CityLIS Writes: Do we live in an ‘information society’? by Mariana Ou

This essay was written by CityLIS student Mariana Ou in December 2016. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission as part of our CityLIS Writes initiative.

You can follow Mariana on Twitter as @librarianchimp.

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Abstract

This brief essay analyses the use of the term ‘information society’ as a description of our contemporary way of living. Initially, it highlights that despite its popularity, the term is actually very difficult to define and highly controversial among scholars. The related ideas of ‘information age’ and ‘information revolution’ are examined. Through the notion of ‘information revolution’, it becomes clear that thinkers of the ‘information society’ can be distinguished between those who stress the newness of our condition, and those who insist on the continuities of broader socio-economic capitalist structures. Central to the argumentation of this essay is sociologist Frank Webster’s Theories of Information Society and his idea that ‘There is no novel, “post-industrial” society: the growth of service occupations and associated developments highlight the continuities of the present with the past’ (Webster 2014).

A widely used, highly controversial idea

Judging from our zeitgeist, it appears that the idea that we are living in an ‘information society’ makes sense for people in general, even though few would embark in the endeavour of trying to define precisely why and how it is so. Perhaps what is implicit in the term, in the way it is more widely used, is the pervasive nature of some digital information technologies, as well as our personal and professional dependence on computers and the internet; when talking about the ‘information society’, it is likely that people are thinking of the incredibly fast ways in which digital communication has developed in the recent decades, and in the impacts it has had in their lives and habits.

One of the main challenges to trying to think about and define an ‘information society’ lies in the fact that neither ‘information’ or ‘society’ are concepts which scholars agree on; quite the opposite: both terms have already been defined countless times in many different ways by the literature. But, even though the terms are extremely difficult to grasp in separate, most people wouldn’t find too hard to come up with an interpretation to the ‘information society’ that could go as follows: human progress and welfare now depend mostly on the management of information (Floridi 2010b); or: today not only there is much more information than ever before, but also information plays a central role in everything we do (Webster 2014). So the main idea, just phrased differently by the many scholars, social scientists and philosophers, is that information is the ‘distinguishing feature’ of our times (Webster 2014); thus, it could be put simply that ours is an ‘information society’. ­

But, as Frank Webster concluded after a thorough examination of various ‘theories of information society’ and writings by many academics, if most of us would agree with this initial assumption that information has been in the core of human activity recently, ‘beyond these observations consensus about information breaks down. While everyone agrees that there is more information and that this has increased in pertinence nowadays, thereafter all is disputation and disagreement’ (Webster 2014); there appears to be multiple and conflicting ideas about when, how, and why this situation came to be, about the impact it has had on the different spheres of societal organization; how it varies from the alleged previous ‘society’—if it actually does—; if the ‘information society’ is ultimately positive or negative when put on a balance, and even if we should be using the term at all.

Revolutions

Those who do believe we can talk about living in an ‘information society’ also assume that some kind of ‘revolution’ or ‘information revolution’ has taken place, consisting of a fast and powerful development of digital information technologies which transformed the very nature of societies; thus the emergence of an ‘information society’. But scholars present diverse views about the time and scope of these ‘revolutions’. Floridi, for example, refers to four ‘scientific revolutions’ that would have had great impact to human (Western) thought and activity: the displacement of the Earth from the centre of the universe, by Copernicus; the displacement of humanity from the centre of the biological kingdom, by Darwin; the acknowledgement of the unconscious mind, by Freud. Floridi’s ‘fourth revolution’, represented by Turing, would be the changes to ‘not only our interactions with the world but also [to] our self-understanding’, brought about by computer science and Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) since the 1950s to this day (Floridi 2010a).

