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Information Society


Increased reliance on activities directly associated with the production, distribution, and utilization of information has led to characterizing many advanced countries of the world as information societies. The term information society and related concepts, such as information age and knowledge economy, describe a social system greatly dependent on information technologies to produce and distribute all manner of goods and services. In contrast to the industrial society, which relied on internal combustion engines to augment the physical labor of humans, the information society relies on computer technologies to augment mental labor.

Trends in labor-force composition both define and measure the extent to which a nation can be described as an information society. Machlup (1962) was perhaps the first to describe U.S. society in these terms. He estimated that nearly one-third of the labor force in1958 worked in information industries such as communications, computers, education, and information services, which accounted for 29 percent of the gross national product (GNP). Using a slightly different methodology, Porat (1977) estimated that information activities had risen to just under half of the U.S. GNP by 1967.

A defining attribute of the information society is the search for improvements in productivity through substituting information for time, energy, labor, and physical materials. In practical terms, this means supplying workers with computerized workstations that are networked to other workstations through intranets as well as the Internet. It allows the use of software to reprogram equipment in distant locations, and it often eliminates the physical delivery of messages and even products. These changes are aimed at making organizational production, distribution, and management decisions more efficient. An early indicator of the extent to which industries sought productivity improvements through the use of information equipment is that whereas only 10 percent of all U.S. investments in durable equipment was spent on the purchase of computers and communications equipment in 1960, that investment increased to 40 percent in 1984 (U.S. Congress 1988) and is now much higher.

The concept of postindustrial society, developed most notably by Daniel Bell (1973), anticipated development of the information society. The term post-industrial described the decline of employment in manufacturing and an increase in service and professional employment noted by Machlup (1962) and Porat (1977). Knowledge and information were viewed by Bell as the strategic and transforming resources of postindustrial society, just as capital and labor were the strategic and transforming resources of industrial society.

Advances in the capabilities of information technologies to process large quantities of information quickly have been a crucial factor in the development of the information society. These technologies are of two types, computer power and transmission capability. Development of inexpensive silicon integrated circuits containing as many as a million transistors on a single chip had already been achieved by the mid-1980s, making it possible to pack enormous information processing power into very little space. As a result, desktop microcomputers gained the processing power comparable to the largest mainframe computers of the previous decade. Computational power continued to increase by a factor of ten every five to seven years in the 1990s (Martin 1995). Improvements in microprocessor technology, coupled with developments in parallel processing, storage methods, input–output devices, and speech recognition and synthesis, have continued to increase dramatically the nature, scale, and speed of tasks that can be accomplished on computers. All this has happened while prices for computers declined in an equally dramatic way.

Corresponding advancements have occurred in photonics as a result of the development of laser technology and ultra-pure glass fiber. These developments resulted in the ability to transmit enormous quantities of information long distances on tiny optic fibers without amplification. By the mid-1980s, AT&T Laboratories had transmitted 420 million bits per second of information over 125 miles without amplification. Advancements of this nature, as well as the use of satellites, made it possible for computers located thousands or tens of thousands miles apart to share large amounts of information nearly as quickly and effectively as would happen if they were located in the same building. Like the price for computing power, the price for transmitting large amounts of information from one place to another also has declined.

These changes in computational and transmission power have made possible new ways of interacting and doing business. Automatic teller machines located on one continent can dispense cash from a bank located on another continent. Cash registers and gasoline pumps are connected to a telecommunications system so that credit card balances can be checked before making a sale. By pressing numbers on a touch tone telephone and without talking to another human being, products can be purchased, library books can be renewed, newspaper delivery can be started or stopped, survey questionnaires can be answered, and money can be transferred from one account to another. These examples illustrate not only the substitution of information technology applications for human labor, but also the creation of services that could not previously be provided.

