1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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The (Dis)information Society?

12 Jul 2004

The dream of subsuming the complex realities of human societies under one single concept is obviously quite tempting. The “information society” fits well within this dream. It was initially propelled by the extraordinary evocative power of Claude Shannon’s mathematical formalization of information. And with Norbert Wiener’s sweeping and exciting extrapolations, information began to appear as one of the fundamental constituents of the universe, a bit like space-time and matter. Soon enough, information was marshalled to revisit a number of scientific fields in interesting ways: for example, the conceptualization of DNA as a message carrier based on a four-character alphabet.

The rapidly growing importance of information as a concept, however, could not have spawned an information society all by itself; at best, it could only have prepared the ground for it and done so in an unintended manner. But its very importance and presence made it appear as a kind of juicy discursive morsel that was too good to be ignored. Various sectors of industry and commerce, not to speak of governments, began to broadcast new phrases based on “information”, such as “information society” and “information age”. These phrases appeared to have captured something essentially human. It looked as if everything could be both dematerialized and neatly subsumed under a prior, more encompassing category: information. With enough information, it seemed, one could “know” and, therefore, solve any problem, material or spiritual.

The year 1980 seems a good date to mark the emergence of “information society” as a phrase. That year in Tokyo, Yoneji Masuda equated it with the post-industrial society; and in the United States, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) aired a documentary titled The Information Society. The concept of the post-industrial society had been popularized in the 1970s by sociologists such as Theodore Roszak and Daniel Bell, but the term information society conveyed an intuitive meaning that post-industrial society did not: what came after the industrial society remained unclear in the popular mind; information society served to name it.

The 1980s saw (or missed) the Internet discreetly making its way to success. More visibly, various videotext devices were catching the attention of the media: Prestel (United Kingdom), BTX (Germany), Alex (Canada) and Minitel (France). Only Minitel succeeded (somewhat) and survived, but they all helped raise to new heights the information society hype: all that humanity needed to overcome just about any social or psychological difficulty were better technologies—“information and communication technologies” (ICTs), as they came to be known.

The argument is foolish, to be sure. The very juxtaposition of information and communication in this way creates a conceptual fuzziness that is generally treated with benign neglect; at the same time, it is not without some subtlety. Human beings need to communicate with each other to solve many problems, and technologies can help facilitate human interaction; they can also facilitate access to information. However, this does not justify the claim that human beings cannot interact without ICTs—a caveat that marketeers conveniently overlooked to peddle their wares, both soft and hard.

An advertisement on CNN captures the sleight of hand rather nicely. In it, a father—obviously an important businessman who travels a lot—promises his little girl that he will call her while he is away. When he does, his daughter reacts with a rapturous “Daddy!” Sanctimonious, he responds, “A promise is a promise.” The lesson, obviously, is that family happiness is the result of ICTs—not that a happy family comes first, and may elect to use such technologies to overcome temporary separation.

Here is another example: Scholarly publishing has been completely transformed by the advent of computers and networks. Libraries used to purchase printed publications (academic journals, for example), store them and provide a local open-access space for their patrons. Nowadays, however, libraries negotiate licences that allow electronic access to banks of articles, instead of owning the printed materials. As a result, libraries must limit access to “legitimate” patrons, such as members of a university community, and must deny access to others, such as local citizens, despite the fact that access licenses are often bought with public money. Any Martian observer would consider this evolution a loss, but scholarly and commercial publishers have found a way to justify it: technological progress improves desktop access for the scholars (which is true, hence the subtlety of the situation), but, they argue, this technological novelty is costly and requires new forms of intellectual property protection. Because they frame their argument in terms of technological imperatives (presented as opportunities), and not in terms of social fabric, they find themselves effectively speaking the information society language. Technological progress is substituted for social improvement. In other words, the “ease of access” hides the fact that the researcher gradually begins to behave like a privileged consumer, while the rest of the population is effectively disenfranchised. The language of technological progress is conflated with human progress and, in this fashion, it becomes a convenient marketing tool for ICTs.

How should one react to this? Confronting the information society head-on is not a good solution: as any successful ideology, it includes positive elements—in our examples, they are the “Daddy” and “desktop convenience” effects. Indeed, ICTs can harbour positive results; however, they should be subservient to real human needs and to real human communication, rather than seen as a miracle solution to communication difficulties. Mobile telephones are not notable for their ability to decrease divorce rates, for example.

The very human ability to communicate comes first, and it testifies to the importance of the social environment for all of us: solitary confinement can make someone go mad or worse. Communication leads to the ability to do more, including interacting more efficiently through new technologies. The information society stands this observation on its head when it locates the solution to all human problems in technology. Communities always precede the technologies that they come to use. Scientists first formed specialized communities, and then devised appropriate means of communication. Computer programmers, by sharing code via the Internet, have also demonstrated the accuracy of this observation: the Internet did not create the Linux operating system; rather, Linux programmers found that they could build their communities of interest much more easily thanks to the Internet.

Together, these examples show the fundamental importance of prior associations, groups and communities; in effect, civil society breeds communication pools that reshape technologies in new ways to fulfil specific communication needs. In the end, it is not an information society made of objects and consumers that we want, but rather a dynamic, vibrant web of communities that communicate avidly and innovate, if only to try and build a better life for all. From Linux to basic research, a single message emerges: the information society makes little or no sense if it is not first deeply rooted in a multifaceted civil society where life, that is, active communication, takes place.

Jean-Claude Guédon is a historian of science by training and a Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Montreal, Canada. He has spent the past 10 years studying the social and cultural effects of the Internet, as well as the evolution of scholarly publishing in a digitized and networked context.