, in the Arabian peninsula, the quest for oil, especially by Britain and the USA, led to a determination to fix not only deposits but also territorial rights. The precision of oil concession areas was imposed on a desert society where the traditional movement of Bedouin and their flocks had instilled a less territorially fixed understanding of boundaries.17

(p.321) China

Alongside information about the non-Western world for external use came the circulation of information within it. The rise of literacy in Western colonies and in states such as China and, even more, Japan that were not under imperial control ensured that the circulation of news, knowledge and opinion there grew considerably. The marked increase in print culture led to a rise in the reading of newspapers and books. At the same time, as with previous technological transitions, this rise was not simply at the expense of earlier, and other, methods of conveying information. Thus, in rural China, newspapers brought information but also interacted with potent means of oral report and rumour.18 The latter were to be translated into the world of the Internet in the early twenty-first century.

Western models of empirically based analysis were influential for other states. How-to information was significant, for ideas of improvement, notably economic development and social engineering, affected states that wished to match the Western powers, especially China and Japan. In newly republican China in the 1910s, the already existing emphasis on revival and self-strengthening was given a more Western slant, as was the traditional ideal of governing through wisdom and knowledge. The Fourth of May demonstrators of 1919 sought a ‘new culture’ that was at once scientific and democratic. Different models of modernisation were offered in China, including looking to Japan and the Soviet Union, and for the army to Germany, while American influence in the social sciences was seen, not least in the form of the active policy of the Rockefeller Foundation.19 Hitherto poorly defined, China was presented now as a nation-state inheriting the position of the Manchu dynasty and coterminous with it territorially. Moreover, as a nation-state, China was assertive. Chinese nationalism ensured that unwelcome attempts by Western companies to use new technology, notably radio, for profit and influence had limited effect.20 The relationships between modernity, information and power were, as ever, complex.

Aerial Information and Power

Turning to means by which information was obtained by imperial governments, the major technological change in surveillance in the first half of the century came from manned flights, which began in aircraft (as opposed to balloons) in 1903. Cameras, mounted first on balloons, then on aircraft, were able to record detail and to scrutinise the landscape from different heights and angles. Instruments for mechanically plotting from aerial photography were developed in 1908, while a flight over part of Italy by Wilbur Wright in 1909 appears to have been the first on which photographs were taken.

(p.322) The range, speed and manoeuvrability of aeroplanes gave them a great advantage over balloons. With the First World War came the invention of cameras able to take photographs with constant overlap, a technique that was very important for aerial reconnaissance and thus surveying, notably with the development of three-dimensional photographic interpretation. The ability to build up accurate models of opposing trench lines proved highly significant for the development of the artillery tactics that were to help give the Western allies victory over Germany on the Western Front in late 1918. Alongside accurate information on the opposing side it was also necessary to locate the position of artillery in a precisely measured triangulation network. This permitted directionally accurate long-range artillery by means of firing on particular coordinates. One British officer noted in April 1918: ‘it was seldom longer than 2 minutes after I have “X-2 minutes intense” when one gunner responded with a crash on the right spot.’21 Individual guns were also recalibrated each day to take note of the weather. The use of planned artillery indirect fire has been seen as representing the birth of the ‘modern style of warfare’ in the shape of three-dimensional conflict.22

As has often been the case with information acquisition and use, war provided one of the major drives behind new developments and greater efforts. In Britain, the Royal Geographical Society played a significant role as a cartographic agency closely linked to the intelligence services.23 For much of the world, the restructuring of resources and wealth during the First World War, as well as the demise of liberal constraints before the wartime autocratic state, changed the nature of power within societies, altered the character of decisionmaking and led to a strong emphasis on functionality in policy decisions.

There were further developments with aerial photography after the First World War. In the 1930s, these included the introduction of colour and infrared film. Infrared images can present colours otherwise invisible to the eye, and are especially valuable for showing vegetation surfaces and water resources.

