Book: Change of State

01.19.10 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Worlds seem to collide as I sat in a Chevy Chase synagogue last night waiting to hear Israeli Talmudist Adin Steinsaltz and the ACLU’s Art Spitzer discuss Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.  Former Bush Administration Pentagon official Douglas Feith, of all people, sat a few rows back.  I was reading a 2006 book about information policy called “Change of State” by University of Wisconsin professor Sandra Braman.

“That looks really boring,” volunteered an unknown gentleman seated next to me in the packed hall.

In fact, Change of State is a deeply thought, deeply felt (if sometimes quite dense) account of information policy that takes the subject much more seriously than do many practitioners in the field.

“Information policy fundamentally shapes the conditions within which we undertake all other political, social, cultural, and economic activity,” the author writes.  “And it is information policy that is the legal domain through which the government wields the most important form of power in today’s world, informational power.”

A central claim of the book is that the very nature of government has been altered and transformed from the bureaucratic welfare state into what may be called the informational state, in which governments “deliberately, explicitly, and consistently control information creation, processing, flows, and use to exercise power.”

In developing her argument, the author covers a tremendous amount of interdisciplinary ground.  The bibliographical essays that accompany the text and the standard bibliography at the end are richly informative all by themselves.

Inevitably, there are errors and questionable judgments to be found.  Hacker Kevin Mitnick was sent to jail for computer fraud, not because he “publicly released a free and easy method for encryption on the Internet” (p. 131).  And on the list of information policy principles that are explicit or implicit in the U.S. Constitution, I would have included the Statement and Account clause (Article I, section 9, clause 7)  which requires that “the receipts and expenditures of all public money shall be published from time to time.”

“Change of State: Information, Policy, and Power” by Sandra Braman was published by MIT Press.  For more information, including the Table of Contents and a sample chapter, see here.