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What Is An Information Society Media Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 5498 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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It is definitely hard to ‘nail’ down the definition of an information society as one may argue that its definition is rather abstract and requires one to locate it in the context of time and space. Are we now still considered an Information Society? How do we quantify a shift to an information society? All these are problematic questions to consider. 

1.1 Definitions

First, I will list down a few definitions by scholars and see if there is a fundamental basis for the term ‘Information Society’:

A society that organizes itself around knowledge in the interest of social control, and the management of innovation and change… (Daniel Bell, 1976).

A society where […] information is used as an economic resource, the community harnesses/exploits it, and behind it all an industry develops which produces the necessary information … (Nick Moore, 1977).

A new type of society, where the possession of information is the driving force behind its transformation and development […] where human intellectual creativity flourishes (Yoneji Masuda, 1980).

The information society is an economic reality and not simply a mental abstraction…The slow spread/dissemination of information ends […] new activities, operations and products gradually come to light (John Naisbitt, 1984).

Societies that have become dependent upon complex electronic information networks and which allocate a major portion of their resources to information and communication activities” (Melody, 1990).

It is evident that the above definitions are based on preconceptions regarding which areas of life change significantly: some are centered on resources, others around products, industries, activities, or society and people. As such, in general terms, an information society is a society where the creation, distribution, diffusion, uses, integration and manipulation of information is a significant economic, political, social and cultural activity.

1.2 The Birth of the Concept

The expression ‘post-industrial society’ was first coined in 1914 in Great Britain by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and Arthur J. Penty. It was later revived from 1958 in America (primarily by Daniel Bell) and from the end of the 1960’s in French social sciences (by Alain Touraine). However, the collocation “information society” as it is now used first emerged in Japanese social sciences in the early 1960’s. The Japanese version of the expression (Joho Shakai) was born during a conversation in 1961 between Kisho Kurokawa, the famous architect, and Tudao Umesao, the renowned historian and anthropologist. In regard to technology, which forms the basis of production, the term ‘automation’ (later ‘cybernation’), introduced by the automotive engineer of the Ford company D. S. Harder in 1946, facilitated the discussions for decades. Dozens of evocative terms were originated to designate the sweeping changes generated by the hurtling development of information technology; of these the most well-known were the various manifestations of the computer and the scientific-technological revolution.

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A common characteristic of the above proto-concepts is that they isolated one of the components, i.e. a part of the rapidly changing socio-economic complex and suggested that it was sufficient to describe – in both a descriptive and metaphorical sense – the whole. As a result of this, several terms, each with a different approach, proliferated between 1950 and 1980. Around 1980 these terms merged into a comprehensive, joint umbrella term combining the concept of information and society: this new concept included and encapsulated all the previous partial concepts and preserved the expressive power, approach and attitude they represented. 

1.3 Generic Timeline (1960s- Present)

In the mid-1960’s, when computing was known as data processing and the economies of the most advanced industrial nations were shifting from manufacturing to services, theorists proposed the emergence of an information society. This ‘new society’ idea, based on the notion that the production of knowledge was replacing industrial production, was believed to have strong social implications. With the introduction of the personal computer in 1981, the concept of the information society received new impetus. The computer and electronics industry went through a period of rapid restructuring and global growth as it promoted the notion of a computer in every home. These developments influenced the restatement of visions about a new kind of post-industrialism in which societies with high levels of knowledge skills, or the capacity to develop those quickly, held competitive advantage and the capacity to transform themselves into more open and responsive societies.

From the early 1990’s, the rapid convergence of computers with private and public telecommunications networks placed a new emphasis on instant and universal access to vast banks of information and on rapid information exchange across geographic, social and cultural boundaries. The intensified commercialization of the World Wide Web from 1994 appeared to have given the “information society” a specific shape and form. In the past few decades we have seen various scholars debating on the concept and in recent years, other scholars and politicians have discussed more on the implications and the uses of ICTs; bringing in the political dimension. The International Telecommunications Union’s World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva and Tunis (2003 and 2005) has led to a number of policy and application areas where action is required. These include promotion of ICTs for development; information and communication infrastructure; access to information and knowledge; building confidence and security in the use of ICTs; cultural and linguistic diversity; and ethical dimensions of the information society.

2. Information Society Debate

Among researchers and scholars, there is no consensus about what the “information society” is or even that it exists. For instance, Daniel Bell’s theories have numerous critics among others like Webster, 1995; Marvin, 1987; and Schiller, 1981 (Susan & Trench, 1999). In particular, Bell’s claim that an “information society” exists when the “information workers” (clerks, teachers, lawyers and entertainers) outnumber the other workers is highly contentious because every occupation involves information processing of one kind or another.

