The social and technological origins of the information society

Toni Weller (Department of Information Science, City University, London, UK)
David Bawden (Department of Information Science, City University, London, UK)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Publication date: 1 December 2005



The purpose of this paper is to examine the theory of a control revolution in nineteenth century England, and its social and technological implications for the information society. It takes up where most historical interpretations of the industrial revolution end, and before most analyses of the digital era begin. The work focuses on three distinct types of technological advance – in transportation, in communication, and in the processing of information – without adopting a technologically deterministic argument.


Historical analysis, based on both primary and secondary sources.


The article first considers the introduction of the railways, and makes a case in that there were two crises of control involving railway technology in the nineteenth century: a crisis of communication, and a crisis of organisation. It goes on to assess the growth of bureaucracy and organisation in commerce. The expansion of government surveillance power towards the end of the nineteenth century is also discussed.

Research limitations/implications

This paper is broad in its scope and therefore some necessary omissions and limitations have been made. Many of the terms used throughout have entire literatures on their meanings, but it is not the intention of this paper to engage further with these debates, and it is acknowledged that within this limited discussion there is room for some ambiguity surrounding terms. Such concepts have been defined as far as possible within the article. The impact of warfare and military organisation are key themes, and while extremely relevant, deserve fuller discussion elsewhere. Also, while there would have undoubtedly been effects upon the British Empire from English industrialisation and the resulting crises of control, it has not been possible to discuss the implications of differing socio‐economic and political conditions within the Empire in this paper. The increasing sophistication of other professions such as finance and accounting in this period have not been considered, although again, this is an area which deserves individual study[1].


The research takes a step towards demonstrating that the origins of the information society can be traced back to the structural and organisational implications of the control revolution of the nineteenth century. The methods of control created the basic communication infrastructures still used in 2005, and set the precedent for government intervention and social surveillance. It concludes by discussing the potential crises of control within the information society.



Weller, T. and Bawden, D. (2005), "The social and technological origins of the information society", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 61 No. 6, pp. 777-802.

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Copyright © 2005, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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