1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Conference News: Understanding “Informational Developments”: A Reflection on Key Research Issues. Report from the UNRISD Workshop, 26–27 September 2003, Geneva

15 Nov 2005

On the eve of the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) opening in Tunis, UNRISD is preparing to publish a report on its workshop, Understanding “Informational Developments”: A Reflection on Key Research Issues. Participants in this workshop discussed how research findings and evidence were being used in the run-up to the summit, as well as in other global information and communication technology and development policy forums.

The rationale for the workshop was based on the need to assess whether “informational developments” are indeed provoking fundamental changes in economic and social relationships. Whether or not this is the case, the “information society” discourse has simultaneously acquired an importance in and of itself. The role of the information society as a serious factor in development policy making (witness the G8, the world summit and the United Nations ICT Task Force) has major practical implications for the planning, implementation and budgeting of development assistance. Workshop participants critically examined this situation, as well as the potential for theory and empirical research to illuminate the changes taking place and the consequent choices facing development actors.

The focus on how the intellectual agenda should serve development needs is vital, but there are a number of complicating factors. The “information society” is a political arena. Changing social relations of production and reproduction are always reflected in politics. One of the arenas for such politics is in the shaping of how such changes are studied, debated and understood - that is, in the struggle for control of discourse. The “information society” is a contested arena. Some argue that it does not exist either because they do not perceive information-related change as significant, or because they see the information society as an erroneous way of conceptualizing or describing what is taking place. Others make extravagant claims about the scale, pace and opportunities of change, claims which can have political or commercial overtones. And the “information society” is a confusing arena: terms like “ICT revolution” (that is, the assumption of a technology-driven process), “knowledge economy” and “network society” are often used with little reference to their origin or to potentially significant differences between them.

One notion is common to all approaches to this subject area: those for or against a revolution thesis, those who see change as driven by technology and others who see social or economic drivers, those who perceive common worldwide trends and others focused on local particularities. All agree that information is being handled and, at least sometimes, used in new ways. Labelling such new ways of handling and using information (which clearly include its communication, reception, response, adaptation and re-use) “informational developments” identifies the core phenomenon, the nature and impact of which may be studied and discussed. Informational developments are shaped by and in turn shape sociopolitical, economic, cultural and technological processes.

By beginning to study informational developments, their varying forms in different contexts and how they lead to transformation, and to recognize what we do not know about them, workshop participants outlined the shape of current discourse and how intellectual work may contribute to the identification and choice of development options in this field. The workshop report is forthcoming from UNRISD.

Conference News is available free of charge from UNRISD.