Conference: The Science of Information, 1870-1945: The Universalization of Knowledge in a Utopian Age

Thursday, February 23, 2017 - 6:00pm to Saturday, February 25, 2017 - 6:30pm

The University of Pennsylvania Libraries and the Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry at the Chemical Heritage Foundation (Philadelphia, PA)

Between about 1870 and 1945, for visionaries and planners around the world, projects for assembling universal knowledge and projects for effecting a universal political order went hand-in-hand. This symposium will investigate the development of intertwining utopianisms in internationalist politics and in the science of information during this period. This span of years stretches from the onset of modern war, in America and Western Europe, to its most horrific climax in World War II. It is also the period during which global transportation and communications systems were constructed, the modern global economy was knit together, and both scientific and humanistic scholarship became a professional and global enterprise. Such developments made the collection and sharing of information and the establishment of accord among nation-states especially urgent, the stuff of utopian speculation, pacifist dreams, and, sometimes, pragmatic nightmares. A striking measure of this urgency was the formation in 1922 of the League of Nations’ International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, the primary aim of which was to address and resolve issues at the intersection of information and diplomacy.

 

This period is also approximately the lifespan of one of the foremost of these dreamers: the pioneering information scientist Paul Otlet. Otlet, along with his partner, the Belgian statesman and the 1913 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize Henri La Fontaine, championed internationalist ideals in their campaign to promote democratic access to universal knowledge. In light of the emergence of contemporary forms of information utopianism centered on the internet, big data, and the political possibilities of social media and other information technologies, Otlet in particular has become a figure of much interest among both historians of science and historians of libraries and information management. A principal goal of this conference is to bring these communities together to work towards a collective understanding of the hodgepodge of familiar and strange utopian projects that characterized this eventful seventy-five years. How did internationalist thought shape how information was processed and disseminated? Why did some political and information-sharing projects succeed and others founder? Did political and information universalism always go hand-in-hand? Could political universalism instead be paired with skepticism about information-gathering, or information universalism with nationalism? In answering these questions, this conference will shed new light on a pivotal aspect of the making of the modern world and generate valuable perspectives to inform conversations about political and information universalism today.

 

Speakers include: Alistair Black, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Rachel Sagner Buurma, Swarthmore College Alex Csiszar, Harvard University Teresa Davis, Princeton University Robert Fox, University of Oxford Eva Hemmungs Wirten, Linköping University Evan Hepler-Smith, Harvard University Robert Kargon, The Johns Hopkins University Peter Lor, University of Pretoria Kathy Peiss, University of Pennsylvania Lynn Ransom, University of Pennsylvania Libraries W. Boyd Rayward, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Geert Somsen, Maastricht University Steven Witt, Center for Global Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Nader Vosougghian, New York Institute of Technology