The term knowledge society refers to a society in which the creation, dissemination, and utilization of information and knowledge has become the most important factor of production. In such a society, knowledge assets (also called intellectual capital ) are the most powerful producer of wealth, sidelining the importance of land, the volume of labor, and physical or financial capital.
The term knowledge society has several meanings. First, it is used by social scientists to describe and analyze the transformation toward so-called postindustrial society. Second, it is used to refer to a normative vision that nations or companies should aspire to fulfill. Third, it is used as a metaphor, rather than a clear-cut concept, under which various topics are examined. In many cases, the distinction among these three usages is blurred, and it is not clear whether the author using the term is putting forward an analysis of current trends, is forecasting changes, or is proposing a strategy that should be followed.
Although the term is frequently evoked, it is rarely defined and explored in a systematic way. However, the key characteristics of a knowledge society can be outlined as follows: (1) the mass and polycentric production, transmission, and application of knowledge is dominant; (2) the price of most commodities is determined by the knowledge needed for their development and sale rather than by the raw material and physical labor that is needed to produce them; (3) a large portion of the population attains higher education; (4) a vast majority of the population have access to information and communication technologies and to the Internet; (5) a large portion of the labor force are knowledge workers who need a high degree of education and experience to perform their job well; (6) both individuals and the state invest heavily in education and research and development; and (7) organizations are forced to innovate continually.
All societies have rested on knowledge, and knowledge has always played an important role in the rise of prosperity and social well-being. Why then should we speak of this emerging type of society as a “knowledge society”? It is useful to contrast a knowledge society with previous types of human society that were based upon the dominant mode of production and the most common source of livelihood.
In a hunting and gathering society, the earliest societal type, people gained their livelihood from hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering edible plants growing in the wild. About 8000 BCE, some hunting and gathering groups began raising domesticated animals and cultivating fixed plots of land. This domestication revolution led to the advent of horticultural and pastoral societies. A pastoral society is a society in which the primary means of subsistence is domesticated livestock, whereas in horticultural societies the primary means of subsistence is the cultivation of crops using hand tools. Many societies were pastoral and horticultural at the same time. The replacement of horticulture by agriculture is associated with the invention of the plow in about 3000 BCE in Mesopotamia and Egypt. This process, sometimes called the agricultural revolution, made large-scale agricultural production possible and led to the development of agrarian societies. The agricultural revolution had such a profound impact on society that many people call this era the “dawn of civilization.” During this period, not only the plow, but also the wheel, writing, and numbers were invented. Nevertheless, in an agrarian society, land and livestock were the key resources.
Agrarian societies, in which most of the population was directly engaged in the production of food, began to be replaced by a new societal type around 1750 at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Industrial Revolution is a shorthand term for a complex set of technological innovations that led to a dramatic change in the nature of production in which machines replaced tools and inanimate power resources (such as steam and electricity) replaced human or animal power. Productivity and wealth creation in an industrial society is based upon the mechanized manufacturing of goods, or, more specifically, upon the extensive and organized use of machines in factories. In an industrial economy, physical assets such as steel, factories, and railroads are the key factors of production. A large majority of the employed population works in factories and offices (while the proportion of the population engaged in agriculture rapidly declines). In addition, people are geographically concentrated. Because most jobs can be found in towns and cities, people move to cities, and industrial society becomes highly urbanized.
Since the 1960s, many authors have suggested that we are entering into a type of society beyond the industrial era altogether. The first comprehensive description of the so-called postindustrial society was provided by Daniel Bell (1973). According to Bell, service occupations grow at the expense of those producing material goods, and white-collar workers come to outnumber blue-collar workers employed in factories. Work in services generally requires more knowledge and intellectual ability than work in industrial occupations. Bell also argued that theoretical knowledge is the main strategic resource of society, and those who are concerned with its creation and distribution (scientists and professionals of all kinds) become the leading social group, replacing industrialists and entrepreneurs.
