Information Society, Description of

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"Information society" is a broad term used to describe the social, economic, technological, and cultural changes associated with the rapid development and widespread use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in modern nations societies, especially since World War II. Information societies are thought to differ from industrial societies because they treat information as a commodity, especially scientific and technical information; because they employ large numbers of "information workers" in their economies; because information and communication technologies and channels are prolific and are widely used; and because using those technologies and channels has given people a sense of "interconnectedness."

The term is somewhat controversial. Some experts believe that new media and computing technologies have produced a fundamentally new kind of society; others think that the technologies may have changed but that the basic social, cultural, and economic arrangements continue to look much as they have since the industrial era. Others criticize the idea on the grounds that "information" is a vague concept, used in different ways by different people (e.g., to mean documents, systems, ideas, data, knowledge, belief, statistical certainty, or any of a dozen other notions). Therefore, as Frank Webster points out in Theories of the Information Society (1995), it is difficult to observe or measure what it is that might make an information society different from other types of societies. Is France an information society because it has extensive, advanced telecommunications networks? Is Japan an information society because it produces more documents now than it did in 1950? Is the United States an information society because its companies employ more "information workers" than "industrial workers"?

Despite these difficulties, most observers would agree that many aspects of everyday life, including the workplace, family life, leisure and entertainment, teaching and learning, and earning and spending, have been affected in one way or another by the availability of new technologies and the ways people use them. "Information society" may be an imperfect label, but it is the most widely used one to talk about these complex changes.

Between the 1950s and the 1970s, economists, sociologists, and other researchers began to study the influences of telecommunications and computing technologies in advanced industrial societies. Two concepts from that period, the "information economy" and "postindustrial society," are still important aspects of the information society idea. More recent research has focused on whether the information society is a real departure from industrial society and on the cultural consequences of ICTs.

The Information Economy

Economists typically divide a nation's economy into three parts or "sectors": (1) primary or extractive (e.g., agriculture, mining, fishing, forestry), (2) secondary or manufacturing (e.g., production of goods manufactured from raw materials), and (3) tertiary or services (e.g., education, health care, law and government, banking and finance, sales, maintenance and repair services, entertainment, tourism, and so on). Only the primary and secondary sectors are traditionally considered to be "productive," that is, to contribute to material stocks of resources and goods that can be bought and sold. Service activities in the tertiary sector only "add value" or help produce or distribute the real products, rather than being valuable in and of themselves. Communication and information, from this perspective, do not have monetary value in themselves because they are not material goods—except when they are transformed into physical products such as movies, books, or computers.

The sheer numbers of television sets, wired and cellular telephones and pagers, radios, computers and modems, print publications, satellite dishes, and so on in homes and workplaces are often cited as evidence of an information society. Certainly, the media, telecommunications, and computing industries all grew dramatically in the twentieth century. However, the sale of telecommunications and computing equipment and supplies such as film, videotape, floppy disks, or paper stock is only part of the picture. "Value-added" information and communication services (e.g., entertainment cable channels, Internet access, or telephone dial tone) are often more profitable than the manufactured goods that carry them (e.g., compact disc players, videocassette recorders, computers, or telephones).

Such basic measurement problems have encouraged economists to begin thinking differently about both services and information. In the United States, experts noted that employment levels declined in the primary and secondary sectors after World War II. Employment in the tertiary service sector, which had been rising since the 1860s, increased sharply after about 1945. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, the American economy grew at the fastest rate in its history, creating huge increases in income and the growth of a large and affluent middle class. By the 1970s, services comprised about half of the economy and 30 to 40 percent of the workforce in some industrialized nations. This sector seemed to be contributing much more to wealthy economies than analysts had previously thought it could. Compared to manufacturing industries, services employed more white-collar, well-educated, and well-paid workers, whose main tasks involved the creation and management of information and interaction with other people.

In his landmark work, The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States (1962), Fritz Machlup of Princeton University was among the first economists to recognize and document the increasing numbers of these "knowledge workers" and their contribution to the American economy in the postwar period. He found that the number of "knowledge-producing" occupations grew faster than any other occupational group between 1900 and 1958 and that they made up about one-third of the workforce in 1958. Peter Drucker (1969) also described what he called the "knowledge economy" and "knowledge industries," "which produce and distribute ideas and information rather than goods and services."

The sociologist Daniel Bell (1973) was so impressed by the growing size and economic power of white-collar professionals, a class "based on knowledge rather than property," that he proposed splitting the service sector into three parts, thus creating five economic sectors that would more accurately reflect the variety and importance of service activities. In place of the traditional tertiary sector, he suggested a different tertiary sector made up of transportation services and utilities, a fourth quaternary sector including trade, finance, insurance, and real estate, and a fifth quinary sector comprised of health, education, research, government, and recreation services.