When it comes to ‘information revolution’ more specifically, Rayward considers three great revolutions: the first as ‘print based’ with Gutenberg; the second as an ‘accelerating new information order’ that would have emerged from the World War II; and a third revolution which would have begun in the 1990s with ‘the online world of digitization, the Internet, and the World Wide Web and their now ubiquitous information systems and technologies that are currently transforming our lives’ (Rayward 2014). Rayward’s perspective on ‘information revolutions’ is one in many; others point out different moments in the history of ICTs and are able to provide arguments for their revolutionary aspects. But not everything is disagreement; among scholars, it is now more or less accorded that ‘information age’ corresponds to history itself, and has been occurring and developing since the first human attempts to record and document thought—or information (Headrick 2000; Floridi 2010; Rayward 2014). In this framework, ‘revolutions’ would be those periods of acceleration of production and use of information within the ‘information age’ that changed the way people dealt with information and reshaped societies. Also, the last ‘revolution’, being it in the 1950s or in the 1990s (it is indeed just a matter of argument and interpretation), would correspond to an irreversible transition into digital and into the expanding use of programming and computers in daily life. It is a ‘revolution’ that would have changed society in a more structural and essential manner, positioning information in the heart of human activity: so we would have successfully emerged as an ‘information society’.

Historically, an implication of the idea of ‘revolution’ is a fundamental break with previous conditions. When we consider to be living in an ‘information society’ established from an ‘information revolution’, then, we are counting with the fact that society organized itself around something else which, through a revolutionary process, was substituted by information. The ‘information revolution’ and the ‘information society’ both imply a contrasting past and an essentially new contemporary condition. This chain of thought is embraced by those who take an occupation and economy-based approach to look at ‘information society’, most prominently Daniel Bell, but also Yoneji Masuda and many other like-minded thinkers. For them, the ‘information society’ is a result of the ‘information revolution’ of digital information technologies, much like the previous ‘industrial society’ is the fruit of the ‘industrial revolution’; the ‘information society’ is then interpreted and analysed ‘as post-industrial society’.

Bell’s analytical construct of an ‘information society as post-industrial society’ relies on a view of economic development that has well defined phases: first, agricultural-based activities primarily dependent on the land; then, an industrial-based economy built upon machine production; and third, a ‘post-industrial society’, where not industry but service plays the central role in economy, with information as ‘the material work for the majority’ (Webster 2014); being the most prevalent form of work, in Bell’s view, the service sector and the handling of information could be considered the defining feature of a society. With the predominance of service employment, society gets wealthier, thus generating new needs for new services; this ‘information society’ is seen as a positive achievement of the industrial society, with a decline in manual work and increase in qualified jobs. The new ‘information society/post-industrial society’ breaks with the past through crucial changes in the social structure.

Change or continuity?

Bell has lots of company when it comes to defending the idea of an ‘information society’; his is an approach that emphasises the economic and occupational spheres of a society, but others define the novelties of an ‘information society’ using different criteria: technological, spatial, cultural, political, theoretical (Webster 2014; Bawden & Robinson 2012). Common among these various thinkers’ perspectives that accept the notion of ‘information society’ is the newness aspect: the emergence of a new kind of society, presenting new questions and a new logic of societal organisation. As an example, Floridi is one contemporary thinker who does believe in the novelty of our ‘information society’: the information revolution, including its associated scientific and philosophical developments, would have begun to provide a radically original world view—and a new way of understanding human nature and the place of humans in the world would raise a number of new ethical questions (Floridi 2010b).

It is not difficult to regard this to be true. It is undeniable that through the last decades an exponential amount of information is being produced, processed and used in increasingly flexible and various ways, and that digital information technologies are now part of our everyday lives by means unimaginable not too many years ago. The Internet and the World Wide Web have seen an extraordinary development; computers have indeed become an essential tool of work for many; news and entertainment can be accessed and consumed in real time through a variety of devices. Also, sometimes we do not even feel the same, when we think of ourselves of a decade ago: ‘pathologies’ of information, such as ‘information overload’ and ‘information anxiety’, even though recognizable at previous times, were ‘given a fresh “bite” by recent developments in technology’ and are commonly attributed to the recent explosion of information and digital technologies (Bawden & Robinson 2009).