Alongside the use of new techniques for the acquisition of information, there was the employment of new systems for its dissemination. This process was seen with shipping forecasts. In the 1860s, when the British storm warning service for shipping was introduced, use was made of telegraphy. From 1921, however, a weather message for shipping approaching the western coasts of the United Kingdom was broadcast twice a day from the wireless transmission station at Poldhu in Cornwall. From 1924, a weather bulletin called Weather for Shipping was broadcast twice daily from the powerful Air Ministry transmitter in London. Later that year, transmissions were added from coastal stations. Transmissions, however, stopped with the outbreak of war in 1939, in order to prevent the use of this information by the Germans.

(p.323) The Second World War

The need for information increased greatly with the revival of large-scale conflict in the late 1930s and with the participation of all the major powers, first in the Second World War and then in the Cold War. Technological developments were significant to the quest for information because the expansion in air power and the subsequent launch of the missile age meant new relationships of threat and opportunity in space and time, and also left the nature of future developments opaque. The imponderables of possible conflict ensured that, in a fast-changing context, it was unclear how to measure strength and capability, and how to plan action accordingly.

Situational awareness was a major element in planning and in moulding and responding to circumstances. In the Second World War, notwithstanding the serious failure in 1940–2 to comprehend Japanese power and motivations, the Allies (Britain, the Soviet Union, the USA) eventually proved better than their Axis opponents (Germany, Italy, Japan) at understanding the areas in which they campaigned and in planning accordingly. For example, an appreciation of the role of climate, notably for air operations and amphibious attacks, led to considerable efforts in accumulating and understanding meteorological information.

In contrast, improvisation, always a central element in planning and military activity, particularly characterised Axis planning. Hitler’s emphasis was on the socio-economic and political conditions he wished to see, and not those that occurred on the ground. In planning and campaigning, the Axis stress was often on the value of superior will, rather than on the realities of climate, terrain and logistics. The constraints posed by the last three were ignored; for example, in the unsuccessful Japanese offensive against the British on the India–Burma frontier in 1944. Moreover, there was a tendency on the part of the Axis powers to underrate opponents, and notably to misunderstand their political cultures. These factors proved to be particular problems when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, not least as the climate there was unexpectedly bad.24 The Allies were also far better at secret intelligence, notably signals’ interception and deciphering.

The militarisation of information affected geographical activity, especially mapmaking, for all combatants. This militarisation both reflected and confirmed key aspects of America’s changing strategic culture. From 1942 to 1945, the US government employed two out of every five geographers who were members of the three national associations. Information was not only necessary in determining how to understand spatial relationships in the world, but also in assessing how best to produce the necessary matériel, and when it was likely to become available, and thus in turning conception into possibility. (p.324) Economists were employed by the US government to provide realistic production projections. These economists, notably Simon Kuznets, Robert Nathan and Stacy May, used statistics in an innovative fashion so as to understand and produce information on American national income. The resulting Gross National Product statistics clarified the viability of planning a massive rise in production for the military without needing to cut the consumer economy.25 The use of information to sustain popular support within the USA and to win it abroad was also important.26

Aerial surveying and photography were extensively used during and after the Second World War, as the impressive expertise developed in photo-reconnaissance during wartime27 was deployed to map large areas previously surveyed only poorly. This capability was particularly valuable in inaccessible terrain. Aerial photography became central to the postwar surveys carried out by the British Directorate of Overseas Survey – for example, in Gambia and Kenya – not least because it could achieve results more rapidly than those obtained from the ground. Moreover, there was not the dependence on local manpower seen with the latter.

The Cold War

The Second World War was also significant to postwar patterns of activity, as well as, more obscurely, to the connections and patronage that are so important in academic life, whatever its pretensions to meritocracy. In the Cold War, the politicised nature of geographical discussion was shown in the consideration of the protection of North America from the threat of Soviet attack, as well as in the knowledge-linked militarisation of the world. Information was revealed or suppressed in order to advance claims about strategic necessity, national security and weapons’ systems. This process was particularly apparent with the development of atomic weaponry.28

The close links between science and the military seen during the Second World War were sustained throughout the Cold War, notably in the USA and the Soviet Union, but not only there. American resources and influence played a role in this process in Western Europe, as a strong, scientific Europe was presented as an important contribution to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which was established in 1949 as a key Western military and political entity in the Cold War. Rockefeller and Ford Foundation funds were important in this American presence.29

National resources were also devoted to that end, notably as Britain and France became nuclear powers. For both states, nuclear power bridged the gap between traditional potency and modernity. Nuclear power suggested that they could be strong even without their traditional adjuncts, such as the large (p.325) army of British India which had provided much of the manpower for Britain’s strategic presence. Nuclear power also offered security and progress through domestically generated electricity. Electrification was also an important instance of technological progress in colonies, with dams rather than nuclear power stations proving the key sites.