In 1977, Marc Porat published a nine-volume study for the U.S. Department of Commerce entitled The Information Economy. He and his colleagues refined Machlup's framework of occupational categories and found that about 40 percent of the American workforce could be defined as information workers. He produced the first input-output table of the U.S. information economy, showing both the employment changes and the amount of the gross national product that was attributable to the "primary and secondary information sectors." Porat's primary information sector included firms whose main business is the production of information and information technology; firms in the secondary information sector use information and information technology to support other types of production.

Using similar definitions of information work and information industries, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that information workers comprised about one-third of the workforce in many of its member countries, mainly in Europe. Other researchers questioned Machlup's and Porat's assumption that only workers who produce informational "goods" could be classified as "information workers." Instead, they said, the definition should be based on the amount of information creation and use required on the job, rather than the products of the job alone.

In Japan, information society is translated as joho shakai. According to Youichi Ito (1981), researchers there took a different approach to documenting the growth of the information economy in the 1960s, focusing on the measurement of information production and consumption. The information ratio used by the Research Institute of Telecommunications and Economics (RITE) in Tokyo measured household spending on information-related activities as a proportion of total household expenditures. That group also developed the johoka index, ten measures that together provided an estimate of a country's degree of "informatization." The RITE researchers defined johoka shakai (informationalized society) in terms of per capita income, the proportion of service workers in the workforce, the proportion of university students in the appropriate age group, and a national information ratio of more than 35 percent.

In light of these and other research findings, economists have reconsidered the value of information and communication and developed theories of the economics of information. They have examined tangible forms of information such as books or tape recordings, as well as intangible intellectual property such as the movie rights to a novel, a patent on an industrial process, or employment contracts that prohibit employees from using for another employer what they learn in one job. Increasingly, knowledge or information itself, apart from its physical form, is considered to have an economic value or price—some argue that it can and should be treated like any other commodity or "raw material." Others point out that information does not behave as other physical commodities do. It is the only commodity, it is said, that one can sell and still have. Nonetheless, most economists and other researchers agree that information-and communication-related activities account for an unprecedented proportion of economic investment and output in wealthy societies.

Postindustrial Society

By the 1960s and 1970s, the spread of media and information technologies, increasing demands for information work, and the expanding information economy led some analysts to wonder whether a large-scale social change was underway that would be as important as the Industrial Revolution had been. Industrial society developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as agricultural, craft-based, local subsistence economies were supplanted by national economies that were based on factory work and assembly-line methods of mass production of manufactured goods. Similarly, some researchers suggested that industrial society might now be giving way to a whole new form of a postindustrial society based on the production and circulation of knowledge rather than manufactured goods.

The term is usually credited to Bell, who in his influential book, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973), contended that new technologies had produced profound changes in everyday social life and culture. Bell contrasted the dominant economic sectors and occupational groups in preindustrial, industrial, and postindustrial societies, respectively. He also argued that they differ in terms of the kinds of knowledge that they value, their perspectives about time, and what he called their "axial principles." Preindustrial societies, Bell said, have an axial principle of traditionalism, an orientation to the past, and rely on common sense or experience as the best type of knowledge. Industrial societies' axial principle is economic growth; they are oriented to the present and they believe that empiricism—knowledge gained from observation—is most valuable. The new postindustrial societies have an axial principle of centralizing and codifying theoretical knowledge. They are oriented toward the future and forecasting, and they consider abstract theory to be the best type of knowledge. These different orientations, according to Bell, affect social organization and processes differently in each type of society.

Bell was not the only observer to comment on the changes he saw. In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan used the term "global village" to describe and critique the effects of worldwide electronic communications on culture, and his ideas certainly seem to have influenced the early visions of the information society. Drucker (1969) declared the era to be the "age of discontinuity" and said that changes associated with information technology constituted a major break with the past. Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber (1968) warned Europeans of the "American challenge" of technological dominance. Simon Nora and Alain Minc (1980) wrote a report for the president of France in which they described the convergence of telecommunications and computing technologies—"télématique"—and its potential effects on national sovereignty, social conflict, and human interaction.

In the United States, Alvin Toffler and John Naisbitt wrote popular books that predicted an inevitable tide of technological growth that would sweep away every aspect of traditional life; societies and people that did not adapt would be left behind. By the 1980s, scholars, the media, and laypeople alike took it for granted that they were in the midst of a "technology revolution" that would radically change society and culture forever. The social "impacts" of technology were detected everywhere; the belief that new technology was driving human action was rarely questioned.

