Critique of information

Critique of information

Phuah Eng Chye (11 May 2019)

“The global information order itself has, it seems to me, erased and swallowed up into itself all transcendentals. There is no outside space any more for such critical reflection. And there is just as little time. There is no escaping from the information order, thus the critique of information will have to come from inside the information itself”. Scott Lash (2002) Critique of information

I recently came across Scott Lash’s Critique[1] of information. Scott Lash’s work is impressive for the manner in which it characterises the changing behaviours arising from society’s transition from industrial production to information. His book provides insightful analysis of the philosophical and sociological literature on the concept of an information society. The remainder of this article consists of extracts from his book. I have taken the liberty to reorder the flow and hope this has not taken his arguments out of context.

Scott Lash explains “information is preferable and more powerful as a notion because it operates from a unified principle…the information society in contrast to other analyses of it is a focus on the primary qualities of information itself…The primary qualities of information are flow, disembeddedness, spatial compression, temporal compression, real-time relations. It is not exclusively, but mainly, in this sense, that we live in an information age”. In the transition “from a national manufacturing society to a global, informational culture”, he outlined three new governing logics “(1) the principle of the national is being displaced by that of the global; (2) the logic of the manufacturing is displaced by the logic of information; and (3) the logic of the social is being displaced by that of the cultural”.

  • The logic of the manufacturing is being displaced by the logic of information (Concept – the disinformed information society)

“The information society is not primarily a society in which the production of information displaces the production of goods. It is also not primarily a society in which knowledge or information becomes the most important factor of information. It is instead an order in which the principle of society becomes displaced by the principle of information. An order in which the sociality is displaced by a certain informationality. Sociality is long-lasting and proximal. Informationality is of short duration and at a distance…Social relations themselves are becoming less a question of sociality than informationality…The gift reflected over a long time is replaced by the quick direct-delivered electronic order…They come to you. They last but for a few days. They come from a distance, lifted out from ongoing forms of life. They are produced and received in immediacy, with little time for reflection at all. When informationality replaces sociality as the dominant principle there is the information society”. (Page 75)

“The greatest contradiction of the information society is that what is produced with the highest knowledge and rationality as a factor of production, in its unintended consequences lead to the pervasion and overload of the utmost (also informational) irrationality. At issue indeed is the desinformierte informationsgesellschaft (disinformed information society)”. (Page 75)

“…the paradox of the information society. This is, how can such highly rational production result in the incredible irrationality of information overload, misinformation, disinformation and out-of-control information. At stake is a disinformed information society…This is a theory of unintended consequences”. (Page 2)

“It makes sense to speak of the dis-informed information society. The contradiction is that as the information leads ever more to a smartening up, it at the same time brings with it a certain inevitable dumbing down…Unlike narrative, information compresses beginning, middle and end into a present immediacy of a now-here. Unlike discourse, information does not need legitimating arguments. Does not take the form of proportional utterances, but works with an immediate communicational violence”. (Page viii)

The unintended consequence of knowledge and rationality as a factor of production has to do with the (global) information culture. “It has to do with information overload…information becomes ubiquitous, spins out of control. Now informationalisation leads to an overload of communications. We need to go no further than the newspapers to understand the nature…written immediately, without reflection, for that day, under the pressure of a deadline, of no use tomorrow; of value for 24 hours and no longer. Such information loses meaning, loses significance very quickly. This might also be a clue to the way that value might be understood in the information society. This sort of information-value and its temporality is different from both use-value and exchange-value. Use-value and exchange-value comprise a past and a future. Information-value is ephemeral. It is immediate. Information-value has no past, no future: no space for reflection and reasoned argument…It is instead a mass of particulars without a universal…There is no logical or analytic ordering. The newspaper headlines are ordered perhaps only by what sells papers: telegraph and newspaper ordered by urgency. Newsprint’s power comes not through argument, but through a violently forceful facticity. Operating under the most restrictive of constraints – time deadlines, space considerations – its force and temporality is similar to the violence of the event…Newsprint, or information, has neither logical nor existential meaning…Its meaning is accidental, ephemeral and very often trivial…They have no meaning at all outside of real time. Outside the immediacy of real time, news and information are, literally, garbage. You throw out the newspaper with the disused food and the baby’s disposable diapers…the whole of the consumer capitalist city may be understood as information. In the heavily branded environment of the informational city, goods, lifestyle and design are ephemeral. Duration is short. Turnover is fast. Muzak is information; adverts in the cinema, TV, the internet are information, even when fully non-didactic and image-based…It is indeed branded products that are closest to being information…Fast-moving consumer goods, the branded products, we know lots about. We are all experts”. (Page 144)