On the basis of the growth of information flows and technologies, information society theorists argue that the changes underway represent not just quantitative but qualitative social change – transforming almost every realm of social life, including households, communities, education, health, work, surveillance, democracy, and identities. Together, these changes are seen as constituting a new form of society, comparable to the shift from an agrarian to an industrial society. Rather than tightly defined, the scope of information society debates ranges widely and overlaps with other approaches to understanding contemporary social change.

Information society theorists can be broadly categorized in terms of those who see technology as the driving force behind the change, versus those who see social factors as shaping technology and history. This debate, technological determinism versus ‘the social shaping of technology’, lies at the heart of the sociology of technology. While sociologists have been concerned to refute technological determinism, countering the common, everyday way of conceiving of the relationship of technology to society, much work on the information society remains at least implicitly technologically determinist, while in the sociology of technology there is a growing interest in the constraining capacity of technology.

Another key issue in the debate is whether and when quantitative changes (e.g., increasing flows of information, a larger information sector of the economy, or growing levels of ownership of IT devices) constitute qualitative change (the emergence of a new form of society, even an “IT revolution”). In other words, there is a debate about whether the situation is radically different from the past, or merely the continuation of long-running phenomena or tendencies.

A further distinction is between optimists and pessimists, on which count the debate is remarkably polarized: for some (notably Daniel Bell), the information society is a progressive development, characterized by greater freedom and fulfillment  whereas others (Herbert Schiller, Frank Webster) point to the continuation or exacerbation of long-running inequalities and patterns of control. Some contributors to the debate are normative in their writing, slipping into a mode of endorsing the changes that they identify as underway. Different theorists focus on different strands of the debate, notably the growth of technology, the transformation of the economy, the changing nature of work, new patterns of connection across time and space, and the coming to the fore of mediated culture. 

2.1 Closely Related Concepts

Post-industrial society (Daniel Bell)


Post-modern society

Liquid modernity (Zygmunt Bauman)

Knowledge society

Network society (Manuel Castells)

New Information Society (Frank Webster)

The above terms and concepts carry similar and often overlapping meanings; while for some social theorists, different labels like ‘late modernity,’ ‘post-modernity,’ or ‘globalization’ better characterize contemporary social transformations. Even those who focus on the “information society” use the term to refer to different social processes. In this Wiki-project, I will not attempt to cover all the various discussions on information society but will focus on a few scholars instead.

3. Alvin Toffler- Future Shock (1970) and the Third Wave (1980)

In 1970, the futurist Alvin Toffler, without explicit reference to the information society, painted a dramatic transformative theory based on the power of new technology. Technology was changing society, as it had done historically, from the agricultural revolution to the industrial revolution. But the pace of change had accelerated beyond anything previously experienced or imagined. New social, economic and political relations were rising as rapidly as old ones were falling. In advanced societies, he argued, many people were suffering from ‘future shock’ – the disease of change, caused by the stresses and disorientation of too much change too quickly. Future shock was not an abstract condition; it was real and had actual psychological and biological effects on its sufferers. Those who felt it most acutely were people who tried to cling onto the old ways and resist the new. Technology was driving changes, and people had to adapt to them.

A decade later, during which time his confidence in the transformations had swelled, Toffler presented the notion of the third wave. The first wave of social transformation was the agricultural revolution; which prevailed in much of the world after the Neolithic Revolution, which replaced hunter-gatherer cultures. The second wave was the industrial revolution which began in Western Europe with the Industrial Revolution, and subsequently spread across the world. Key aspects of Second Wave society are the nuclear family, a factory-type education system and the corporation. The third wave was still in its early phase. It was characterized by a move away from manufacturing to the provision of services and information. Around this, new social, political and economic relations were forming. Toffler argued that distance was becoming irrelevant in the third wave, mass production was giving way to customization, and national borders, cultures and identities were being eroded. Many of these ideas have re-emerged in the much later discussion of information society. Toffler left open both the question of what the outcome of the transformation of the structure of democracy was to entail, as well as the question of what kind of world order would supersede the order of nation-states.

