The designation “information society” presupposes that information plays a defining role in the way we live today. For many commentators it is because information is more pervasive than hitherto that it is appropriate to characterize the present as self-evidently an information society. There is obviously more media output, more education available, more information and communications technologies about, more information occupations than before. Accordingly, it is obvious that we live in an information society. Such thinking is tautologous.
Increasing Quantity Of Information
It cannot be doubted that there is a great deal more information than ever before. But so too is there an enormously increased amount of food available, yet we do not designate ours as the “food society.” In terms of expenditure, families now spend a small proportion of their incomes on food, whereas 50 years ago it was the major item of expenditure after rent. Food is cheaper than ever, much more plentiful, and there is a hugely increased range of foods available. Indubitably, food is essential to how we live, and it is cheap and available in ways that even our recent predecessors could scarcely dream about. Indeed, excess of food is now a major health hazard – obesity and associated morbidities such as heart disease and diabetes are well known to be tied to abuse of food. Yet no one seems to want to define our times as the “food society.”
This undeniably serious issue allows one to propose that, just because there is more of something, this does not mean that one should conclude that, by virtue of this increase, the phenomenon itself comes to define the society. Quantitative increases do not necessarily indicate the qualitative change that is intended in designating a distinctly new type of society. In fact, it is possible to argue plausibly that relatively small quantitative changes can lead to major transformations such as the arrival of an information society. For instance, it might be mooted that expert knowledge has become central to the functioning of the modern world, that only a small minority of such experts is required to maintain the system though they command axes of change, while the vast majority of people are surplus to requirements. This is a theme of many scientifically educated authors such as Aldous Huxley, H. G. Wells and Isaac Asimov, as well as of theorists such as J. K. Galbraith (1972), who identified the emergence of an advanced society where a “technocracy” exercises power by virtue of its command of knowledge.
We might get to a similar point by observing that information refers to the record or communication of an event, subject or fact. This neutral meaning has almost, but not quite, superseded an older notion of information, which involves the formation of mind or character, as in the novitiate becoming instructed in information necessary for entry into the professions such as the law or the clergy. This sense of information connotes a superior condition, as in someone being informed. Between the widespread use of the word “information” as a noun, and the less common but still recognizable use of the term “informed” as an adjective, is the gulf between quantitative and qualitative measurements. It is possible to designate a society as having vastly increased information, but for the people in that society to be poorly informed. Neil Postman (1931–2003), argued this in his critique of television, Amusing ourselves to death (1985). The proposition that we are informationally saturated but uninformed is often advanced. For instance, in 2003 a survey for Whitaker’s almanack found that 47 percent of the people in Great Britain could not identify the Deputy Prime Minister, while the majority could name several characters from the TV soap EastEnders (Ezard 2003). Similarly, the United States, informationally the most generously endowed nation, has enormous numbers of citizens incapable of locating France or Italy on a map of the world while being knowledgeable about Homer Simpson’s escapades. It is a moot point whether these societies have been “dumbed down” by modern media, but one may be assured that many of their citizens lack the quality of being informed about major spheres of life while they are immersed in information about personalities, celebrities, and sports fixtures.
Definitions Of The Information Society
Almost all commentators adopt a quantitative measure when considering the phenomenon of the information society. They move on from that to the assertion that we have entered a new type of society because of the expansion of information in its various guises. This implies that a qualitative change should follow from the quantitative increase in information, an argument that does not necessarily follow.
Far and away the most common form of definition of an information society is the one that takes technologies as the marker of informational increase. What this means precisely changes over time, but there can be no doubt that, since the mid-1990s, it has been information and communications technologies (ICTs), and the Internet especially, that are taken to identify the coming of the information society. Other observers might add to this digitalization of television and other new media such as the iPod and mobile telephone. Technology does appear to be a robust measure of the information society, not least because it is obvious that technological innovations are occurring at a rapid rate and their diffusion is remarkable. Indeed, their presence is so palpable that many observers do not bother to argue that ICTs might bring into being an information society. Rather, their analyses presume that this is so, that technological change announces the new epoch.
There are several difficulties with this. One is the reminder that prior to the Internet others announced an information society on the basis of rather different technologies. In the early 1980s the defining technologies were microelectronic devices and the personal computer. Later, when access to the Internet set wireless and wired methods against one another, a key concern came to be technologies of communication. The question arises, which technologies ought we to privilege in our accounts? A second problem is the lack of causal analysis of the actual relation between technology and the coming of the information society. We need to know clearly how, if at all, technologies have ushered in the information society. A third problem is the challenge of technological determinism that is evident in such accounts. A technology is introduced and it then impacts on society to change things radically. This approach is routinely criticized by social scientists for its linear causal logic (it can be plausibly suggested that social factors influence technological development, e.g., military imperatives and market factors) and its presumption that technology impacts on society as an extra-social force (Dickson 1974; Webster & Erickson 2004).
We might also see problems with a technological conception of the information society by considering the economic argument. This suggests that an information society arrives when the significance of information in an economic sense becomes of major consequence. Analysts would calculate the economic value of information businesses such as education, entertainment, and publishing and compare them over time. The identification of the value of information here will include businesses that are involved in the information technology realm, but the economic measurement is not a technological one (Porat 1977) but rather a measure of the business of information. It requires an estimation of the proportion of gross domestic production that goes toward information. Thus, as steel and engineering decline in comparison to, say, education and the City of London’s activities in finance, banking, and insurance, then so there develops a case for suggesting that an information society is being brought into being as the relative value of the latter increases. This is different from a technological measure, but prima facie equally legitimate.
