Early Modern Post

The freedom of information


At the time of writing my first blog post, the big story has been the hacking/NoW scandal. Spreading from the ‘one rogue reporter’ line to encompass more than just news-makers, the emergence of yet another story about high-level corruption can make you roll your eyes and worry that we are governed, informed, and patrolled by elite groups that do one thing and say another, whether it be politicians, press or police.

Discussions have centered on cleaning up the relationships between the three; now, we not only want to condemn and punish the illegal hacking of a child’s phone, we want ‘transparency’ in political dealings with the media, we want to see with our own eyes the parliamentary trial of the Murdochs and the schedule diaries of the politicians. Perhaps from this we can aspire to greater objectivity in the press and independence in politics; as Steve Coogan said a while back on Newsnight: ‘Who is Rupert Murdoch to tell me who to vote for?’

Can news ever be objective? Can access to information be democratic? Can information itself ever be independent of interested parties; somehow created and consumed by the wider society rather than by eminently corruptible elites? I’m being slightly facetious here (after all ‘society’ is made up of individuals and interest groups), but recently I’ve been reading about some utopian ideals, and their practical manifestations, that engage these very same issues.

Early engraving of Salomon's House in Bacon's New Atlantis.

Salomon’s House in Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis is an imagined central point where knowledge of the world is brought in by travellers and digested by scholars, a repository for information and learning. Here, reportage must ‘not show any natural work or thing, adorned or swelling; but only pure as it is’: this is a utopia free from corruption; there is no media bias here, just the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. The ‘Office of Publicke Addresse’ envisaged by Samuel Hartlib and John Drury in 1647 builds on this idea of the centralisation of knowledge, where the bodily and spiritual needs of society could be met through the granting of access to information. Discussed in their pamphlet ‘Considerations tending to the happy Accomplishment of Englands Reformation in Church and State‘, the idea is based on a freeing up of information, facilitating the sharing of knowledge and services beyond traditional patronage circles. This both embraced the scholarly focus of Salomon’s House and was conceived as a having a more practical, economic focus, providing access to employment by matching job-seekers to positions or buyers to traders, again without the patronage circles that relied on nepotism and favour. The democratisation of information thus carries with it power, control and something like the ‘transparency’ sought after today.

The idea of such an office had already been implemented by the founder of the first weekly newspaper in France, Theophraste Renaudot, whose ‘Bureau d’Adresse’ opened in 1628. The ‘Bureau’ was involved in the expanding and sharing of knowledge in weekly scientific conferences open to the general public, though its primary aim lay in social welfare; the poor could be helped through the office giving them access to employment, medical and legal advice, and acting as a pawn shop.

This is more than esoteric knowledge collected in an ivory tower; the emphasis is on the dissemination of information, the liberation of both the construction and consumption of knowledge. In this way, the idea is part library and university, part eBay and part social media. Renaudot’s ‘Bureau’ closed in 1644 and though there were other attempts, successful and less so, at opening such public offices, mainly they seem to have functioned like a kind of ‘small ads’ paper, facilitated by the printing press, and providing a useful economic service. Perhaps the grander ideas behind them can find incarnation in that other big technological advance: the Internet.

News connects us; we rely on it to build a sense of who we are in the world. These ‘offices of intelligence’ were attempts to open up the construction and dissemination of knowledge and information, and though I’m certainly not saying we should do away with political and media structure, perhaps through the universal access to information through the internet (at least in this country) we can get a little power back, and hope to hold the elite in society to higher account.


6 thoughts on “The freedom of information

  1. Hi – I just came across your blog via a pingback from my own. I’ve really enjoyed it so far.

    Were you aware there were various attempts to put Hartlib’s idea into practice in the late 1640s? I have blogged about one, by Henry Walker, here: http://mercuriuspoliticus.wordpress.com/2009/09/25/walkers-office-of-entries/

    However, as far as I can tell it seems to have been more a site for commercial information to be exchanged than one for intellectual or political exchange. But I think it did have some democratising effect to the extent that it allowed servants and others low on the social scale seeking work a venue to advertise that they had never really had before.

  2. Hi Nick – Thanks so much for your comment! I found your piece on Walker very informative and valuable; thanks. I’d recommend anyone to take a look if they’re interested. I did read about some practical examples of it in the seventeenth century, Walker being one and Henry Robinson another, and with both I’d agree that the focus is on economic matters. Robinson, an associate of Hartlib, focused on providing a space where people could advertise and seek employment, and this free for the poor, so again there’s a preoccupation with social welfare and access to information.
    I must confess that I came to the subject via interest in the ideas, ideals and inspirations behind the concept, rather than via its incarnations in real life, and that I’m a little out of my comfort zone in the seventeenth century anyway (I’m a sixteenth century geek). I’m really fascinated by attempts to centralise information, whether in offices of address, early libraries or antiquarian collections, or in early forms of the state paper office – I hope to conclude my PhD with discussion on these attempts to gather together, store and control access to written information.

  3. What a great new blog! I’ll check back regularly.

  4. I’ve seen the illustration of the New Atlantis several places on the web, always attributed to an early-modern edition. I wonder if you had any more bibliographical information about it (or if any of your readers do)? I would really like to know the context in which it was first published.

    • Hi Robert, thanks for your question – it’s a good one. Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I first got it from, and I would be equally interested in finding out about it’s original publishing context. If anyone can answer this please do so! If I get a chance at some point, I’ll have a look around and try to find out. Likewise, if you happen upon the information, I’d love to hear from you.

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