Science and technology were significant not only as means for competition, but also in order to further progress, which was widely understood in terms of modernisation. Searching for an alternative theory and practice to colonialism and imperial control, Americans (and British commentators especially, but not only, on the Left) saw growth and social and political development through modernisation. An explicit engagement with modernisation theory and, in particular, the work of Walt Rostow (1916–2003), took place in the USA under President John F. Kennedy (1961–3). Modernisation was regarded as a form of global New Deal, able to create capitalistic, liberal states; and information was deployed accordingly.30

However, modernisation theory was often advanced with insufficient attention to political context. American participation in the Vietnam War was one of the consequences. The nature of Vietnamese society was only poorly understood by the USA – in a different context, similar comments could be made about the enforced modernisation pursued by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. Information was also pursued during the war as a means to analyse American success, but the attempt to produce criteria of military success fell foul of the ability of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese to soak up heavier casualties and to defy American equations of success with their emphasis on quantification.31

As a continuing potent instance of modernisation in the postwar world, information served as a format for progress. Inventions were disseminated more swiftly than hitherto, in part because they benefited from commercial interest in the registration and spread of information, and in part because of the nature of scientific networks and the impact of multinational companies, notably American ones. The spread in information about, and the use of, antibiotics provided a clear instance of this combination of commercial and public interests,32 a combination later attempted again in relation to the control of AIDS.

Meanwhile, greater popular access to geographical information in the twentieth century helped people position themselves in an increasingly dynamic world. Geography played a role in school systems, in the press and in the publication of maps and atlases. Each produced information that replaced isolationism by a more internationalist geographical consciousness. However, internationalism did not have simply one consequence in terms of attitudes towards power. Instead, it served both for imperial narratives of control and for more cooperative accounts about the international system.33

(p.326) Satellites

The changing character of information technology was apparent as planes, as a source of information, were supplemented by rockets after the first satellite, the Soviet Sputnik, was launched in 1957, a key date in the Cold War. Orbiting satellites offered the potential for the radio dispatch of images, for obtaining material from recoverable cameras and for the creation of a global telecommunications system.34 The earliest pictures from space were provided from the American satellite Explorer 6, by the former method, in 1959.

The following year, the first weather satellite, Tiros [Television and Infra-Red Observation Satellite] I, was launched to provide systematic images of the cloud cover. The photography of the Earth by weather satellites led to a great improvement in the analysis and mapping of global and regional climate, and, in particular, in the appreciation of how they interact, notably with the development of the understanding of the jet stream. The latter provided a global dynamic for climate analysis in place of the more confined models hitherto employed.

Satellites were also important for photo-reconnaissance, in order both to keep track of other powers, and to improve the mapping of the world and thus enhance the precise aiming of warheads. In 1960, the first pictures were received from Discoverer 13, the earliest in a line of successful American military photo-reconnaissance satellites. A Soviet rival, Cosmos 4, followed in 1962.

Unlike the high-flying American U-2 spy plane – one of which, flown by Gary Powers, had been shot down by the Soviet Union in 1960, leading to a major international incident – satellites were (then) too high to be shot down, and therefore offered the possibility of frequent overflights and thus of more information. In addition, regular satellite images provided the opportunity to evaluate developments on the ground, including the construction of missile sites.

This capability and information were important to the arms race and to the arithmetic of deterrence during the Cold War between the USA and the Soviet Union, an arithmetic driven by the perception of the information available. However, this perception could lead to mistaken views. Thus, the USA consistently exaggerated Soviet nuclear capability. Information about nuclear arms and their potential was also significant for successive attempts to negotiate arms-limitations programmes, as the assessment of capability was important.