Some scholars have challenged Bell’s ideas. First, his theory rests upon the now-obsolete distinction between primary (agriculture, mining, fishing, and forestry), secondary (industry), and tertiary (services) economic sectors. In contrast to Bell’s assumption, the manufacturing sector is not declining in terms of its contribution to overall economic performance and growth. The term postindustrial is thus misleading because “industry” is neither disappearing nor losing its importance. Both within the agricultural and industrial sector, significant transformations are taking place: Even agriculture and industry are becoming more knowledge-intensive, and thus more productive. In contrast, many jobs in services are in fact blue-collar (such as a gas-station attendant), while many white-collar positions involve very little specialized knowledge.
Terms such as information society or network society have been proposed to replace postindustrial society. Such terms attempt to capture the unprecedented development and use of information and communication technologies and the fact that information generation, processing, and transmission have become the fundamental sources of productivity and power (Castells 1996). These concepts, however, have been criticized as too narrow and too oriented toward technology. Critics argue that technology is merely useless “hardware” if not accompanied by “soft-ware”—the knowledge, work, and creativity of people who actually understand, make sense of, and apply the information available. Consequently, from the late 1990s the broader concept of knowledge society came to be preferred (Stehr 1994).
Empirical data reveals that some countries (especially Scandinavian and western European countries, as well as Japan, the United States, Canada, and Australia) have moved toward becoming truly knowledge-driven societies (World Bank 1998; United Nations 2005). Many other countries remain in an industrial age, while others are still essentially agrarian. Why is this so? If knowledge is considered the most productive factor, why are not all societies knowledge-based or at least heading in that direction? And how can industrial and agrarian societies become knowledge societies?
In principle, knowledge is a nonrival and nonexcludable public good: one person’s use of a particular piece of knowledge does not preclude the use of that same knowledge by others, and when a piece of knowledge is already in the public domain, it is difficult for the knowledge creator to prevent others from using it. In reality, knowledge, in contrast to information, cannot be easily acquired and applied. First, only so-called explicit knowledge can be easily transferred across time and space. Large portions of knowledge—tacit knowledge—reside in people’s minds, can be accessed on a first-person basis only, and take time to develop. Second, the effective creation and application of knowledge depends upon the broader context—culture, institutions, and governance. Knowledge must be integrated into an effective system of research institutions, innovation-driven enterprises, universities, and other establishments. Third, because knowledge is considered the key factor of production and is expensive to create, rich countries have broadened the protection of intellectual property rights (especially patents), and thus have increased the amount of knowledge that is secured and monopolized.
These factors contribute to an unequal distribution of knowledge across and within countries, a situation known as the knowledge gap. Indicators used to evaluate the development of knowledge society (such as educational attainment, investment in research and development, and Internet access) seem to show that the knowledge gap has been widening, because knowledge produces further knowledge in an ever-increasing rate, and this in turn increases productivity. It is risky for a country or company to rely largely on unskilled labor and natural resource–based goods. Countries, companies, and people who do not invest sufficiently in education and new technologies for acquiring and disseminating knowledge will find it increasingly difficult to catch up to those who did invest. Yet, investment in education and new technologies is not enough; it is also necessary to create appropriate conditions to foster innovation, creativity, and cooperation. Otherwise, negative consequences, such as brain drain (the emigration of one country’s highly educated people to other countries offering better economic and social opportunity), can be expected.
What will be the class structure of knowledge society? Who will become richer and who poorer? According to Robert Reich (1991), there is a three-tiered workforce in the most advanced economies. At the bottom are workers who offer personal services; in the middle are production workers in factories or offices performing simple, repetitive tasks; and at the top are symbolic analysts who solve, identify, and broker problems by manipulating symbols. Symbolic analysts include research scientists, engineers, lawyers, and consultants of various types, but also publishers, writers, editors, journalists, or musicians. Reich predicted that advances in technology and globalization would widen the gaps in income and opportunity between these tiers.
