Comics / Spotlight / Knowledge and Scholarship

The Control Revolution: Not a Medium Theory Affair

By Hervé St-Louis
October 4, 2014 - 12:52

James Beniger
Canadians studying information or communications have heard of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media. American graduate students will be familiar with sociologist James Beniger’s The Control Revolution. Those of us with the best professors and faculties will study both texts. I refer to McLuhan only to highlight Beniger’s work. Of the two, Beniger is the one scholars relate the most with. McLuhan is better known by the public but not always a favourite of social scientists.

Both Beniger and McLuhan draw on information theory. Each argues in different ways that technology extends from the senses of humans (Beniger 1986; McLuhan 1994). That’s where similarities end. Beniger explained his propositions in endless research. McLuhan, in his late work wrote probes. Probes are like tweets. Short, sweet but with limited context. McLuhan was not without meaning. He convulsed in endless references to literature. Still, he had a passive aggressive attitude towards references. But unless you are a humanist who has read James Joyce’s Ulysses ten times, you may need some help.

Beniger is as erudite as McLuhan. But like a traditional scholar, he references every citation. He also explains the theses of the people he cites. He provides the needed contextual information to understand where he wants to take you next in his argument. You don’t need to know Talcott Parsons’s work to understand how he favoured the agency of individuals. Beniger wants you to understand how Parsons’s agency resembles Herbert Spencer’s structuralism. One benefit of reading Beniger is that he doesn’t write like Anthony Giddens! He doesn’t complicate his thesis like Niklas Luhmann to make you run for a Wikipedia cliffnote. Beniger is clear.

He argues that the current information society is a reaction to the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century (Beniger 1986). As transportation and communication technologies evolved, industrialists needed tertiary controls to manage industrialization (Beniger 1986). Information technologies provided a rationalization that allowed the bureaucratization necessary to harness industrial technologies (Beniger 1986).

Control, for Beniger is an act that living organisms do to organize the information they need to sustain themselves (Beniger 1986). This information exists through the consumption of energy and matter. Inorganic matter does not need organization to have order (Beniger 1986). When living organisms stop organizing information, they fall prey to random entropy and death (Beniger 1986). Entropy is random information without meaningful structure. Understanding information theory literature helps understand Beniger.

Beniger links information theory to living and technological information systems. He asks his readers to step aside and see the greater picture in several past control revolutions. He argues that we have trouble seeing the origins of postmodern information society because we are too close to it (Beniger 1986). Beniger does not tie information theory to information architecture. He wrote his book before the Internet’s potential to help organize the word’s knowledge started. But that’s why graduate students like me exist to make such connections.

Works Cited
Beniger, James R. The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1986.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extension of Man. First MIT Press edition, 1994. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994.

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