Increased airpower and missile capabilities meant that new and more speedily obtainable data was required in order to manage threats. However, major difficulties were caused by the expansion in the volume of data available from multiple sources (for example, imaging data from satellites as well as human intelligence being transmitted by faster means such as radio), and by (p.327) the need to interpret and collate it ever more quickly due to the demands for rapid decision-making.

Thus, more data volume does not necessarily lead to better decision-making or interpretation of the facts. On the contrary, increased data volume may lead to less than optimal decisions as a result of a number of factors including information overload, the tendency to believe technology over human intelligence, or a simple intellectual failure to take into account the ever-increasing number of factors being presented. Moreover, as the amount of data collected increases, so does the opportunity for presenting misleading information.

As with other forms of surveillance linked to technological progress, the situation in the Cold War was far from static. The range of observation increased with the American development of the space shuttle, which provided images of the Earth from a low orbit. The first orbital flight by the shuttle occurred in 1981. The USA also pressed ahead with military surveillance satellites. By 2000, these had a resolution exceeding 100mm (4 inches). The Americans benefited from satellite surveillance systems using digital sensors and transmitting their pictures almost instantaneously over encrypted radio links.

The potential of this mapping became a major political issue in 2002–3 as the USA claimed that satellite information made it clear that Iraq, under its dictator, Saddam Hussein, was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and had misled the UN inspectors attempting to carry out a ground-search programme. This episode apparently highlighted the extent to which it was possible to overcome one of the major characteristics of totalitarian regimes – information management. The Iraqi leadership lacked comparable information on American preparations. The gap in capability between the USA and Iraq appeared greater than between Western and non-Western states at the height of Western imperialism in 1880–1920. It was not possible in 2003 to fire back at satellites as had been done at planes when used by the British in Iraq and Arabia from 1920. In practice, however, in 2003, there were serious problems in analysing and presenting the intelligence data, and no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction have been found to date.

Satellite information also came to serve as the basis for enhanced weaponry. The US Department of Defence developed a global positioning system (GPS) that depended on satellites, the first of which was launched in 1978. Automatic aiming and firing techniques rest on accurate surveying. ‘Smart’ weaponry, such as guided bombs and missiles, make use of precise mapping in order to follow predetermined courses to targets actualised for the weapon as a grid reference. Cruise missiles use digital terrain models of the intended flight path. The Soviet Union sought to match the American GPS system with its own Global Navigation Satellite System, which, in 1996, reached its full design specification of twenty-four satellites, but funding problems, linked to a crisis in (p.328) Russian finances in the late 1990s, ensured that there were only thirteen usable by late 2005.

Although the precision of modern information may seem assured, there are still serious problems, and these can affect the pinpoint accuracy that is sought. For instance, there is a lack of consistency about the positioning of coastlines, in particular about the use of a median position between high- and low-water marks to mark the coastline, when in practice it is rarely at that position. Other indicators are also employed to record the coastline, for example, high- or low-water marks.35

Since its inception, there has been a rapid improvement in satellite observation of the Earth, and a range of information has resulted. Taking forward the eighteenth-century measurement of arcs of meridians, the very shape of the planet is better understood, especially the flattening at the poles. Because the Earth is not a regular geometrical shape, it is necessary to measure distances in order to be precise about them, rather than to extrapolate from observations; and satellite measurements have made this process possible. Satellite photography played a role in the Second World Geodetic System, which was established in 1966. The development from 1987 of satellite geodesy (the science of measuring the Earth) superseded traditional methods of surveying, in the same way that electronic distance measuring had replaced triangulation in the 1960s. GPS systems served in the offshore oil and gas industries for surveying, and also in the dynamic positioning and mooring-monitoring of rigs.

In 1972, the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (renamed Landsat) was launched by the USA. Landsat relied not on the television cameras used by Tiros, but on a telescope and spinning mirror that scanned the Earth’s surface to build up a digital image. NASA, the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration, produced images by a technique known as remote sensing, in which images were generated from electromagnetic radiation outside the normal visual range. Using different wavelengths, it was possible to focus on specific aspects of the Earth’s surface.