“Garbage is a metaphor for the whole of the information society. It has to do with information surplus. Garbage is disposable. It needs to be disposed of. Information (and fast-moving consumer goods are information) is also disposable. It needs to be disposed of. The question is how to we regulate it? How do we govern it? How do we frame it…The side effects of the industrial society were material bads, physical pollutants. The side effects of the information society are symbolic bads, mental pollutants. We are polluted by the waste products of the information society: the sort of things that cultured people do not want in their living rooms”. (Page 150)

  • The logic of the social is being displaced by that of the cultural (Concepts – Communications, circulation and speed)

“The information order is perhaps primarily a communications order. It uses the idea of communication to understand the deterritorialization of the institutions, structures, organisations and systems of the national manufacturing order. Then it looks at how the logic of the information flows reterritorialize into the brand, platform, the standard, intellectual property and the network. It then understands the information order in terms of the crisis of reproduction of the social and of the symbolic order. The information flows, we see, run counter to all logics of reproduction, forsaking these for consumption, excess and chronic production”. (Page xii)

“Networks in this sense are non-linear and discontinuous. The movement along networks is often in several directions at once, and not along a straight path. Things get diffused through networks. The network society is a society of flows, a society of global communications. Flows are of many things, prominent among them is information. But all flows are flows of communications.  Marx’s manufacturing society was based on the machines that transformed nature. Today’s machines are less about the transformation of nature, or even about the transformation of culture (information), but about the transmission of culture (communications). The society of flows, the network society is less an information society than a communications society”. (Page 20)

“In the information age the centrality of the means of production are displaced by the means of communication: the centrality of production relations by relations of communication. Communications is here understood in its very broadest sense. The logic of flows is the logic of communications. With the domination of production there is a politics of struggles around accumulation (of capital). With the dominance of communication there is a politics of struggle around not accumulation but circulation. Manufacturing capitalism privileges production and accumulation, the network society privileges communication and circulation”. (Page 112)

“It is important to think of global and post-industrial capitalism as a shift perhaps not from mode of production to mode of information, but as one from mode of production to mode of communication. This puts at centre stage not the production of symbols but the movement of symbols. It puts at centre stage the question of flows. If the information society foregrounded the production of symbols, then the global information culture foregrounds the movement of symbols, with or without the people that move them. Hence the older social structures of the manufacturing society and its representational culture are displaced not just by information structures but increasingly by communication structures”. (Page 176)

Content, code and communications are the three dimensions of the information society more generally. “Communciation is the most fundamental…Information on its own is static. Communication imparts to information a dynamic, a force: a source of energy…The communication is the connecting link between the informational and the global”. (Page 203)

“The new economy is thus a communications economy. It is an economy less of accumulation of capital or information than one of flows. These flows are communications. They are communications in the broadest sense…Communications are a question of culture-at-a-distance. In the older manufacturing society, social relations took place in proximity. Relations were more diffuse, long-lasting; they were structured like narratives. The social relation was at the same time the social bond. Now in the information order, the social relation is replaced by the communication. The communication is intense, of short duration. Communications break with narrative for the brevity of the message. The older social relations took place in proximity; the communication bond is at a distance. Communications are also about culture, not in proximity, but culture at a distance”. (Page 205)