Despite these negative psychological issues that arise from our relationship with information, the ‘information society’ is usually described as a good thing; it is, for its novelty and break with the industrial, manual past, associated with notions of positivity, inevitability, prosperity, development. The economist H-J Chang is among those who dispute both the idea of ‘novelty’ and of an ‘post-industrial society’, which defenders and adopters of the ‘information society’ often describe and argument in favour. Using the provocative affirmation that ‘the washing machine has changed the world more than the internet has’, Chang reminds us that we tend to perceive the last change as the most revolutionary, even though a historical, more careful analysis of facts often clashes with that impression. When compared in relative terms, the ‘information revolution’ appears to be not as ‘revolutionary’ to our society as wired telegraphy was in the late nineteenth century; household appliances, electricity and piped water and gas have changed radically the place of women in society and in the workplace—consequently changing how men lived as well. Chang also argues that it has been very difficult to evaluate with studies the impact of the internet to the actual production process, despite the general feeling that it makes us more productive (Chang 2011).

Chang also argues that the idea of a ‘post-industrial society’ is a myth on the grounds that industry has not become unimportant or less important than the ‘service sector’, as the diminishing of the share of industry in total output is a result of the decrease of prices of manufactured goods, which in turn is due to growth in productivity. Numbers and statistics, in this case, distort the role of industry in contemporary society, which is actually still paramount. Furthermore, in his view, de-industrialization should not be taken as a positive thing per se, as it affects negatively the balance of payments of a nation and services are a much poorer engine of growth; these wrong impressions about a superior ‘post-industrial society’ would have made governments make misguided and inappropriate decisions for countries’ economies and policies in the last decades (Chang 2011).

Closer to the social sciences is Herbert Schiller, a scholar whose work Webster analyses thoroughly in his Theories of the Information Society. Schiller has written his most important studies on the 1970s and 1980s, influencing thought on culture and media ever since. Both Chang and Schiller can be considered to emphasise the continuities of the capitalist framework by which societies still organise themselves, despite the ‘information boom’ of recent decades. Schiller focuses his examination on capitalism’s dependency on information and its efforts and interests in developing always new information technologies. According to Webster, Schiller’s thought presents three main features: the insistence on looking behind information, that is, at owners and sources of revenue and organisation’s priorities; the identification of information technologies and the organisations behind them within a broader social and economic context; and a focus on history and historical trends. Arguing that terms like ‘class’, ‘commodification’ and ‘profit’ still explain crucial phenomena, he provides a contrasting theory to the ideas of ‘post-capitalism’ so popular at the times of his writing, and information is at the core of his interpretations (Webster 2014).

I shall give further details of Schiller’s thought, as I am convinced, from Webster’s description and explanation, that his account on information and the market system is the most compelling and coherent way to understand the idea of an ‘information society’—and Webster made clear in his book that he holds this same opinion, too. To Schiller, ‘contrary to the notion that capitalism has been transcended, long prevailing imperatives of a market economy remain as determining as ever in the transformations occurring in the technological and informational spheres’ (Schiller 1981); capitalism becomes dependent on the development of information technologies, and information technologies in turn provide the ability to produce and consume information that reproduces capitalism’s imperatives. This idea implies that market forces focused on making a profit are the actual authority in deciding what the new ICTs will be—and that they will be developed for private, corporate ends. Schiller insists in the notion of ‘commodification of information’, which indicates that information is essentially a product for buying and selling, and is made available according to its saleability; thus, class would determine access to information, which would be increasingly dictated by ability to pay (Webster 2014). Contrary to the idea that an ‘information society’ is neutral, Schiller identifies that information has authors, agents, interests and objectives acting throughout its whole life cycle, and that it is central to the functioning of advanced capitalism. A more recent interpretation of the ‘information society’ as the “face” of the market system is Robert Hassan’s The Information Society. In a description that echoes many of Schiller’s ideas, Hassan talks about a ‘conjunction of neoliberal globalization and the revolution in the development and application of computer-based technologies …[These] are two sides of the same coin, and have developed rapidly to become indispensable to each other. There would have been no neoliberal globalization without the amazing transformation in our relationship with computer technologies—and the ubiquity of computers and our dependency upon them would be at a relatively low level today without the massive ideological boost given by the rise of neoliberal economics’ (Hassan 2008).