However, these developments pale beside the huge capability being unleashed by development of the World Wide Web. Once a system for the exchange of simple text messages among scientists, it has now expanded to a required form of communication for many, if not most, businesses and professionals. It is estimated that as many as 160 million users are now connected to the Internet, of which nearly half are in the United States and Canada. The rapid growth in Internet use in the mid-1990s has led to increases in connections among geographically dispersed work groups and to new methods for the selling of goods and services.

Development of the information society happened neither suddenly nor without warning. According to Beniger (1986), its roots go back to a crisis of control evoked by the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s. Industrialization speeded up material-processing systems. However, innovations in information processing and communications lagged behind innovations in the use of energy to increase productivity of manufacturing and transportation systems. Development of the telegraph, telephone, radio, television, modern printing presses, and postal delivery systems all represented innovations important to the resolution of the control crisis, which required replacement of the traditional bureaucratic means of control that had been depended on for centuries before.

However, an entirely new stage in the development of the information society has been realized through advances in microprocessing technology and the convergence of mass-media telecommunications and computers into a single infrastructure of social control (Beniger 1986). An important factor in this convergence was digitalization of all information, so that distinctions between types of information such as words, numbers, and pictures become blurred, as does communication between persons and machines on the one hand, and between machines on the other. Digitalization, therefore, allowed the transformation of information into a generalized medium for processing and exchange by the social system, much as common currency and exchange rates centuries ago did for the economic systems of the world. Combining telephone, television, and computer into a single device represents an important likely and practical consequence of this convergence.

Quite different views exist about the possible effects of the development of a full-fledged information society (Lyon 1988). One view is that it will empower workers, providing direct access to opportunities unavailable to them in an industrial society except by high organizational position and proximity to centralized positions of power. In 1985, Harlan Cleveland described information as being fundamentally different from the resources for which it is being substituted; for example, it is not used up by the one who consumes it, hence making its use possible by others. It is also easily transportable from one point to another, a characteristic made strikingly clear by the rapid rise of the World Wide Web. Cleveland argued that the information society would force dramatic changes in longstanding hierarchical forms of social organization, terminating taken-for-granted hierarchies based on control, secrecy, ownership, early access, and geography. A similar view was provided by Masuda (1981), writing in a Japanese context, who envisioned the development of participatory democracies, the eradication of educational gaps between urban and rural areas, and the elimination of a centralized class-based society.

A more pessimistic view of the consequences of knowledge as the key source of productivity was offered by Castells (1989). Fundamentally, the new information infrastructure that connects virtually all points of the globe to all others allows for great flexibility in all aspects of production, consumption, distribution, and management. To take advantage of the efficiencies offered by full utilization of information technologies, organizations plan their operations around the dynamics of their information-generating units, not around a limited geographic space. Individual nations lose the ability to control corporations. Information technologies, therefore, become instrumental in the implementation of fundamental processes of capitalist restructuring. In contrast to the view offered by Cleveland, the stateless nature of the corporation is seen as contributing to an international hierarchical functional structure in which the historic division between intellectual and manual labor is taken to an extreme. The consequences for social organization are to dissolve localities as functioning social systems and to supersede societies.

There can be no doubt that the use of information technologies is significantly changing the structures of advanced societies. Yet it would be a mistake to think of the use of information technologies as a cause only, and not a consequence, of changes in societal structures. Laws have evolved in the United States in an attempt to regulate rates that can be charged for cable television, how much can be charged by providers for telecommunications services to schools and libraries, and what levels of telephone transmission services must be provided to individual households as a part of universal service. The influence of people's values is also being exerted on the extent and means by which confidentiality of data records must be protected; it also is being exerted through state and local laws mandating the accessibility of computers to schoolchildren.