Moreover, yet more information became available as a result of an improvement in the resolution of satellite cameras, an aspect of the increase in the volume of information that stemmed from enhanced instruments and improved processes. In 1972, the first Landsat camera system had a resolution of 80m (262 feet), while there were four separate channels in the multispectral scanner covering visible and infrared parts of the spectrum. In contrast, as an instance of the rapid pace of enhancement, Landsat 4, launched in 1982, had, as its scanner, a thematic mapper with seven spectral channels and a spatial resolution of 30m (98 feet).

The increase in the number of channels made it possible to go further into the infrared wavelengths, and thus to reveal colours invisible to the naked eye. (p.329) The use of false colour systems for the presentation of infrared images aided analysis of vegetation and land use, an analysis that was to help clarify the extent and nature of environmental pressure. The Earth as a subject for analysis was more effectively scrutinised as a result of satellite information, while this information itself provided striking images that could be readily disseminated.

By the late 1990s, NASA was spending $2 billion annually on Earth observations and in 2012, the American government flew twenty-three Earth-observing satellites carrying ninety instruments into orbit. The Soviet Union, China, India and Brazil were also flying such satellites, but, in 2012, Envisat, Europe’s largest Earth-observing satellite, then ten years old, stopped communicating, causing problems for the measurement of ocean temperatures and of the chemistry of the stratosphere. Moreover, reductions in US government funding threatened to cut the number of American Earth-observing satellites and instruments in orbit to six and twenty respectively by 2020. The crisis of public finances in the late 2000s and 2010s ensured that the teleology of space, frequently cited from the 1970s, appeared less credible than ever before, notably so in the case of the USA, which had played the leading role in space exploration.

Information on the Oceans

The use of multispectral scanners offered humans information that otherwise could not be obtained by the human eye. The same was true of information about the oceans, which cover most of the world’s surface. Before the twentieth century, knowledge of the deep seas had been limited, although charting – followed in the nineteenth century by the laying of telegraph cables, a difficult process – had brought some information about the ocean floor. In contrast, information in the twentieth century came in a number of ways, with the range of methods and volume of information markedly increasing in the second half of the century: from aircraft, satellites, submersibles, surface ships using sonar and from boring into the ocean floor. The ocean floor’s effect on the water surface, and thus its contours, could be picked up on radar images taken from aircraft and satellites. Water temperatures, measured in the same way, provided warning of forthcoming storms, and proved an aspect of the increased understanding of both weather and climate.

Ship- and airborne towed magnetometers and deep ocean borehole core sequences gathered widespread data about magnetic anomalies. Moreover, submersibles able to resist extreme pressure took explorers to the bottom of the ocean. In 1960, Jacques Piccard, in the bathyscaph Trieste, explored the deepest part of the world’s oceans, the Marianas Trench near the Philippines, providing precise information about a location that had hitherto served as a source for mysterious rumours about strange creatures and other abnormalities. From (p.330) the 1970s, metals on the ocean floors were mapped. Unmanned submersibles with remote-controlled equipment furthered underwater exploration and mapping. Thermal hot-spots on ocean floors were charted, providing more information on the extent to which the Earth is a dynamic structure or, rather, a system of flows of energy and matter.

This account of exploration and enhanced information, however, is all too typical in its failure to place such activity in context. A key element was provided by the development of submarine capability in the Cold War. The Soviet build-up of a large submarine force, under their Murmansk-based Northern Fleet, obliged NATO powers to establish nearby patrol areas for submarines, as well as underwater listening devices, and also to develop a similar capability in the waters though which Soviet submarines would have to travel en route to the Atlantic, both in the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland, and between Iceland and Britain. The USA feared that, in the event of war, Soviet submarines would attack their trade routes, or launch missiles from near the American coast. Naval Force Atlantic was established as a standing NATO force in 1967, and NATO’s CONMAROPS (Concept of Maritime Operations) proposed a forward defence against Soviet submarines.36