An important perspective emerged in the 1980s to challenge the widespread view of a new society driven by the imperatives of technological development, the prospect of ever-growing productivity, and swelling ranks of affluent white-collar knowledge workers. Proponents of this critical view argued that new information and communication technologies tend to reinforce rather than break down established relations of power and wealth. Indeed, the critics said, new technologies were being built and used in ways that extended industrial work organization and processes to industries and workers that had previously seemed immune to assembly-line control, such as health care, education, and the professions. Information technologies gave owners and employers the same kind of control over white-collar professional workers as mass production had given them over blue-collar workers.

Led by notable critics including Herbert Schiller, the advocates of this "continuity" perspective said that industrial capitalism was not dead; it had just taken on a new form. They pointed out that industrial-era ideas about private ownership, market economics, Western-style politics and mass culture were being exported throughout the world via global information and communication networks. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 was widely regarded as a triumph of American-style capitalism and culture. Postindustrial society had preserved industrial institutional structures (e.g., law, education, finance) and organizational arrangements (e.g., private corporations), which critics said would ensure that political and economic power would remain concentrated in the wealthiest nations, firms, and social groups.

In fact, as Porat and others had found, the dramatic rise in white-collar employment in the service sector had flattened out by the 1980s. It appeared that even the most developed economies could use only about 45 to 50 percent "knowledge workers" in their workforces. Of that figure, the greatest demand for information workers was in relatively routine back-office jobs, such as programming, technical support, telephone sales, clerical work, and lower-level management. In the 1980s and early 1990s, despite a strengthening economy, well-educated American white-collar workers were laid off or replaced by temporary workers in record numbers as employers sought to cut costs.

Looking Ahead

In the 1990s, "information society" became a commonplace idea, though major disagreements remain in research and policy circles about its significance. Is it a revolutionary new phase of society driven by unprecedented innovation and the ubiquitous spread of new technologies? Or is it just the latest incarnation of late-stage capitalism, with information instead of raw materials and telecommunications and computing technologies replacing the assembly line? In an attempt to overcome this stalemate, Peter Shields and Rohan Samarajiva (1993) conducted a comprehensive review of information society research. They concluded that four main research perspectives had emerged: postindustrialists, industrialists, long-wave theorists, and power theorists.

Other researchers have taken a sociocultural perspective, examining how people use and understand information technologies in the whole fabric of everyday life. Both the continuity and discontinuity views, they say, are technologically deterministic—that is, they assume that technology drives what people do, rather than assuming that people control technologies and decide what to do with them. In contrast, the social shaping of technology view says that technologies are constantly influenced by human actions and social needs, as well as being society-shaping.

Mark Poster (1990) suggests that the "mode of information" has become a defining characteristic of contemporary culture. Social relations and interaction, he says, are being changed by the introduction of electronic communications and information technologies, so to understand the information society, researchers should study people's language and discourse. In a three-volume work entitled The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture (1996-1998), Manuel Castells surveys the economic, social, and cultural changes of the twentieth century. He proposes that advanced societies are shaped by a "space of flows" of information rather than physical space. Nations, organizations, social groups, and individuals can link together, separate, and reorganize themselves into networks as needed according to their interests and the availability of information.

Key Social Issues

Clearly, many different perspectives have developed for understanding the information society. The implications for broad social change are complex and far-reaching. However, research also suggests that everyday life in information societies is changing. Several characteristics that affect interaction and sociality seem to distinguish what is most "social" about the information society: equitable access to information, privacy and surveillance, and new forms of social organization and community fostered by technology networks.

Equitable Access to Information

If information is the principal resource or commodity in an information society, then equitable access to information technologies and services is crucial if that society is to be a fair and just one. Though one might assume that "everyone" uses new technologies and services, such innovations are often too complicated for some people to use, or too expensive for disadvantaged households to afford. Uneven access has led to a growing concern about the rise of a digital divide between information "haves" and "have-nots," based on race, income, family structure, literacy, national or regional origin, or other factors. The introduction of a new communication medium can create an information gap between the best-positioned members of a society and the less fortunate, excluding many people from educational and economic opportunities.

For example, policymakers, regulators, industry, and the public alike have debated for many years whether universal service can or should be extended for other technologies such as the Internet or cable systems. Universal service originated in the 1920s in the United States as a way to ensure that most households would have inexpensive access to telephone service. More recently, the U.S. e-rate policy has required telephone companies to bill their customers a small amount each month that is passed along to pay for computer equipment and Internet access for public schools and libraries. The policy was intended to help promote fair access to online resources, but it has been strongly opposed by the telephone industry because it subsidizes some users and sets prices for services.

Though the number of computer users is growing rapidly in the United States and around the world, a large proportion of the public still does not have Internet access and may not for years to come. Use of online services is particularly low among non-whites, the poor, and single-parent, female-headed households. Only 60 percent of American households have cable service, and about 60 percent do not have Internet access. The number of households with basic telephone service declined after the AT&T divestiture in the 1980s, due to increased rates for local telephone service.