While symbolic analysts are globally in great demand and their income is thus steadily increasing, production workers in advanced economies could be easily replaced by routine producers in other nations, which results in the disappearance of available routine jobs. Similarly, Peter Drucker (1994) and others speak of knowledge workers, that is, a newly emerging dominant group being employed in professions that require formal education and theoretical knowledge, as well as a different approach to work—qualifications that the industrial worker does not possess and is poorly equipped to acquire. Drucker also warned, though without details, against a potential new class conflict between the highly productive minority of knowledge workers and the majority of people who make their living traditionally. Though the future of knowledge and nonknowledge workers remains to be seen, even now there is empirical evidence that in advanced economies the number of jobs that demand only low cognitive skills is declining and that high-level skills and knowledge are substantial determinants of earnings (OECD 2000).
If knowledge workers are the leading social class economically, do they also dominate in a political and cultural sense? Who possesses control and power in a knowledge society? Can a knowledge society devolve into an Orwellian totalitarian society, where one social group is able to dominate other groups through its possession of knowledge and information? Authors disagree on this. According to Zbigniew Brzezinski (1970), we are entering into a “technetronic society,” where scientific and technical elites will seize control of the essential flow of information; their claim to political power would rest on allegedly superior scientific know-how. Similarly, Alvin Gouldner (1979) forecasts the rise of a so-called “new class”—as opposed to the “old moneyed class”—that is composed of intellectuals and technical intelligentsia. This class will be bonded by similar education, culture, and language codes that facilitate solidarity between class members and enable collective political action. This “culture of critical discourse,” as Gouldner terms the essential unifying attribute of this new class, functions as more than the group’s common ideology; it is its instrument of domination and control and the source of its growing power.
In contrast, Nico Stehr (2002) argues that knowledge-based occupations do not and cannot form a social class because they are found in all sectors of the economy and their job description and interests are very diverse. Moreover, in decentralized and pluralistic democracies like the United States, all policymaking actors try to legitimize their claims using knowledge and information, and for this reason they employ various experts and consultants. In turn, it is difficult to enforce any claim solely on the basis of knowledge. Although those with scientific knowledge have a high social standing, they are often questioned. The consequence is a fragile society where controlling, planning, and predicting social conditions becomes more and more difficult and where the power of formerly monolithic institutions, such as the state, the church, and the military, declines.
The basic difference between Gouldner and Stehr is an assumption of knowledge distribution and its attributes. While Gouldner believes that knowledge can be concentrated in relatively few hands, Stehr assumes that knowledge is widely dispersed, that there are various types of knowledge and they are rapidly changing. Empirical studies seem to support Stehr’s view. Though the number of experts has grown rapidly since World War II (1939–1945), they have limited influence on policymaking, except on issues of narrowly technical interest (Brint 1994).
If knowledge society is to be a useful term, it must be taken critically and further elaborated. There are several problems with its usage. First, it does not (and cannot) capture all aspects of modern postindustrial societies. It simply states that knowledge is the most important productive factor. Yet, any type of economic determinism should be avoided. There can be different types of knowledge societies, with different value structures, life styles, and even political systems. Similarly, modern societies can be given many other labels, such as risk society, consumption society, and so on. Second, knowledge is too broad a term and should be carefully decomposed and defined in any analysis or strategy. Third, attaining a knowledge society is not ensured but must be actively supported. Fourth, there is no clear-cut threshold from which societies become knowledge societies. It is more about processes (knowledge production, learning, innovation, and creativity) than about fulfilling static objectives.
SEE ALSO Globalization, Social and Economic Aspects of; Knowledge
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Brint, Steven. 1994. In an Age of Experts: The Changing Role of Professionals in Politics and Public Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Brzezinski, Zbigniew. 1970. Between Two Ages: America’s Role in the Technetronic Era. New York: Viking.
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United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division for Public Administration and Development Management. 2005. Understanding Knowledge Societies: In Twenty Questions and Answers with the Index of Knowledge Societies. New York: United Nations.