“Thus communication is the key term, the pivotal social fact for the global information order. The shift from a logic of structures to a logic of flows is made possible by the stretched relationships brought about by such generalised outsourcing. And this outsourcing is a re-territorialization. As the firm moves into the household, the family moves out. As the firm is outsourced into the household, the family is outsourced elsewhere. Hence we have not just the dissolution of the family but its reterritorialization. After divorce are weekend kids and long-distance partners – with the resulting communication links. Again, not diffuse, but intense relationships. Again there is a shift from the social relation to the communication, as family members stay in touch by e-mail and every twelve-year-old gets a mobile phone for Christmas. Bargain flights from start-up airlines and internet travel intermediators bring long-distance partners and family members together for brief, intense, yet regularly repeated encounters. These are long-lasting relationships. But they have neither the continuity nor linearity of narrative. They are non-linear, discontinuous, yet long-lasting relationships. They comprise short bursts of intense intercommunication. These long-lasting relationships characterised both the outsourced family and the network of disintegrated small firms. Staff from the same small firms come together repeatedly over many years for short term projects. This is paralleled by an outsourcing of the welfare state and indeed more generally of the functions of the state”. (Page 208)

“The hemonic principle of the manufacturing society is accumulation; that of the information society, circulation. In national accumulation, things stay largely under control. In global circulation, things tend to fly out of control. This is at the heart of the contradiction of the information society. It is why it is always also a disinformation society”. (Page 144)

“The now’s time chronology is the speed of light; the instantaneous time in which – as the increment between arrival and departure incessantly shrinks – there is the simultaneous arrival of everything without there ever being a departure…Without a temporal horizon of narrative, simultaneity loses significance. The age of speed[2] is…an era in which there is no longer an opposition between culture and technology…In the age of speed, technology and the ‘machinic’ invade the space of culture and the subject…In cinema, as distinct from the novel, we view the narrative through the eyes of not the protagonist, but of technology, of the camera. We no longer identify with the unified and coherent field of vision of the protagonist, but with the machine and thus a plurality of perpetual fields. In these early days only the margins of social life were affected by the encroaching logic of speed. Subsequently, however, these culture-machines have come to invade the home. Now the brown goods, information and image machines like television, video, computers, computer game consoles, satellite consoles, set top boxes and telephone answering machines come to invade the household. With encroachment into the space of the private the age of speed also becomes the age of the most crippling and static inertia”. (Page 137)

“What happens to Being, of both things and human beings, in the age of speed? Where do we find the political? If in the age of the storyteller the temporal horizon for the meaning of Being was history, in the age of the novel, the horizon for the meaning of Being has been time, or more recently difference. But when the tale and the narrative are de-legitimated, neither history (collective memory) nor time (individual – conscious or unconscious – memory) can function as the temporal horizon…in the age of speed…symbolic and imaginary are exploded into fragments and disseminated outside of the subject into an indifference in which they attach to a set of humans and non-humans, to objects of consumer culture, to images, to thinking machines, to machines that design. All that is left is a body without organs, a body that thinks, a machinic body that thinks, that symbolises, that imagines”. (Page 137)

“What about value? What if the embedded values and virtues and good life of the era of history, that is, where values are attached to virtue and good life, cede to an age of time in which values are no longer attached to the good life but to goods (homogeneous labour time as capital) or to the subjective time and Erlebnis and the subjective do-it-yourself values of the individual? What happens in the age of speed in which the individual, the human, dissolves in the vortex of catastrophe? Perhaps the only thing possible, then, are neither traditional values, nor human values, but also non-human values. Here not only do values inhere in non-humans; but also non-humans are agents of evaluation, agents of judgment”[3]. (Page 138)

“The politics of speed, of indifference, is a politics of much more radical finitude and limits. Now rights, for example, are granted to non-humans…a parliament of things, of non-humans including animals and nature[4]. In these post-human politics, non-humans are recognised as having powers of judging, gazing, thinking, pro-creating. Post-human politics is siding with the microbe, the virus, the gene, which attain an enhanced ontological status”. (Page 139)