In a parallel process to the pursuit of information in order better to dominate the developing world of rockets, information about the oceans, and about the operations of submarines in them, was at a premium in these circumstances and led to a major expansion in financial support for marine sciences. The NATO framework included a Science Committee. Oceanography as a subject and institutional structure grew significantly from the 1960s, although some influential oceanographers, such as George Deacon (1906–84) and Henry Stommel (1920–92), were troubled about the consequences of military links.37 In the event, exploration funded initially for military purposes trickled into the civilian understanding of the undersea world and its geology. By the end of the twentieth century, thanks to Seasat imagery produced from 1978, a full map of the ocean floors was possible. It indicated the processes of change whereby new material forced its way up – for example, in the mid-Atlantic submarine ridge – forming volcanoes, while elsewhere matter was pushed down to form trenches. Such information helped to make sense of the location of volcanic and earthquake zones, and thus to make sudden catastrophes, such as the Japanese tsunami of 2011, appear rationally explicable to an extent not seen with the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

At the same time, as in other spheres, notably weather forecasting, the increase in information and understanding did not result in the emergence of a predictive capability to match hopes. This situation was an instance of the information deficit that reflected a widespread failure to appreciate the possibilities and limitations of existing systems, notably on the part of much of the (p.331) public. Moreover, as an aspect of this situation, there was also a lower tolerance for failures to disseminate and analyse available information. Thus, the availability of more information created expectations, within governments, institutions and the public at large, that could not be met.


The availability of more information thanks to enhanced technology did not banish contention about how best to use this information to depict the world. Instead, there was an active debate stemming from a rejection of hitherto dominant ideas in cartography, a rejection that was linked to a profound critique in the human sciences of established methods and of conventional ideas of power and influence: methods and ideas that were presented as inherently conducive to Western interests. This critique extended to forms of information gathering and its subsequent classification and use. In 1973, the German Marxist Arno Peters (1916–2002) presented a projection of the world based on his attempt to offer an equal-area map. He portrayed the world of maps (misleadingly) as a choice between his projection, which he depicted as both accurate and egalitarian, and the traditional Mercator world-view. Arguing that the end of Western colonialism and the advance of modern technology made a new kind of mapping, in the shape of his own work, necessary and possible, Peters pressed for a clear, readily understood cartography that was not constrained by scientific mapmaking techniques and Western perceptions. The map was to be used for a redistribution of attention to regions in the Third World that Peters felt had hitherto lacked adequate coverage.

This approach struck a chord with an international audience that cared little about cartography itself and the information bound up in its established processes, but that instead sought maps to support its call for a new world order and the information this offered on global inequalities. Peters’s emphasis on the Tropics matched concern from, and about, the developing world and became fashionable. The Peters world map was praised in, and used for the cover of, North-South: A Programme for Survival (1980), the ‘Brandt Report’ of the International Commission on International Development Issues.

Critics pointed out the weaknesses and, indeed, derivative character of the projection and the tendentious nature of many of Peters’s claims. His projection was far weaker than many other equal-area maps because it distorted shape far more seriously, greatly elongating the Tropics so that the length, but not the width, of Africa was considerably exaggerated. Distances on the Peters projection could not be readily employed to plot data.

Such particular criticisms of Peters by specialists, however, were of scant weight given the ability to place the new projection in support of a more (p.332) widespread critique of Western values and the West’s impact. Thus, the location of the information in a value system was the key validator of its appropriateness. In this respect, patterns of behaviour seen from the outset in the use of information recurred. On the global scale, this critique was linked not only to an assault on the remains of colonialism but also to the role of the USA, and that at a time when its reputation had been greatly affected by the Vietnam War.

Moreover, intellectually, information as an objective ideal and progressive practice was affected by the problematising of meaning and power, by the French intellectuals Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) and Michel Foucault (1926–84) respectively. Each emphasised the subjectivity of disciplines and categories, and the extent to which they reflected and sustained social norms. Ironically, in critiquing power, these critics gained and deployed academic power of their own.