Access is not only a matter of technology. Literacy is often assumed to be universal in the industrialized nations. Yet data gathered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) show that as recently as 1995, anywhere from one-third to one-half of adults in twelve of its wealthiest member states had literacy skills that were below the level considered necessary to function effectively at home and at work (Healy, 1998). In a policy paper for the 1999 National Literacy Forum, the National Institute for Literacy reported similar figures for the United States. In the developing world, literacy is a serious problem among rural populations and in traditional cultures where educational opportunities for girls and women are limited. Language barriers create a different literacy problem. Non-English speakers and readers throughout the world are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to online information services because there is relatively little online content in local languages.

Equity problems arise in many other ways. Minority or unpopular views may not find wide audiences if substantially all of the major media and information services are owned by a handful of large international firms. The International Telecommunications Union has long been criticized because it allocates the majority of orbital satellite "slots" to the United States and Western Europe, whose telephone and entertainment companies dominate markets throughout the world. Intellectual property rights such as copyright are being extended, and fair use provisions are being restricted, so that copyright holders can keep works out of the public domain for decades longer than they once could.

Equity is a concern across societies as well as within them. It is often observed that most people in the world have never placed or received a telephone call, much less used online information services or e-mail. Even in affluent areas such as the European Community, subtle regional differences in the distribution of new media and information technologies have been documented. It is doubtful that systems and services will be distributed in poorer parts of the world as evenly as they have been in developed nations.

Privacy and Surveillance

In most developed nations, people enjoy a certain degree of privacy, both the classic "right to be left alone" (in Justice Louis Brandeis's words) and the control of information about their personal affairs and property. However, as more and more information about individuals and their activities has been gathered, stored, analyzed, and traded electronically, people have begun to sense that they are losing control over their personal information and their privacy. New media and information technologies make it much easier for anyone—with or without a legitimate interest or right—to gain and use personal information about others. Some researchers and policy analysts wonder if one of the characteristic features of the information society is a loss of personal privacy resulting from extensive uses of information and communication technologies for record keeping and surveillance.

Concerns about the privacy of electronic networks are not new. Early party-line telephones in rural American communities encouraged eavesdropping among subscribers who shared the same line. In the early 1900s, stockbrokers and bankers adopted telephones quickly when they realized that they could thereby interact without leaving a written record of the conversation or being seen together in meetings or in public. Before the divestiture of AT&T in the 1980s, Americans regarded "Ma Bell" to be almost as powerful as the government. Telephone wiretapping was a staple of detective novels and gangster movies. In the 1960s, the phrase "do not fold, spindle, or mutilate" inscribed across IBM punch cards became a cultural commentary on the inhumanity of new computerized systems for billing and credit, educational, and government records.

Since the 1990s, however, practically every type of information about individuals has been gathered and kept electronically. U.S. data privacy laws are fairly weak compared to those in Europe and other areas of the world. Private firms and law-enforcement agencies in the United States have lobbied hard to retain their right to access and share all types of data about individuals; indeed, differences in data privacy laws have been a major obstacle in U.S.-European trade talks.

It is no wonder, then, that people may be reluctant to send credit card numbers over the Internet or that they wonder who has access to their medical records. Some have started using "privacy technologies" of their own to thwart intruders.

Changing Social Structures and Community

Researchers, beginning in the early 1990s, have examined the ways that information and communication technologies, especially computer-mediated communication such as e-mail and the World Wide Web, may support new kinds of social relationships and communities. People who communicate online share special types of language, take on new social and professional roles, share community "standards," participate in special events or "rituals," and develop rules of "netiquette". Research has shown that people using new technologies develop extensive networks of personal contacts, including a large proportion of indirect relationships to others.

Such findings suggest that in an information society, communities might be based more on shared interests or background than on physical geography or proximity. "Virtual" communities may be more temporary than geographic communities. Data from the U.S. General Social Survey show that, since 1980, a major shift has occurred away from the "nuclear family" that has been typical in modern industrial societies. About one-third of Americans live in households of only one person, and another one-third live in households with two adults and no children. Perhaps the social support that has been traditionally provided by immediate family, neighbors, and local community groups can now be found online, or by using technologies that allow people to stay in touch with loved ones and friends wherever they are.


By any measure, life in modern nations is inextricably tied up with the use of networked information and communication systems that link places, data, people, organizations, and nations. By using these systems, people can share information and interact more quickly with more people in more places than ever before. However, the question of whether fundamentally new types of social relationships, work organization, or institutional forms have developed is still open. The information society, like industrial society before it, will depend not just on technologies that people use but on the social arrangements and beliefs that make them part of everyday life.

See also:Community Networks; Copyright; Internet and the World Wide Web; McLuhan, Herbert Marshall; Privacy and Communication; Privacy and Encryption.


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Leah A. Lievrouw

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