  • The principle of the national is being displaced by that of the global (Concepts – Intellectual property, prototypes, lifted-out, reproduction, exclusion, disorganisation)

Power is still very strongly tied to knowledge, “but informational knowledge is increasingly displacing narrative and discursive knowledge. Power is indeed still very importantly tied to the commodity, in an age that is more than ever capitalist. But in a very important way it may no longer be commodification that is driving informationalisation, but instead informationalisation that is driving commodification. Information explodes the distinction between use value and exchange value…But then it is recaptured by capital for further commodification. Fast-moving consumer goods and branded consumer products are also informational in their quick obsolescence, their global flows, their regulation through intellectual property, their largely immaterial nature in which the work of design and branding assumes centrality while the actual production is outsourced…Power in the manufacturing age was attached to property as the mechanical means of production. In the information age it is attached to intellectual property”. (Page 3)

“Ownership and power comes with ownership both of the signs and the space…We rent time in such mediatic space…Commodity sellers rent the usage of space from the owners of hyper real estate. They pay for it in line with the value of the intellectual property (itself partly a factor of the number of viewers it can attract and the spending power these viewers have) that is occupying this time. Owners of mediatic space themselves compete for the intellectual property (TV series, football broadcasting rights, exclusive rights to movies) that attract the well-off masses, so they can get commodity sellers to pay them high rents…in the modern industrial order…nation-states entered into struggle for legal ownership of real estate. But in the post-national global and informational order…struggle for ownership and control of not real but hyper real estate…This entails battles over the channels, fibreoptics, the air waves…Owning machines that make CDs is not as important as owning exclusive rights to market the latest Spice Girls album.”[5] (Page 81)  

“Information is at the same time necessarily disinformation. And the question then is how do we impose some sort of order on the chaos. Capital accumulates. It already has some sort of order inherent to it. Information of the other hand circulates, its swirls, it bombards. Capital as assets, as accumulated means of production is found in specific zones. It may be exported for production in the third world. It may internationalise. Capital is becoming more like information in a greater and global ubiquity. Capital, however, is not everywhere. You are not bombarded by it from the billboards and in your own home. Information is in its nature more anarchic than capital. Capital is regulated by the hidden hand of markets, or by other modes of governance. Information escapes very often the logic of markets. It is everywhere at the same time for free. Your desktop monitor and your WAP mobile phone may open up possibilities for markets. But they are much more than a market. All sorts of information come to them that do not follow the laws of supply and demand. Information may be ungovernable. We need to put various sorts of order on the new anarchic complexity. Thus we need frames to order the information…to make it intelligible…marketable…One such type of frame is the law of intellectual property. Frames keep other people out and let the public know that the information inside your frame is your property. Another such frame is the brand. The old manufacturing capitalism, so to speak, enframed itself; its accumulation already had a certain order. In the information society, frames must be imposed from the outside. Exchange-value is empty. Yet modern law of property and contract circumscribed it. The means of production as abstract capital were owned by the capitalist, and property law meant he could keep others out, and be also the de facto owner of labour power, of variable capital.  But this was in industrial capitalism. In information capitalism the frame is the brand. The brand has its basis in intellectual property, typically in trademark…The brand imparts a certain order to the chaos of information and communication flows”. (Page 149)

