Defining the information society
Phuah Eng Chye (27 April 2019)
Societies undergo stress from discontinuous change. The manufacturing sector shrinks and populations age as the physical is replaced by the intangible. Radical departures from traditional norms, behaviours and organisational structures cause disruption and social dislocation. Paradigms function as the lenses that we peer through to understand these changes. A multitude of paradigms have been proposed to explain the forces reshaping society. They generally fall into the following categories.
- The relationship between labour and capital. Economists anticipated a future where work is mainly performed by machines and pondered how it would affect the relationship between labour and capital. Karl Marx imagined an economy “in which the main role of machines was to produce, and the main role of people was to supervise them. He was clear that in such an economy the main productive force would be information…the big question becomes not wages versus profits but who controls what Marx called the power of knowledge”. The Marxist paradigm thus interpret events within the context of the labour-capital relationship, capital accumulation and the emergence of an underclass from capitalist exploitation.
- The relationship between work and leisure. John Maynard Keynes mulled about “a new disease…technological unemployment. This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour…for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.” The Keynesian paradigm emphasises on the relationships between consumption, savings and investments. It focuses on policy management to counter unemployment and demand deficiencies.
- Development planning. Japan is probably the earliest to envisage itself as an information society. Its development plans focused on leveraging on the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector as a key driver of its economic growth. Recently, the Japanese government announced it was launching the concept of “Society 5.0”.
“We aim at creating a society where we can resolve various social challenges by incorporating the innovations of the fourth industrial revolution (e.g. IoT, big data, artificial intelligence (AI), robot, and the sharing economy) into every industry and social life. By doing so the society of the future will be one in which new values and services are created continuously, making people’s lives more conformable and sustainable. This is Society 5.0, a super-smart society. Japan will take the lead to realize this ahead of the rest of the world”. Government of Japan (2016) “Realizing Society 5.0”.
- Theme-based and continuation paradigms. There are a variety of paradigms based on themes such as AI, big data, California ideology, cognitive capitalism, communications, cyber, digital, gigs, intangibility, knowledge, late capitalism, managerial capitalism, networks, platforms, robotics, sharing, smart technology and zero marginal costs. In some instances, the information society is not recognised as a distinctive new phase but as the continuation of an existing paradigm. Hence, the prefix “post” is attached; e.g. post-industrial, post-capitalist, post-Fordism, post-modernisation or as an enumerated series; e.g. third or fourth industrial revolution. One could also argue the reverse logic could be applied; with the earlier phases regarded as “pre-information society”.
Other advanced economies have also launched development plans predicated on strengthening their capabilities in new technologies such as AI, robotics, IOT and big data; usually with the objective of strengthening their global competitiveness.
Most of these paradigms share a common theme; namely the prominent role of information. The large variety of interpretations is not surprising because information is intrinsically multi-dimensional, ambiguous and ephemeral. Like the proverbial blind men feeling the elephant, economists can only describe the fragments they feel. Frank Webster’s observation is that “scholars acknowledge that there is something special about information”, but that “there is little agreement about its major characteristics and its significance”. Some critics even suggest there is nothing special about the concept of an information society to merit its consideration as a unique paradigm.
In my view, the information society is the best framework to understand the forces reshaping society. It is generic, has broad application and is similar in representation to the preceding eras of agriculture and industrial. I believe the other competing paradigms are limited in their perspectives and unable to capture the full range of information effects. In many instances, their flaw is they remain detached to the physical paradigms.
In this context, Scott Lash explains that “I would understand contemporary times very much in terms of the information society, rather than postmodernisation or the risk society, late capitalism, etc. Information society is, first, preferable to postmodernism in that the former says what the society’s principle is rather than saying merely what it comes after. Postmodernisation in this sense comes under modernisation. Second, postmodernisation deals largely with disorder, fragmentation and irrationality, whilst the notion of information accounts for both the (new) order and disorder that we experience. Indeed, the disorder (irrationality) is largely the unintended consequence of the order (rationality). Third, architects…understand postmodernisation in terms of complexity and contradiction and in particular from the contradiction of juxtaposition of elements of style, and of the contradiction of decoration and structure. In comparison, information is preferable and more powerful as a notion because it operates from a unified principle. Thus an information architecture is an architecture of flows, of movement, encouraging real time relations over distances; it is an architecture of disembedding of the compression of time and space”.