Technology was another dynamic element in the accumulation and depiction of information. Cartographic possibilities were transformed by developments in computing, as the latter greatly changed methods of production, presentation and analysis. The integration of different types of information and image was an important aspect of this change, as was the high degree of interactivity between information systems and their users. Information thus became more open rather than being closed as with an individual printed map. The ability to add sound as an aspect of integration and interactivity was also important.

Meanwhile, technological developments continued to provide new data across the range of human activity. Most strikingly, information was obtained on the planetary system, in part by using more powerful Earth-based telescopes, but also thanks to the use of rockets. Rockets had a military value and an impact on public attention not offered by telescopes. The Soviet Lunik-3 rocket sent back the first pictures of the far side of the Moon in 1959, providing information on the 41 per cent of the Moon’s surface that is permanently hidden from the Earth, thus creating a new task for lunar nomenclature.38

The mapping of the Moon by orbiting satellites was followed, on 20 July 1969, by the first manned Moon landing with the Apollo 11 mission, which had been launched into space by a massive Saturn V rocket. The information gathered earlier by satellites was significant to this achievement, not least in the selection of a landing site. An aspect of Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, the commitment to send American astronauts to the Moon had been made by President Kennedy in 1961. Kennedy, however, swiftly became concerned about the cost of the space programme and the impact of this expenditure on domestic policies.39 The Apollo missions, indeed, cost about $100 billion.

As an aspect of new information, new images were presented and recorded. In May 1961, 45 million Americans watched the fifteen-minute space flight of (p.333) Alan Shepard on live television. On the Apollo 8 mission in December 1968, the astronauts became the first humans to see the Earth rise over the Moon. Six hundred million people were able to watch the Moon landing live the following year.

The American Moon missions were followed by an attempt to use space probes to supplement information from Earth-based telescopes. Unmanned missions were sent to explore the solar system. The American Voyager mission, launched in 1977, provided images of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Major advances in recording and communicating technology enabled these missions to provide information about things otherwise beyond human reach. The ability to send back radio signals at the speed of light – such as those that carried pictures of Neptune in 1989 – ensured that these images could be received and used, like earlier mapping, to supplement existing material. In 1990, the Hubble space telescope, a telescope based in space and thus not affected by the Earth’s atmosphere, was launched, again enhancing the potential for gathering information.

The Extraterrestrial

The quest to understand the solar system and what lies beyond it is far from complete. However, the ability to map and analyse it from both Earth and space – for example, by means of NASA’s Kepler space telescope – led to a major leap forward in gathering information about the cosmos, and to the production of images of the universe that were considerably more complex than those of earlier ages. For example, the discovery of the first extrasolar planets (planets orbiting a distant star) in the 1990s was followed, by early 2011, by the discovery of over five hundred more, as well as over a thousand new planetary candidates.40 By July 2012, these figures had risen to 777 and, discovered by the Kepler space telescope alone, 2,321 respectively. More generally, questions about the origin of the universe were framed in terms of enhanced information.

The information obtained also clarified long-held questions. Two Viking probes, launched in 1975, landed on Mars in order to search for life. They were unsuccessful in finding any, as were Opportunity and Spirit, the two robot rovers that landed on the planet in 2004. The Voyager mission, launched in 1977 to visit the outer planets, sent back pictures that also failed to record signs of life, as did the cometary probe Deep Impact. The absence of any encounter with extraterrestrial life forms ensured that there was no new fundamental questioning of the relative nature of human values and the role of religious and secular information, narratives and analyses in the context of other life forms. Thus, the depiction of humans in relation to such cosmic themes and powers that had been an important aspect of earlier, religious-based, information (p.334) systems was not revived. Indeed, Pope Pius XII (r. 1939–58) welcomed space exploration as a way to fulfil God’s plans.

A very different form of papal engagement was taken by John Paul II (r. 1978–2005). In a marked rejection of criticism of the miraculous, in his twenty-seven years in office he canonised 482 new saints, over four times the number canonised in the period 1000–1500, and also beatified another 1,341 individuals, fully half of the entire number of papal beatifications since the process began in the 1630s. Looked at differently, it could be said that sanctity in practice became detached from the miraculous.