One type of information “is inscribed in a problematic of rationality, of intelligence. It is inscribed in a problematic of knowledge: of knowledge-intensive production with increasingly intelligent machines and information-rich goods and services…at stake is a knowledge-intensive society, not a work-intensive society. Knowledge, not production, is the key. The information society is a knowledge society…In the information society labour, or labour-power, has become the informational. The means of production has also become informational. In manufacturing capitalism, workers use practical knowledge in conjunction with material machines to process raw or semi-finished materials, in order to make material products. In information-capitalism labour power operates with not practical but discursive knowledge; operates with not classical, but information machines; and works not on raw materials, but on raw or semi-finished information in order to produce informational goods. There is thus a shift from material to information processing…The information society’s reflexive accumulation witnesses a shift from economies of scale to economies of scope[6] as reflexive consumers want to consume very different things from one another…They consume less out of habit than through reflection in terms of alternatives on the marketplace. On the production side, the design (or research and development) process starts to take over primacy from the labour process as ever more models, ever more prototypes for ever shorter production runs, comes to be the rule. In the information society the production process begins to marginalise what Marx calls the labour process. The knowledge-intensive production process displaces the work-intensive labour process. The labour process produces many or very many of roughly the same things. It produces commodities. The knowledge-intensive production process makes not commodities but singularities. In many sectors – the media, digital media, advertising and a number of industrial sectors – this is the design-intensive production…Thus there is a shift from the centrality of the factory in the manufacturing society to the laboratory or the studio in the information society…The singularities that the design studio makes are prototypes. They are to be reproduced in great numbers. This represents a certain technologicalisation of previously autonomous art…When competition becomes specialised or reflexive, then competition becomes less a question of who can produce the greatest amount cheapest, or even of quality of mass production. Competition becomes a struggle of the prototypes”. (Page 141)

“Technological forms of life are disembedded, they are somehow lifted out. As lifted out, they take on increasingly less and less the characteristic of any particular place…This lifted-out space of placelessness is a generic space…It is characterised not so much by a multiple of identities, but by an absence of identity. Its context is no context at all. Its difference is indifference. Airports and aeroplanes are indeed such generic spaces. So are the branded spaces of department stores…The internet is a generic space…Indeed networks are themselves by definition lifted-out spaces…The laboratory is such a generic space. The laboratory is lifted-out from normal life…the laboratory produces not goods, nor services, but knowledge; it produces research…Whether in Tokyo, Paris or Los Angeles people wear white coats. Laboratories are filled with similar equipment and the same scholarly and professional journals. In laboratories people must know English and be digitally literate. There is less context-lessness about the laboratory…unlike the factory which makes copies; and the office, which circulates those copies. The laboratory and the studio make prototypes. And when consumption gets increasingly specialised, and product markets increasingly unpredictable, competition become a question less of copies, than of protypes. Progressively more people work in prototype production. Laboratories and studios spread to more and more economic sectors”. (Page 21)

“Platforms are lifted out spaces…It comes under intellectual property law, the law of copy-right. But platforms are not necessarily proprietary…European platform for mobile telecommunications…Linux operating system…Platforms are very special kinds of intellectual property. Without them, one cannot gain admission to participate in various forms of technological life…Other platforms for technological forms of life are airports, and space in the right districts of global cities. You often need capital for access to these platforms, these generic spaces. They are expensive. You need cultural capital as well as economic capital. You need the social capital of the right networks. At issue may be a new type of social stratification, in which social class depends on relations to intellectual property and rights of access to the lifted out spaces of technological forms of life”. (Page 24)

“Life becomes a question no longer of organic systems but instead technological systems. And capital accumulation becomes literally accumulation of forms of life as information in the databases of, for example, the human genome project. Now not just ICT but life itself is becoming increasingly proprietary, increasingly inscribed in types of intellectual property”. (Page xi)

“Accumulation is expanded reproduction. Yet what happens today with the new hegemony of circulation in which circulating money capital is partly detached from capital accumulation, so that, for example, a firm’s market capitalisation in the new sectors is partly disjointed from, and more problematically related to, the worth of its assets. What happens is not just a crisis and devaluation of accumulation but a crisis more generally of reproduction”. (Page 209)

“…in previous social arrangements – feudalism, industrial capitalism, communism – pivotal social processes were inscribed in a paradigm of reproduction…It is only in the post-industrial societies, in globalised modernity, that the synchronic is no longer characterised by reproduction, but instead by chronic change and instability, by chronic innovation, in a word chronic production”[7].  (Page 214)