A third definition is the occupational one. This suggests that as jobs in information increase while those in industry and agriculture decline, then so emerges an information society because it is in the information domain that most people find work. This appeals to sociologists, who point to the radical changes in occupations. It was pioneered by one of the earliest conceivers of the information society, Daniel Bell (1919 –), in his theory of postindustrialism. Over recent decades we have seen a transition from male-dominated manual occupations to feminized and information-saturated occupations. The expansion of white-collar occupations and the diminishment of manual labor (though by no means its disappearance) means that we are witnessing the dominance of jobs that function with information as their key resource (Bell 1973). In this sense we have an information society because information work predominates. This theorization, presented somewhat conservatively by Daniel Bell, was given a left-wing slant by Alain Touraine (1971). It remains a popular conception, where emphasis is now placed on phenomena such as the “creative industries” (media, design, the arts) and “weightless” occupations such as found in finance, law, and business consultancy (Coyne 1997).
This is neither a technological nor an economic measure of information. Most white-collar workers do use computer terminals, but this is by no means the most important element of their work, since relations with clients and customers and the knowledge developed by extensive education will probably be more consequential. Moreover, in the most important white-collar occupations, the upper professionals, it is likely that practitioners will have subordinates who undertake the “merely technical” aspects of their work. It should also be noted that information occupation growth cannot be regarded as synonymous with increases in the economic import of information since some domains are information-occupation-intensive yet economically of limited significance (e.g., counseling services, teaching) while others are economically important yet involve relatively few information jobs (e.g., foreign exchange dealing). This occupational index of the emergence of the information society operates with a quantitative definition: as information occupations grow in number, so does there emerge a new society, the information society.
A fourth definition focuses on networks to emphasize the flows of information between people and places. This comes close to a technological measure since an ICT infrastructure is essential for the operation of networks, but much more is needed (e.g., competencies on the network and soft skills such as problem solving and communicative abilities). A core notion here is that networks enable the transformation of time and space, allow the acceleration of activities, and mean that processes of globalization are encouraged. It is an approach closely associated with the work of Manuel Castells, whose trilogy The information age (1996 –1998) detailed the heightened significance of networks and ways in which they transform business, politics, and culture. This is also a quantitative measure, one that insists that the growth of networks signals the coming of the information age. It too is subject to sharp criticism (Garnham 1998).
A final definition involves the increase in culture, broadly conceived. This centers on the massive increase in symbols, from fashion to media, to emphasize that we inhabit nowadays a world in which we are saturated in signs – from the architecture of cities to the decoration of the body, from round-the-clock television to always-on broadband Internet services. It is an approach to the information society that has appeal especially to postmodern adherents, who may envisage a bounty of signs accompanied by a collapse of meaning precisely because they are ubiquitous, variable, and fast changing (Poster 1990). Living in a global city such as London, one recognizes this easily: signs everywhere, but little sense of coherence or comprehension. We recognize too that this is a quantitative measure, even if the measure is never actually made. It is simply asserted that the expansion of culture signals that we now inhabit a new world. To repeat: quite why this should be so is not demonstrated.
Reviewing these varying definitions of the information society, what becomes clear is that they are either underdeveloped or imprecise or both. Whether it is a technological, economic, occupational, spatial, or cultural conception, we are left with highly problematical notions of what constitutes, and how to distinguish, an information society, in spite of the fact that large numbers of commentators offer the concept as a means of understanding the world today.
It is important that we remain aware of these difficulties of definition. Though as a heuristic device the term “information society” has some value in helping us to explore features of the contemporary world, it is far too inexact to be acceptable as a definitive term. For this reason, though one may readily acknowledge that information plays a critical role in the present age, one has to remain suspicious as regards information society scenarios and maintain skepticism toward the view that information has become the chief distinguishing feature of our times. The term “information society” may have its uses as a metaphor, insofar as it helps us to think more intensively about the salient features of our times, but we ought not to succumb too readily to the belief that information is the defining feature of the world today.
- Bell, D. (1973). The coming of post-industrial society: A venture in social forecasting. Harmondsworth: Peregrine.
- Coyne, D. (1997). The weightless economy. Oxford: Capstone.
- Castells, M. (1996 –1998). The information age: Economy, society and culture, 3 vols. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Dickson, D. (1974). Alternative technology and the politics of technical change. London: Fontana.
- Ezard, J. (2003). Nation of TV slackers dimly aware ignorance is not bliss. Guardian, November 3, p. 11.
- Galbraith, J. K. (1972). The new industrial state, 2nd edn. London: Deutsch.
- Garnham, N. (1998). Information society theory as ideology. Loisir et Société, 21(1), 97–120.
- Gates, B. (1995). The road ahead. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
- Negroponte, N. (1995). Being digital. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
- Porat, M. U. (1977). The information economy. Office of Telecommunications special publication 77–12 (1 and 2). Washington, DC: US Department of Commerce.
- Poster, M. (1990). The mode of information: Poststructuralism and social context. Cambridge: Polity.
- Postman, N. (1985). Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business. New York: Penguin.
- Touraine, A. (1971). The post-industrial society: Tomorrow’s social history – classes, conflicts and culture in the programmed society. New York: Wildwood House.
- Webster, F. (ed.) (2004). The information society reader. London: Routledge.
- Webster, F. (2006). Theories of the information society, 3rd edn. London: Routledge.
- Webster, F., & Erickson, M. (2004). Technology and social problems. In G. Ritzer (ed.), Handbook of social problems. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 416 – 432.