Finally, in the realm of ethics, the debate on continuity and change also resonates. Philosopher Walter Maner, who in the 1970s created the term ‘computer ethics’ to refer to this new field of applied ethics he and others were helping shape, believes that, even though the use of computer technologies deepened and transformed many existing ethical problems, ICTs also provide genuinely new ethical issues that demand a new framework of philosophical thought. His colleague Deborah Johnson, on the other hand, agreed that some ethical problems were aggravated by digital technologies, but was not convinced that completely new issues could arise; instead, she saw only new versions of known problems, which did not need new ethical theories like a ‘computer ethics’, for example, but could rely on existing philosophical traditions (Bynum 2010). This debate initiated by Maner and Johnson is still developing, and is called the ‘uniqueness debate’: is the current condition of our society in relation to digital technologies unique, new, or is it simply our known society in new clothes? Have we completely broken up with the past because of information, and need new ways of thinking about ourselves?

Conclusion

After considering some uses of the term ‘information society’ and the ways it has been applied and defined by thinkers throughout the last decades, I conclude that the term should be avoided by those who recognise the complexities of the human relationship with digital technologies, and understand that the idea of an ‘information society’ is not a simple truth of our condition, but a highly controversial concept which implies a number of subsequent beliefs about our society, economy and culture. Even though it is absolutely indisputable that we have been living an explosion of information technologies and that information is increasingly important in our daily lives, the term ‘information society’ indicates an essential newness to our condition that is highly problematic. Interpretations such as Herbert Schiller’s, which highlight the continuities in our broad socio-economic organisation and in the successful capitalist structure, seem more reasonable and compelling when it comes to understanding the place of digital technologies in our society. Perhaps more conscientious terms to refer to the recent events in information technologies would be ‘digital transition’ (Bawden & Robinson 2009), or ‘information explosion’: terms that give a sense of what has been happening in the realm of ICTs without implying additional ideas about how structural these transformations are to our society—something that maybe only further technological developments and a wider historical distance might answer.

 

References

Bawden, D. & Robinson, L. 2009. The dark side of information: overload, anxiety and other paradoxes and pathologies. Journal of Information Science, 35(2), pp. 180-191. doi: 10.1177/0165551508095781

Bawden, D. & Robinson, L. 2012, Introduction to information science, Facet, London.

Bell, D. 1974, The coming of post-industrial society, Heinemann, Portsmouth.

Bynum, T.W. 2010, ‘The historical roots of information and computer ethics’, in Floridi, L. (ed.) The Cambridge Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 20–38.

Chang, H. 2011, 23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism, Penguin, London.

Feather, J. 2013, The information society: a study of continuity and change, 6th edn, Facet, London.

Floridi, L. 2010a, Information: a very short introduction, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Floridi, L. 2010b, ‘Ethics after the Information Revolution’, in Floridi, L. (ed.) The Cambridge Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 3–19.

Hassan, R. 2008, The information society, Polity, Cambridge.

Headrick, D.R. 2000, When information came of age: technologies of knowledge in the age of reason and revolution, 1700-1850, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Masuda, Y. 1980, The information society: as post-industrial society, World Future Society.

Rayward, W.B. 2014, “Information Revolutions, the Information Society, and the Future of the History of Information Science”, Library Trends, vol. 62, no. 3, pp. 681-713.

Schiller, H. 1981, Who knows: information in the age of the Fortune 500, ABLEX Pub. Corp, Norwood, N.J.

Webster, F. 2014, Theories of the information society, 4th edn, Routledge, London.

About James

#citylis Library Science Alumni and Blog Editor. Also an Information Assistant (Acquisitions and Inter-Library Loans) in the Library at City, University of London.
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