“The global information culture depends on power for exclusion. This means mainly exclusion from the loop, from the means of information, from the global flows of information and communication. The principal actors in the national manufacturing society were nations, institutions and organisations. In the information order, relationships are less within a country than between global cities in different countries. The importance of relations of production internal to organisations is now paralleled by new relations of production and communication between smaller and more amorphous disorganisations”. (Page vii)

“In the information order inequality tends to be less and less defined by relations of production between capitalists and workers in a given firm or factory. This is the paradigm for inequality in the industrial age. In the information order, central is less exploitation than exclusion.  And exclusion is first and foremost something that is defined in conjunction with the information and communication flows, with information and communication structures. What emerges here is a loop of relatively disembedded (hence increasingly global) elites. The information order is a society of the and connected by networks…Through these interfaces flow finance, technology, media, culture, information, communications and the like. There is something generic (i.e. not national, a-contextual and non-identity) about being in the loop of such networks.” (Page 4)

“The consequence is the emergence of a global elite, whose point of identification is the global elite in other such cities…The identification tends to be outward, they compete increasingly in international or transnational labour markets. To self-include and self-identify in the context of the global information and communication flows is to self-exclude and dis-identify from the national flows…Where there was social health care, schooling, pensions and security now there is contracting out into private schools, health insurance, pensions and policing…Everything equal, the closer the country is to the core, say Germany, France, Japan, the less of this self-exclusion there will be. The less it will lead to vast inequalities. The greatest inequalities are produced on the periphery. If…accumulation of a world scale led to surplus exploitation, then informationalisation on a world scale leads to a massive surplus of exclusion…A self-excluding overclass leads to a forcibly excluded underclass. Such is the way of the global information order. Power and inequality are if anything nastier and more violent in the information order and information critique must deal with this”. (Page 4)

“This logic of disorganisation is one of the dis-integration of institutions and organisations, of structures and systems…Manufacturing capitalism arises towards the end of a century-long (indeed millennia-spanning) process of differentiation; of structural differentiation and functional integration. It is at the junction at which this differentiation of structures, systems, organisations and institutions reaches its high point, its summit. With the end of organised capitalism, this process of differentiation goes into reverse. It becomes a process of indifferentiation leading to a generalised indifference of many kinds of increasingly digitised flows…These new (de-)territories are not new structures, institutions, organisations and organic-systems. They are instead such entities as platforms, brands, non-places, junkspace and cybernetic, open systems…disintermediation with the rise of the net sector, through the disintermediation of the bank, the bookshop and the record shop. Yet the flow-enhancing disintermediation leads to a set of re-intermediations. The deterritorialisations lead to a set of reterritorialisations. Embedded old intermediaries are replaced by the embedded new intermediaries. What happens in the global information order is a generalised outsourcing…Increased outsourcing is accompanied by an increase in density of networks of smaller firms. At issue is a stretching of productive relations. Work relations become a question of distanciated communication. They do so as they become simultaneously more informational”. (Page 206)


Scott Lash (2002) Critique of Information. Sage Publications.

[1] The term critique derives, via French, from Ancient Greek κριτική (kritikē), meaning “the faculty of judgment”, that is, discerning the value of persons or things. Critique has been extended in modern philosophy to mean a systematic inquiry into the conditions and consequences of a concept, a theory, a discipline, or an approach or attempt to understand the limitations and validity. A critical perspective, in this sense, is the opposite of a dogmatic one.

[2] Reference to Virilo (1986) Speed and politics.

[3] Reference to Latour (1993) We have never been modern.

[4] Reference to Latour (1993) We have never been modern.

[5] Reference to Tim Luke (1995) “New world order or neo-world orders: Power, politics and ideology in the informationalising global order”.

[6] Economies of scope focuses on the average total cost of production of a variety of goods, whereas economies of scale focus on the cost advantage from production of one good.

[7] Reference to A. Touraine (1995) Critique of modernity.