The Information Master

Rutgers–Camden history professor Jacob Soll is one of 22 artists, intellectuals, scientists, and other thinkers selected for a 2011 MacArthur Fellowship—the five-year, $500,000 award, popularly known as a “genius grant,” bestowed for extraordinary originality and dedication to creative pursuits.

You’ve had to make a case for your work over the years, and now this—the MacArthur award—makes the case for you.
They figured out what I was doing better than I had done. They looked at all my work, at everything. From what I can tell, they’ve been following me for years and years.

What was their take on your work?
They figured out that I’m writing this massive new history of where the modern state comes from and how political liberty works. And I’m doing it in these really weird ways, through histories of accounting, histories of libraries, and histories of political literature. But they’re all part of the same project. Now the project makes more sense to me and everyone else. 

Many people don’t understand the expenses involved in historical research. Can you give us a sense of that?
To finish the first chapter of my book on accounting, I need to drop in to Florence for four days. I can’t do this unless I see these documents. And then I’ll probably have to zip in to Holland soon. The list goes on and on. Reproducing stuff, getting there, paying for airport hotels in Zurich between speaking and archive stops—it’s very expensive, especially in Swiss Francs and Euros.

You’re currently working on an intellectual history of accounting and its role in the origins of the modern state. Why accounting?
I was studying Louis XIV, and I found out that Louis XIV wanted to learn accounting with his minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert. They sat there and learned accounting like merchants. Colbert made for Louis these little golden notebooks, little account books, which he kept in his pocket. The most famous king of all time, and what did he keep in his pockets? Account books.

In your book The Information Master, you describe how Colbert creates this elaborate accounting and information system. It’s not Google, but it’s got hints of it. What happens when Colbert is out of the picture?
The day that Colbert dies, the account books stop, and [Louis XIV] wipes out the system. He sees how to build the modern state, he realizes that it makes him accountable, he realizes that it can possibly expose him, and he wipes that out. Well, that sounds familiar: this is a problem that we still have. It’s right at the heart of Louis XIV, it’s right at the heart of Lehman Brothers, and it’s right at the heart of our problems right now.

So you’ve become something of an advocate of rigorous accounting practices.
The societies that did well, people knew about accounting—and they talked about it publicly.