Our rapid evolution to an information society poses many important sociological questions about how our increased dependence upon information technologies influences social interaction and other aspects of human behavior. The ability to transmit work across national boundaries, even the high likelihood that information essential to the operation of a nation will be stored outside rather than within a country, raises important questions about what is essential for preserving national sovereignty. The ability to control operations at long distance encourages an even greater division of labor among nations. As a result, labor unions may become powerless in the face of the ability of corporations to move production activities across national boundaries (Lyon 1988). And, just as elements of national society have weakened in the face of globalization, a set of counterforces have been unleashed whereby identity-based social movements compete to fill the void of power and control (Castells 1997). It is important for sociologists to seek an answer to the question of how the increased reliance on information technologies affects the sovereignty of individual nations and related social movements.

The information age provides new challenges for nearly all areas of sociology. It influences how and from whom we learn, with lifelong distance education changing the once essential learning triangle of professor, student, and classroom. New types of crime, such as creating and spreading computer viruses, have been elevated from curiosities to major threats to the functioning of organizations, society, and the world order. The impact on people's self-concepts may also be substantial. From preschool on, computers have become part of the sociological and psychological development of children, the potential effects of which have yet to be fully understood (Turkle 1984). This interaction with computers now extends via the Internet to others with computers, so that the core sociological concept of social interaction must make room for electronic, long distance interaction and its consequences. Many adults now spend far more of their lives in interchange with computers than with another technological development, the automobile, which also dramatically changed people's lives in the industrial society.

Information technologies also have the potential for breaking down boundaries of individual communities, making it possible for people to bypass forming traditional community ties, unless extraordinary efforts are made to maintain them (Allen and Dillman 1994). Thousands of new job titles are added to the occupational structure of countries, while other job titles disappear. Robert Reich, for example, describes the evolution of jobs into three broad types—routine work, in-person service workers, and symbolic analysts (1991). The latter are theorized to be the creators of "value" in the information age, replacing land, plants, and equipment as the most valued production resource. These anticipated changes, to the extent they occur, provide the basis for evolution of a new class structure in society, based more upon educational accomplishment than upon the ownership of material resources.

Some have argued that we are evolving into a world of the information-rich and information-poor, with computer access and skills forming the great divide (Castells 1997; Lyon 1988). Even though computers seem omnipresent in society, they are present in only a minority (about 40 percent) of U.S. households and only half of those households have e-mail or Web access (National Telecommunications Information Administration [NTIA] 1998). To the extent that computers with Web connections shift from an optional way of accessing important information and purchasing good and services to a mandatory means of obtaining competitive prices, a case can be made that class differences will expand.

It's appropriate that Daniel Bell, besides being one of the earliest prognosticators of the information age, also has more recently described quite different ways in which it could evolve (1989). He points out that the telecommunications revolution makes possible an intense degree of centralization of power if the society decides to use it in that way. However, because of the multiplicity, diversity, and cheapness of the modes of communication, decentralization is also possible. One of the important challenges for sociology is to understand which of these visions will prevail and why.


Allen, John C. and Don A. Dillman 1994 Against AllOdds: Rural Community in the Information Age. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Bell, Daniel 1973 The Coming of Postindustrial Society: AVenture in Social Forecasting. New York: Basic Books.

——1989 "Communication Technology: For Better or for Worse." In Jerry L. Salvaggio, ed., The Information Society: Economic Social and Structural Issues. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associations.

Beniger, James R. 1986 The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Castells, Manuel 1989 The Information City. Cambridge, U.K.: Basil Blackwell.

Castells, Manuel 1997 The Information Age Economy,Society and Culture: Volume II. The Power and Identity. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers.

Cleveland, Harlan 1985 "The Twilight of Hierarchy: Speculation on the Global Information Society." Public Administration Review 45:185–196.

Lyon, David 1988 The Information Society: Issues andIllusions. London, U.K.: Polity Press.

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Martin, William J. 1995 The Global Information Society. London: Aslib Gower.

Masuda, Yoneji 1981 The Information Society as Post-industrial Society. Tokyo: Institute for the Information Society; Bethesda, Md.: World Future Society.

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Don A. Dillman

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