International Conference 'Information and Power in History'

“Nowadays we all know that information is the key to power, and that the masters of information rule the world,” Anthony Grafton wrote in his commendation of Jacob Soll’s book on Jean-Baptiste Colbert, The Information Master (2009). Yet this notion is much older; it has even been attributed to the Chinese general Sun Tzu (544-c. 496 BCE). As far as the relationship between power and information is concerned, present-day scholars point out that we find ourselves in a special phase. The ‘information revolution’ of today has caused information to become a separate object of study during the last two decades. Historians distinguish different ages of information, from the invention of the printing press to the age of the scientific revolution to that of the digital revolution. Notwithstanding past and present fears, the information revolution has not brought an Orwellian control of society by the central government.  On the contrary, some experts would say that modern communication techniques have ensured a fragmenting and decentralizing effect on the provision of information.

It is clear that the relationship between the control over information and the exercise of power is a relevant subject for all times. This two-day conference puts this topic explicitly on the research agenda. Over forty speakers in five panels will present their research on the exciting relationship between information and power through history.

Keynote speakers are: Prof. dr. Ann L. Stoler and Dr. Toni Weller.


Preview the panel session themes below:



This panel has the role of experts and expertise as transmitters and mediators of information as its subject. It takes on the public role of science within social and political organizations, and the way their concepts frame and influence practices within civil society and administrative and political elites. What is the relative significance of experts in different historical periods? How did their techniques of collecting and framing information,  influencing and wielding power, develop? Experts can vary from merchants to marketeers, from advisors to the court to modern political scientists. 



This panel will focus on the control of information by governmental institutions, such as spokesmen, intelligence agencies and spies. How did governments between the 15th and the 20th century try to manage the flow of information? How did they exercise their power, either by distributing information or by withholding it? And did they use their control over the flow of information as a means of coercion or even oppression? Furthermore, this panel will focus on non-governmental actors who have reacted to the governmental control over information. These actors include press agencies, whistleblowers and professional historians. How have they tried to gain access to information or to disclose information, despite the governmental restrictions?



In this panel we mainly concentrate on the direct relations between information and decision making. Topics vary from the physical transfer of information, via information gathering and use to more abstract questions like how information was processed and appreciated by decision makers and how this related to power. This will be discussed against the background of different contexts such as warfare, water management, and diplomacy , from the late Middle Ages to the 19th century.



This panel will focus on ´information activity´, the creation, acquisition and exchange of information in relation to power during various periods of time. How and where did information transfer come about? How did specific information networks and institutions, especially those acting within the context of imperial hegemony, deal with confidential knowledge?



In this panel, we will explore the use of information with respect to specific groups. How did information acquisition or exchange play a role in the empowerment or marginalization of women, the disabled, migrants, people of mixed ancestry or persona non grata? In unravelling these processes there will be a specific focus on the spatial and organizational dimensions of information and the role of technological innovation. 


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