Scott Lash adds that “the information society has often been understood in terms of knowledge-intensive production and a post-industrial array of goods and services that are produced. This needs to be broadened”. He notes 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 defining the information society, it is important to avoid being trapped by the ideological debate. In the first place, the validity of ideological views is undermined by the information effects such as convergence, transience, concentration-fragmentation and the many-to-many relationships blurring traditional boundaries and decoupling traditional relationships. In addition, ideology has predetermined answers and this hampers the ability to find new theories that will provide different answers. This is why it is important to detach the economic from the ideological issues
An information-based paradigm offers what the non-information paradigm is not able to; namely an explanation on how information affects the organisation of social and economic activities. In this context, the information society represents a notional point where the economic logic shifts from linear to non-linear, from hierarchical to non-hierarchical, from stock (accumulation) to flows (circulation), and from production to communication.
More critically, changes in the nature of information have reached a tipping point. Information used to be the preserve of governments and large corporations but now these capabilities are widely accessible to individuals. Information is changing the organisation of and relationships between governments, firms and individuals. In addition, information handled by humans and machines are of a different class from information handled by sensors and algorithms. It is no longer humans or machines but data that drive events. In the data economy, data is perceived to be replacing labour, capital and even oil as the most valuable resource.
The need for an information society paradigm is thus becoming more urgent as the information effects become more pervasive. In this context, the information society conjures a mirage of abundance but it has far-reaching displacement effects disrupting employment and industry structures, aggravating imbalances and diluting the role of relationships in binding social cooperation and welfare. At the macroeconomic level, the onset of economic maturity and aging erodes economic vibrancy. Greater use of information to generate financial value increases vulnerabilities to price reversions and capital destruction. Information thus changes the patterns for employment, consumption, income generation and distribution, risk-sharing and ownership. The challenges faced by an information society are unique in that their context and policy choices differ substantially from those in the industrial economy.
A robust information society paradigm would provide a more accurate prognosis of information-driven changes and would be a more reliable guide to managing an economy that is less physical. However, a coherent overview to tie all the different bits and pieces together is missing. I suggest there are three layers to consider. The first layer consists of the sociological and ideological aspects of the information society. These issues have been extensively debated. The second layer relates to what we want to achieve and how activities and institutions should be organised if we had all the information. Wholesale change in objectives and organisational structure implies an overhaul of economic policies, institutions and regulations will be needed and that hints of further disruption ahead. The third layer is the incorporation of information effects into macroeconomic policy models. This can be considered to be stillborn. In this context, the holy grail is a general theory of the information society where abundance and information is the general case while scarcity and physical production is the exception.
Cabinet Office, Government of Japan (2016) “Realizing Society 5.0”. https://www.japan.go.jp/abenomics/_userdata/abenomics/pdf/society_5.0.pdf
Frank Webster “Chapter 4: What information society?” The Information Society, Vol. 10(1), pp. 1-23. http://www.artefaktum.hu/it/Webster.htm
Frank Webster (2006) Theories of the information society. Third edition. Routledge.
Paul Mason (2015) Postcapitalism: A guide to our future. Penguin
Phuah Eng Chye (2015) Policy paradigms for the anorexic and financialised economy: Managing the transition to an information society.
Phuah Eng Chye (1 July 2017) “Introduction to the information society”.
Phuah Eng Chye (15 July 2017) “The significance of information effects”.
Scott Lash (2002) Critique of Information. Sage Publications.
Yoneji Masuda (1981) The information society as post-industrial society. World Future Society.https://books.google.com.my/books?hl=en&lr=&id=ynkmIxF1G3AC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=information+society+japan&ots=S3Z9Obb0Gk&sig=zBtwQeoj6MmcxmHBkqs41QUgzok&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=information%20society%20japan&f=false
 Paul Mason.
 See Yoneji Masuda as one of the early examples.
 See the following article on the Critique of Information.