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4. Yoneji Masuda – The Information Society as Post Industrial Society, Johoka Shakai (1980)

In Japan, Yoneji Masuda likened the impact of information technology on the modern economy to that of steam power in the industrial revolution. The book published by Yoneji Masuda in 1980 refers to a higher stage of social evolution- from post-industrial society to information society. Masuda tells of the birth of an era of information; focusing on computer technology, which operates in conjunction with communications technology. He hypothesizes that the future information society would be a highly integrated society, like an organism. It would be a complex multi-centered society in which many systems are connected and integrated by information networks. Overall, the innovative technology would change the social and economic systems through the following three phases: Phase 1 – technology does the work previously done for humans based on automation. Phase 2 – technology enables the possibility of work that man could never do before, i.e. knowledge creation. Phase 3 – socio-economic structures are transformed into new social and economic systems, a result of the first two phases of development. The information society will form a new societal model with a different framework from the industrial society, which is keen on the exploitation of information as a resource fundamental to the development of new innovations. The table below summarizes Masuda’s work.

Table 1: Comparison of the characteristics of the industrial and information society by Yoneji Masuda

Source: Masuda, 1980

5. Daniel Bell – The Coming of Post-industrial Society (1973)

Genealogy of the information society concept is usually traced to a term “post-industrial society- a term first used by sociologist Daniel Bell (1973). He states: “In the pre-industrial society life is a game against nature where one works with raw muscle power (Bell 1973 126); in the industrial era where machines predominates in a technical and rationalized existence, life is a game against fabricated nature. In contrast to both, life in the post-industrial society based on services, is a game between persons. What counts is not raw muscle power or energy but information (127).” Bell formulates that the main axis of this society will be theoretical knowledge and warns that knowledge-based services will be transformed into the central structure of the new economy and of an information-led society. He argued that western economies had de-industrialized, by which he meant that they had a declining percentage of the workforce working in the manufacturing sector and growing employment in the service and information sectors. Figure 1 indicates the transformation which lies at the heart of his thesis.

Figure 1: Four-sector aggregation of the US workforce, 1860- 1980

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, cited by Bell (1980: 521)


The dominant mode of employment was crucial to explaining economic, social and political changes, and technologies were crucial to explaining changes in the dominant mode of employment. Society had evolved through two distinct phases, agricultural and industrial, and was evolving into a post-industrial phase. In the postindustrial phase came new forms of innovation and social organization and practices. By the 1980s, Bell was using the terms post-industrial society and information society interchangeably. He surveys the characteristic differences reflected by the social- historical phases – simplified into three main periods – along nine distinctive aspects. The table below shows the distinctions.

Table 2: Dimensions of the information society according to Daniel Bell (1979)

Source: Bell, 1979

Daniel Bell is remarkably optimistic, seeing the post-industrial society as one in which everyone will enjoy access to the world’s traditions of art, music, and literature. Post-industrial society means the rise of professional work, professionals are oriented towards their clients, and society becomes transformed into a more caring, communal society. While Bell’s analysis fuses data and argument about the economy, employment, and knowledge, underlying his work is a clear technological determinism. He epitomizes the information society literature by according technology a central role in social change: technological innovation is seen as resulting in social change.  By contrast, sociologists of technology reject the notion that technology is somehow outside society and that technological change causes social change. Rather, they have been concerned to explore how particular social formations give rise to (or shape) the development of specific technologies. 

6. Manuel Castells – The Information Age: Network Society (1996, 1997, 1998)

Castells description of the new information age attempts to show the way out of the theoretical maze of the value driven, intricate information society. He proposes a conceptual model of a network with which the most recent phenomena of modern societies can be explored. At the end of the 1990’s he finally legitimized the information society as an academic field of research. Manuel Castells’ three-volume opus (1996, 1997, 1998), as reflected in the title -The Information Age, is a comprehensive scientific work supported by secondary sources and one which originates new concepts.

Castells attempts to surpass traditional reasoning by offering a compact and multilayered foundation linking economic-and political, as well as cultural theory. His concern is to provide a cross-cultural theory of economy and society in the information age, specifically in relation to an emerging new social structure. While Castells uses a different term, his work resonates with the tenor of information society debates. Like Bell, Castells documents the demise of traditional, labor-intensive forms of industry and their replacement by flexible production. His account fuses the transformation of capitalism (the growth of globalization) with changing patterns and forms of identity. He argues that, with the rise of the informational mode of development, we are witnessing the emergence of a new socioeconomic paradigm, one with information processing at its core. For Castells, the issue is not information as such, but the informational society – the “specific form of social organization in which information generation, processing, and transmission become the fundamental sources of productivity and power, because of the technological conditions” (Castells 1996: 21). In other words, the issue is not simply that information is central to production, but that it permeates society.