Meanwhile, the predictive power of the imagination seen in written accounts of fictional lunar voyages such as Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (Dream) (c. 1609) and Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone: or A Discourse of a Voyage Thither (1638), and in films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Alien (1979) and War of the Worlds (2005) proved wide of the mark. The massive increase in man’s ability to scrutinise, first, the Moon and, then, the planets and stars did not lead to the transforming discoveries that had been anticipated in much fiction.

However, as another reminder of the need to eschew teleology, far from the imaginative role of aliens receding with human exploration, it actually became more pronounced. Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) were regularly reported, especially from the 1940s to the 1960s. Attempts to debunk the extraterrestrial hypothesis, notably by American intelligence agencies, served instead, for the gullible, to confirm belief in a cover-up.41 The hypothesis also suggested the strength of alternative accounts to those grounded in science, as well as the desire to make the unknown readily explicable and the absence of any dominance of the information world by the professionally expert. The challenge posed by such irrational beliefs has become far stronger thanks to the Internet, an inexpensive mass-access information system without any form of scrutiny in terms of accuracy. As such, rumour has come to the fore anew. At the same time, citizen-science projects that utilise spare processing power on volunteers’ computers have been used in the USA since 1999 to sift the information generated by radio telescopes in a search for broadcasts by intelligent aliens, one of which was allegedly observed in telescope printouts in 1977.

The entertainment industry testifies to this interest in aliens. The Empire Strikes Back was the biggest American film hit in 1980, followed by E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in 1982, Return of the Jedi in 1983 and Revenge of the Sith in 2005. Aliens were employed not only to offer adventure stories, but also to provide alternative narratives, meanings and origin stories. On American television, Star Trek, which framed many people’s ideas of space science fiction, was full of political and moral analogies. Moreover, universes without a deity provided a powerful challenge to the conventional belief in the divine ordering (p.335) of terrestrial life. American religious groups criticised the Lord of the Rings trilogy and also the Harry Potter stories in this context.

Fictional approaches were also designed to highlight technological possibilities and, as such, overlapped with futurology. In his book The World Brain (1938), H.G. Wells (1866–1946) discussed a linked network in which people shared information. Taking forward a theme of unease, Wells suggested that the network itself would become intelligent. Other fantastic ideas about a global consciousness based on new technology were advanced by the French Jesuit geologist and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), who presented humans as evolving towards a perfect spiritual state.


These and other alternative worlds were provided with an information structure that was at once fictional and yet reliant on what might seem credible in terms of human explanation and understanding. As such, the world of information in the early twenty-first century covers clearly fictional worlds, creatures and activities, as well as those that are factual. Far from there being a clear distinction between the two, there are overlaps in terms of a common language of information and similarities in processes of cause and effect. Such overlaps are scarcely new: in early nineteenth-century Britain, both statistical writing and the fiction of social realism used methods of social aggregation as part of a marked epistemological affinity.42

The extent to which current and future technology, especially that of ‘virtual reality’, may blur distinctions between the human perception of fact and, on the other hand, ‘fiction’ or simulated reality, is unclear. However, the ease of creating apparently realistic phenomena for perception, and thus data, suggests that such an overlap may become a distinguishing aspect of what is, in the future, the modern use of information. How far this situation will lead to a critique of modernisation, at least in this respect, as subversive of reality, is unclear. ‘Virtual reality’ underlines the extent to which data collection is not of itself a guarantee that more ‘truth’ will be produced or that more people will be ‘enlightened’. Simultaneously, there will be more information and processes available to permit the location of the fictional as such or, at least, of reality ‘improved’ by artificial means.

A different human capability in understanding was suggested by the research into the nature of matter and the universe, and thus of time in space and space in time, offered by a combination of enhanced astronomy, the Large Haldron Collider, and quantum theory. The last implied that remote particles could ‘know’ how others were behaving. The theory opened up possibilities of complex information systems, including, maybe, signals travelling faster than (p.336) light (which had been believed impossible) and thus conceivably going into the past.43 Thus, theoretical developments were linked to an understanding of the universe that offered a new assessment of time and space. While controversial, these ideas appear to be joining time and space anew, although in a different fashion from that in the medieval West.


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