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29 December 2000Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Information society: frequently un-asked questions
In the first in his series demystifying the 'information society', Phil Mullan gets down to the basics: What? Why? When?

by Phil Mullan

If you believe what you see on your screen, we are living in revolutionary times. It's a revolution unleashed by developments in technology and, in particular, Information Technology (IT).

But for all their talk of a 'knowledge economy', an 'Information Society', a 'network society', or a 'New Economy', theorists of the IT revolution persistently avoid the key questions of what? why? and when?

What is an 'Information Society', assuming that it means more than the mere existence of technologies which facilitate the handling of information? What is it that distinguishes an 'information' from a 'non-information' society? There is no agreed answer, among either the popular or the more theoretical writers. In this respect the notion of the 'Network Society', popularised by Manuel Castells, is a particularly apposite version of the new era idea (1). The ambiguity of what the 'network' refers to - a network of computers, or to the flow of information, or to new forms of working and social relationships - is appropriate for a perspective that gains more popularity the more confused and meaningless it is.

In Theories of Information Society Frank Webster describes five, sometimes overlapping, analytical definitions of the 'Information Society': technological, economic, occupational, spatial and cultural. He concludes persuasively that 'though they appear at first glance robust, [they] are in truth vague and imprecise, incapable on their own of establishing whether or not an "information society" has arrived or will arrive some time in the future' (2). The volume of gee-whiz writing on the revolutionary impact of IT has become a staple in respected business and current affairs periodicals. But it does not compensate for the lack of a precise explanation of what is really new about today.

The idea that it represents a paradigm shift fuses two fetishisms: 'technology' and 'information'
Why does the greater ability to process, store and transfer information translate into a qualitatively different society? Why does this represent a new era worthy of the label 'information age'? Since the first industrial revolution 250 years ago there have been many technological breakthroughs in the means of production, of power, of communications and of transportation. Yet only in the past 20 to 30 years has the notion arisen that society is going beyond the industrial age into a post-industrial, information age. Why is information technology privileged over these earlier technological advances?

Finally, when did this information age supposedly begin? The talk began three decades ago with Daniel Bell's 1973 book The Coming of Post-Industrial Society being one of the first significant texts emphasising an enhanced role for information (3). But is there an accepted historical beginning to this transition? Did it start with the development of computers in the 1940s, or with satellite communication in the 1950s, the internet in the 1960s, the semi-conductor in the 1970s, the personal computer in the 1980s, or the web in the 1990s? There is no agreed periodisation.Yet Tom Standage has convincingly characterised the nineteenth-century telegraph as the Victorian internet in terms of the significant impact it had on the ability to communicate information (4). Surely the dawn of the information age could go back and back into history?

The indeterminate answers to these elementary questions about the information revolution are in stark contrast to the strength of conviction that IT determines the modern world. Wherever people are coming from, very few question the assumption that, as Christopher Evans wrote in 1979, the computer technology revolution will 'have an overwhelming and comprehensive impact, affecting every human being on Earth in every aspect of his or her life' (5). And that was written over a decade before the web was even a twinkle in the eye of its founder Tim Berners-Lee. Today, who dares question the assumption that the internet will change all our lives?

The most interesting 'why' in the IT debate is why did society at the end of the second millennium begin to imbue information technology with such significance? It seems that, just as information technology is a real fusion of two existing technologies, computing and communications, so the idea that IT represents a paradigm shift is the fusion of two fetishisms: 'technology' and 'information'.

What is the non-information sector? Hair-dressing? Car production? Oil exploration?
Technological determinism is not a recent idea. There is nothing new about the idea that technology can change the world; and technological progress has often been granted dramatic consequences. But in the past, the notion that technology alone could make an impact upon society was more contested, often charged with being both simplistic and misleading. People, not just the product of people, make the world go around. To assert that a technical, asocial, phenomenon defines the social world turns reality upside down.

Of course, particular technologies make specific social changes possible. Equally, though, social factors influence the types of technology developed and the pace of development. The steam engine made industrialisation possible, but without the earlier primitive accumulation of capital by people this new source of power could not have been exploited. At one time, it would have seemed obvious that the social could never be reduced merely to the technological. Yet that is becoming the convention today. It has become commonplace to view the next emerging technology or application as a significant social transformer. Email is supposed to mean we will work from home and on the move and hasten the death of the office. E-tailing will change the way we shop and kill the high street. Mobile internet will take over from desktop access, so that Europe will leapfrog the US in the internet economy.