6.1 Networks

In the informational economy, networks are the new social morphology. Organizations are transforming from bureaucracies to network enterprises, responding to information flows, with economic activity organized by means of fluid project teams. Economic activity becomes spatially dispersed but globally integrated, reducing the strategic significance of place, but enhancing the strategic role of major cities. Manuel Castells explains the origins of ICT from the perspective of social developments. He argues that the network is the dominant structure of society in the information age: power, money, information and society itself is reproduced in networks. ICT enabled the management of these network structures.

In the last quarter of a century, three independent processes came together, ushering in a new social structure predominantly based on networks: 1) the need of the economy for management flexibility and for the globalisation of capital, production and trade; 2) the demands of society in which the values of individual freedom and open communication became paramount; and 3) the extraordinary advances in computing and telecommunications made possible by the micro-electronics revolution. Under these conditions, the Internet became the lever for the transition to a new form of society – the network society – and with it to a new economy. Networks have extraordinary advantages as organizing tools to coordinate and manage because of their flexibility and adaptability, which allows them to survive and prosper in a fast changing environment. Networks are proliferating in all domains of economy and society. The new economy is based on unprecedented potential for productivity growth as businesses use the Internet in all kinds of operations. Within a network society there are territories where valuable nodes of wealth and knowledge tend to form. Innovation tends to be territorially concentrated, and major cities throughout history have been important in cultural creativity and technological innovation. 

6. 2 Time and space

In contrast with earlier time-space arrangements, there is in terms of flows no distance between nodes on the same network. In other words, geographical distance is irrelevant to connection and communication. So there are fundamental changes to the nature of time and space, with time compressed and almost annihilated; and space shifting to the space of flows: places continue to be the focus of everyday life, rooting culture and transmitting history, but they are overlaid by flows. The network of flows is crucial to domination and change in society: interconnected, global, capitalist networks organize economic activity using IT and are the main sources of power in society. The power of flows in the networks prevails over the flow of power – which might be read as some kind of “flow determinism.” The Internet and computer-mediated communication are seen as transforming the fabric of society – though Castells explicitly rejects technological determinism.

6.3 Identity and culture

The other main strands of Castells’s argument are about identity and culture. The transformation of economies has been accompanied by the decline of traditional, class-based forms of association, particularly the labor movement. At the same time, state power has been eroded and new forms of collective resistance have emerged, notably feminism and environmentalism. The explosion of electronic media, specifically the development and growth of segmented audiences and interactivity, means the growth of “customized cottages” (as opposed to a global village) and a culture of “real virtuality.” Although he acknowledges growing inequality, social exclusion, and polarization, Castells, rather like Bell, sees at least the possibility of a positive future, of new forms of communication and the network society offering democratizing possibilities.

6. 4 Discussion on Bell and Castells

While Bell focuses his analysis very much on the economy, and Castells provides a remarkably wide-ranging account, the work of these two key analysts of the information society addresses what can be seen as the four core themes of the information society, or of information society debates. First is the new patterning of work and inequality. This includes debates informed by Bell regarding the decline of manufacturing in western economies, and the growth of information and service sectors; the deskilling debate and the restructuring of work; and the growth of e-commerce. It also includes debates about the growing gulf between the rich and the poor, and social exclusion – the “digital divide.” There is debate about the extent to which lack of access to information is a cause, rather than merely a reflection, of social exclusion.

Second is time-space reconfiguration, compression, or convergence – different authors use different terms. The shrinking of time and space, examined by Castells, is facilitated by instantaneous electronic communication. Globalization and digital information networks lie at the heart of information society debates. Some invoke McLuhan’s (1992) notion of the global village and develop this in relation to the Internet, and a large and growing body of literature examines Internet communities, for example those of national diasporas. Multi-channel television and global television flows are key components of global cultural communication. The erosions of boundaries between home and work and public and private are other aspects of time-space reconfiguration.

Third is the huge growth of cultural activities, institutions, and practices. Culture has become increasingly significant in contemporary society, and with new ICTs the means to produce, circulate, and exchange culture has expanded enormously. The media and communications industries have a huge economic significance today, paralleling that of physical plant in the industrial era. Far from simply a matter of business and flow, culture connects closely with the constitution of subjectivity, with identity.

