SIGCIS 2012 Workshop, Traditional Papers I: Identities of Science

Name: Jason Gallo
Institutional Affiliation: Science and Technology Policy Institute
E-mail address:
Paper Type: Traditional 
Paper Title: Information Overload: The National Science Foundation’s Support for Information Science during the Cold War (1950-70)
Paper Abstract: This paper situates the U.S. National Science Foundation’s (NSF) support for information science and machine translation in the context of an “information race” between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. during the Cold War. This race provided the superpowers an additional set of quantifiable benchmarks as measure of comparison, with information overload as this competition’s primary threat. The information race was primarily concerned with the ability to control the information being produced. While the efficient management of domestic information was an important component of emerging U.S. information policy, access to, and the processing of, foreign information, particularly Soviet high energy physics research, was a significant driver of U.S. information research.

The backdrop of the Soviet atomic “threat,” Cold War scientific competition, the volume of foreign research being produced, and the perception that U.S. resources were inadequate to the task of translating and disseminating foreign research led to fear in several quarters of the U.S. government (notably in the Department of Defense) that the nation was facing the threat of “information overload.” This fear led to the establishment of programs at multiple agencies, including the NSF, to fund information science and machine translation research and provided justification for the increasing use of the computer for information processing. Early NSF information science and machine translation efforts display an interesting triangulation of science, technology, and information focused on technological development. Information and information practices were recognized as critical links between the practice of fundamental, basic science and the development of advanced information and computational technologies. Not only do they act as conduits of scientific knowledge they act as accelerants to the process of scientific research and technological development.

This paper uses primary sources to examine the NSF’s funding of information and translation research between its inception in 1950 and 1970, its organizational responses to pressure to address information overload, and its contribution to developing an early community of information scientists. This paper situates the NSF’s efforts in the existing literature on Cold War science as well as the general literature on the history of information science. The unique contribution of this paper is to examine the NSF’s contribution of the development of a field through the prism of Cold War science policy and theories of information management as a technology of control.