Yet the particular sort of technology being empowered today - 'information' technology - holds no inherent clue as to why it entrances so many of us: not least because 'information' is such a difficult concept to nail down. 'Information' is a remarkably unscientific category to represent an era. While earlier heralded technological definers - the steam age, or the atomic age - were just as one-sided for explaining social change, at least it was clear exactly what technological innovation was being elevated: the steam engine and nuclear power respectively.

'Information', by contrast, is a most heterogeneous term. What is information? While there exists a conventional, commonsense hierarchy of information ranging from data (usually raw) to information (processed data) to knowledge (synthesised information), even these are not precise distinctions. The dividing lines are blurry and partly subjective. Where a particular piece of information represents in this scale depends not just on its objective content but also on how the viewer of the information approaches it. For example, the same time-chart of rates of return on capital invested could be merely data to one observer, represent information to another who was studying economic trends, and, for a third person, could inspire and inform the knowledge of a theory of the business cycle. Moreover, the centrality of information is as old as industrial society itself. Assumptions of a distinction between industrial and information societies are meaningless and misleading. The problem is not, as some critics argue, a quantitative one, where the difficulty is agreeing how big the information sector should be to qualify the economy as an 'information economy' - 20 percent, 30 percent, 50 percent? The real problem is the impossibility of distinguishing an 'information sector' from the 'industrial' or 'non-information sector'.

We always were 'knowledge workers'
What is unequivocally part of the non-information sector? Hairdressing? Car production? Oil exploration? All of these are impossible without the input of information. And how helpful is a category which brings together scientists with brokers with typists? Lumping together a variety of occupations does not create the homogeneity which one might think necessary for a phenomenon which is capable of revolutionising the whole of life. On the contrary, as Ian Miles observes, 'the categories of work subsumed under the different headings are often extremely heterogeneous' (6).

Attempts to separate the 'information sector' from the 'production sector' are even more absurd. Information is a part of every production process, service and product. Is a book a part of the information or production sector? It is an output of a production process (typesetting, printing and binding), but it is primarily a carrier of information. What about a television? Information or production? Or a mobile phone mast? The same irrationality applies to trying to distinguish information services from productive services. A telecoms worker, for example, is both productive in providing a vital service and is also integral to the handling of information. All these attempted separations and counterpositions are forced and end up mystifying the concept of information.

It is wrong to assert, as Tom Bentley and Kimberley Seltzer do, that 'for the first time in history, knowledge is the primary source of economic productivity' (7). When was knowledge not integral to economic development? What jobs or tasks today, or in the past, do not require knowledge? Even the most menial and manual labour requires a level of awareness to perform, even if the jobs are repetitive and boring. The conventional counterposition of brain to brawn, of thinking to doing, is in this context misleadingly simplistic. It is not, as Charlie Leadbeater claims in Living on Thin Air, that 'we are all knowledge workers now', but that 'we always were knowledge workers' (8).

With the IT theorists so confused, it has come down to the likes of Andy Grove, chairman of Intel, to inject some reality into the discussion. 'This business about speed has its limits', he told Business Week magazine. 'Brains don't speed up. You can reach people around the clock, but they won't think any better or any faster just because you have reached them faster.' (9)

Phil Mullan is the author of The Imaginary Time Bomb: Why an Ageing Population Is Not a Social Problem, IB Tauris, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

This is the first in his series demystifying the 'information society'.

Read on:

New Economy: what's new? by Phil Mullan

Don't Blow IT by Sandy Starr

spiked-issue: Don't blow IT

(1) The Rise of the Network Society, Manuel Castells, Blackwell, 2000. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(2) Theories of Information Society, Frank Webster, Routledge, 1995. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(3) The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting, Daniel Bell, Basic Books, 1973. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(4) The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage, Phoenix Press, 1999. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(5) The Mighty Micro: The Impact of the Computer Revolution, Christopher Evans, Gollancz, 1979. Buy this book from Amazon (USA)

(6) 'Measuring the future: statistics and the information age', Ian Miles, in Futures, 23 November 1991

(7) The Creative Age: Knowledge and Skills for the New Economy, Tom Bentley and Kimberley Seltzer, Demos, 1999

(8) Living on Thin Air, Charles Leadbeater, Penguin 2000. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

(9) Interview in Business Week, 28 August 2000

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