Fourth, there is a set of issues about the transformation of state power and democracy – with the growth of technologies of surveillance. Behavior in public space is routinely observed and recorded on video, while computer systems map personal movements, conversations, e-mail traffic, consumption patterns, networks, and social activities. At the same time, democracy is facilitated by the capacity for many-to-many communication (as opposed to the broadcasting model of one-to-many) and the increasing accessibility of growing amounts of information, with the development of the Internet. New patterns of communication across time and space enhance communication possibilities, and state control of the media is challenged by new technologies – satellite but especially the Internet – that easily cross national borders.

7. Webster – Theories of the Information Society (1995)

Frank Webster has a long-standing interest in the effects of new technologies and changes in information and communication. His teaching interests span contemporary societies, social change, sociology, and information, communication and society.  He notes that the “information society” advocates do not distinguish between quantitative and qualitative measures; they assume that quantitative increases (in information, information industries and occupations, and information flows) transform into qualitative changes in social systems.

Webster believes the concept of information society is flawed as a description of the emergence of a new type of society. The criteria for distinguishing an information society are inconsistent and lack clarity, the use of the term ‘information’ is imprecise, and claims that increases in information lead to significant social changes are based on faulty logic and inadequate evidence. His central objection is that these distinctions are an over-simplification of the processes of change. There are no clear grounds for designating what is an information society or when we will have reached it. If there is just more information, it is hard to suggest why the information society is something radically new. All societies and nation states can be called information societies in so far as they all – even pre-Internet – have had routines and procedures and means for gathering, storing and controlling information about people. Therefore, more information cannot in itself be held as a break with previous social systems.  

As such, Webster does not believe we have entered a new “information age” even as he concedes various points that there have been big changes in society because of changes in technology, networks, and information flows. As a result of his stated biases, he sometimes comes across as more critical of other scholars who he does not agree (Bell, Castells, etc.). However, Frank Webster developed a typology to understand information society theories: five main distinctions have been put forward to characterize an information society: technological, economic, occupational, spatial and cultural. 

7.1 Technological vision 

From the technological perspective, we live in an information society since information and telecommunication technologies play a constantly expanding role in all fields of social existence, which has shaken the foundations of social structures and processes and resulted in massive changes in politics, economy, culture, and everyday life. Most of the attempts made to define information society approach the idea from a technological point of view hence the central question of such explorations sounds like: What kind of new information and communication technology was constructed in recent decades that determined the infrastructure of information society?

The key idea is that the breakthrough in information processing, storage and transmission led to the application of information technologies (IT) in all societies, e.g. sale and usage of computers, cell phones, etc. Awed by the pace and magnitude of technological change, there is an assumption that the computer revolution will have an overwhelming impact on every human being on earth. Computer technology is to the information age what mechanization was to the industrial revolution. New technologies are one of the most visible indicators of a new age, and therefore are often taken as signals of an information society. The rapid growth of the Internet especially – the information superhighway, and the spread of national, international and global information networks – has been held as a key development. Many government studies have tried to track the growth in volumes of communication and information across these networks. They contend that ICTs represent the establishment of a new epoch, which despite short-term difficulties will be economically beneficial over the longer term. The most important question, however, is the one that focuses on the relationship between technology and society. What is the optimum technological impact on social life that can achieve a qualitative change? Are we justified in relying on modernizing political initiatives and the theories of futurologists who claim that technology is the only means to change social procedures and the functioning of society, when their objective is to expand the use of technology in the public sphere?

7.2 Occupational vision

Many OECD and EU documents on the information society focus on the occupational aspect of the information society. An emergence of an information society is measured by the focus on occupational change: the shift is towards the information work. Information society is seen in overwhelming members of clerks, teachers, lawyers, etc. vis-à-vis the manual labours, such as mine workers, builders, farm labourers, etc. Labour market is today dominated by information operatives who possess the information needed to get things done. A clear emergence of white-collar society (Information work) and a decline of industrial labour (blue-collared workers). Occupational change is often taken as another indicator of an information society. The occupational structure is examined over time and patterns of change are observed. Arguments here are based on the assumption that if most forms of work involve information we have achieved an information society. The decline of manufacturing or industrial work is taken as a further signal of change. This conception of the information society is quite different from the one based on technologies, since it suggests that it is the transformative power of information rather than of information technologies that is spurring change.

7.3 Economic vision 

Technological innovation is central for increasing productivity and thus for growth of economics and competition between economies. It is commonplace today to contend that we have evolved into a society which accepts that knowledge had become the foundation of the modern economy. We have shifted from the economy of goods to a knowledge economy. The assumption is that knowledge and organization are the prime creators of wealth. Economy-based approaches track the growth in economic value of information-r


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