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Are Americans information junkies?

It would seem so obvious that Americans are information junkies. With more than 70% of the population over the age of 10 walking around with their smart phones—more computer than telephone—they often hold them in their hands so they can instantly keep up. E-books are popular, while the sale of hardcopy books continues to rise. The New York Times boasted in 2016 that it now had over a million online subscribers. A number close to that reads the Harvard Business Review.

But a junkie? We think of junkies as people addicted to something. Teenagers addicted to Facebook or to their video games, and the images of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton checking her e-mail seem to appear daily in the press. But what does history teach us?

It turns out Americans have been googling since the eighteenth century. Historians are learning more about what information Americans have consumed over the centuries and how. The original settlers in North America had high rates of literacy—well over half the adult population—and so were used to the idea that information was organized into logical groupings, such as about medicine, farming, or cooking, and that they were available in some common formats. These formats included broadsides, newspaper articles, pamphlets, and books. In the nineteenth century, they added electronic formats, such as telegrams and telephone conversations. Cheap printing costs and the invention of photography enhanced the collections of information.

Image credit: Phone by Richard Leeming. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Americans had to be a practical people as they established their lives in the colonies and later young nation. So they developed the practice of looking up things in two ways. First, they searched for information that would allow them to solve a specific immediate problem, such as how to survey a property or how to care for a sick cow. Cookbooks based on North American ingredients began appearing in the late 1700s, books on how to care for children by the 1820s, and manuals on how to repair new machines within a few years of an invention. Books about “car diseases” became the stuff of modern life by 1910.

Second, they acquired the practice of informing pending decisions by examining facts. The U.S. Congress established the Post Office in the 1790s convinced that one could not exercise their civic responsibilities without being informed about economics, politics, and military affairs. The Post Office had to get newspapers to people. By the end of World War I, the nation was on a mission to keep children in school past eighth grade, increasingly to graduate from high school. By the end of the twentieth century, over a quarter of the nation’s adult population had gone to college, while today, analytics and “learning computers” are seeping into the routine work of managers in business and government.

Googling, which is the act of going to the Internet to look up a fact or how to do something, is the latest manifestation of Americans using almanacs, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and how-to publications, among others, to inform their actions and decisions.

The nation has always been willing to invest in these sources of information. First came the Post Office, then thousands of newspapers and magazines, such that almost every topic one can think of had its own publications by the start of the twentieth century, and today literally millions of websites. The American government invested in roads, canals, transportation technologies, even helped jumpstart the computer industry faster than anywhere else in the World, installation of satellites and the most spectacular infrastructure of all, made the initial investments in the Internet.

The nation could afford to google, too. The Second Industrial Revolution began in the United States in the 1840s and by the end of World War II Americans had the largest, wealthiest economy in the World. They had industrialized, created a network of over 2,000 colleges and universities, acquired more Nobel Prizes in sciences than any other nation, essentially created many of the information technologies we take for granted: telegraphy, telephones, television, PCs, of course Apple’s smart phone, among others. Historians will qualify these statements with reminders that similar developments were going on in other countries, but it seemed the Americans exploited them faster, earlier, or more extensively.

Why? Because they wanted access to information sooner, “just-in-time,” and wherever they were if at home, work, school, or in a bar settling a argument over who hit more home runs than Babe Ruth, or determining when was Nixon president.

Historians like to answer the same impatient question Americans often ask: “So what?” The question speaks to the relevance of a topic. In this case, the answer rests on the twin notions of people wanting to solve problems in a practical way and to inform their decisions, even simple ones such as where to go to dinner if it is Monday night and half the restaurants in town are closed. They are learning that seeking facts has remained both a remarkably consistent behavior dating back to the 1700s. It is a major feature of American culture. They are discovering that the thirst for information and its use are right up there with immigration, colonization of North America, creation of a democratic society, and in recent times, becoming a nation of cities, were the essential building blocks of American society.

So, are Americans information junkies? Possibly, but at a minimum they are extensive users of facts. Even my 7-year old grandson goes to the Internet to find out facts about Ninja characters or about how animals live in the wild. Are you an information junkie? What does that say about how you live and work?

Featured image credit: Newspapers in black and white by Jon S. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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