The information society: myth and reality


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This is an extract from The Information Society, 6th edition by John Feather.

What is information? Who are the information rich and who are the information poor? How can there be equality of access for users in the light of the political, economic and cultural pressures that are placed upon information creators, gatherers and keepers? Set against a broad historical backdrop, The Information Society explores the information revolution that continues to gather pace, as the understanding and management of information becomes even more important in a world where data can be transmitted in a split second.

This latest edition of this standard work has been fully updated to take account of the changing landscape and technological developments since 2008. The social Web, or Web 2.0, is now embedded in daily life, and some of its applications have become the most popular forms of communication system. Even the predominance of email – one of the most familiar manifestations of the information revolution – is now threatened by texting and the use of such applications as Twitter. The ways in which we expect to interact with information – and how much we are willing to pay for access to it – are throwing up new opportunities and debates.

At a societal level, as the quantity of personal digitized information continues to grow exponentially, so do both the benefits of exploiting it and the dangers of misusing it. The use of ICT to make government more accessible has to be balanced against the use of technologies that enable the state to be more vigilant or more intrusive, according to one's point of view.

Behind all of this lies further technical change: the massive expansion of connectivity to high-speed broadband networks; the phased abandonment of analogue broadcasting; and above all the widespread availability and use of sophisticated multi-functional mobile devices which carry voice, video and data and which can themselves be carried anywhere. The implications for daily life, for education, for work and for social and political relationships are massive.

Readership: All information professionals and students on courses on information, librarianship and communications studies, where an understanding of the nature of the information society is an essential underpinning of more advanced work.

More information about the book can be found here:

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The information society: myth and reality

  1. 1. The InformationSocietyMyth and Reality
  2. 2. An extract from:
  3. 3. The Information SocietyA little more than a decade into the new century, peopleover the age of 35 in the industrialized countries areincreasingly conscious of living in a world that isprofoundly and fundamentally different from that intowhich many of them were born. In less than twodecades, we have seen technological, economic, politicaland cultural change on a scale which, as a retrospectiveview becomes possible, is beginning to justify the use ofthe word ‘revolution’ to describe it.
  4. 4. The Information SocietyBut revolution is a word that we associate withviolence, with the storming of the Bastille or thebombardment of the Winter Palace. The 1990s wereindeed a violent decade in some places, but ourrevolution was only indirectly a part of that. It began inthe 1970s and is not yet complete; it has been at onceless obvious and more far-reaching than a mere change ina regime or even in a whole political system. It has beena revolution in our way of living, which, in one way oranother, has affected every human being on the planet.
  5. 5. The Information Society
  6. 6. The Information SocietyThe symbol of the revolution is the computer, the‘electronic brain’ of the ‘boffins’ in science fiction films oftwo or three generations ago, which now seem far olderthan their 50 or 60 years. The computer is in everyoffice, on most desks and in millions of homes. Behindthe scenes it is involved in almost everything we do,from buying our groceries to making a telephone call. .
  7. 7. The Information SocietyEven after more than a century of almost continuousinnovation in the technology of communication, and theinvention of devices from the telegraph and thetelephone to the television, the computer is perceived,however vaguely, as being in some way different. Byunderstanding that difference, we can begin tounderstand the new society which the computer ishelping to create, the revolution which it has bothinspired and driven.
  8. 8. The Information SocietyIt is now two centuries since the last comparablerevolution was at its height in Britain. The exploitationof the power of steam was creating a new economy, andin so doing reordering patterns of work, socialrelationships and the structure and political organizationof society.
  9. 9. The Information SocietyThe new arrangements which stabilized in the first halfof the 19th century were recognizably the successor ofwhat had gone before, but unmistakably different fromit. Institutions that survived were changed; manyvanished, and many new ones were created. Therevolution through which we are now living is at leastas great in its significance.
  10. 10. The Information SocietyThe steam engine was the motive power, both literaland metaphorical, of the industrial revolution; thecomputer is driving the revolution which is taking usinto the third millennium.
  11. 11. The Information SocietyWhy has this machine become so important? What is sospecial about these devices that has made them the forcebehind changes far greater than those wrought by anyother invention of an inventive century? The answer liesin their ability to simulate skills and attributes that weonce thought were unique to ourselves: memory, logic,communication.
  12. 12. The Information SocietyMachines that are able to emulate, and in some ways tosurpass, the intellectual and social capacities of thosewho make them are both fascinating and frightening.The virtually unlimited production and availability ofsuch devices cannot leave any aspect of human thoughtand activity wholly untouched.
  13. 13. The Information SocietyCommunication and memory are central to the humanexperience. So far as we know, we are the only creatureson earth with a true sense of history, a desire and anability to remember and analyse events in the past, andto make arrangements that allow us to record ourknowledge and ideas in perpetuity, so that they can berecovered and understood by generations not yet born insocieties which do not yet exist.
  14. 14. The Information SocietyUniquely, we can communicate across time and spaceand have developed systems and devices that enable usto do so. These developments began in the dawn ofhuman history, with the evolution of language itself(which some anthropologists would argue is the dawn ofhuman history in any meaningful sense) and the laterinvention of the first systems for recording andpreserving language in a material form.
  15. 15. The Information SocietyThe information-dependent society that is emergingfrom our revolution – the post-industrial revolution assome analysts call it – combines both profound changeand fundamental continuity. It can only be understoodin context. Part of this context is historical: thedevelopment of writing, printing and systems ofcommunication.
  16. 16. The Information SocietyPart of it is economic: the means by which systems forthe communication of information have becomeenmeshed in general systems of social and economicorganization, so that information and the means of itsstorage and transmission have been commodified. Athird part is political: commodified information isvalorized by more than merely the cost of its productionand distribution, for there is a real power to be derivedfrom its possession and a loss of empowerment caused byits absence.
  17. 17. The Information SocietyThese hypotheses about the origins, development andimplications of the information society are at the heartof The Information Society, 6th edition by John Feather.The book begins with an historical survey, whichsweeps without apology across much of the history ofmankind.
  18. 18. The Information SocietyIn that history, we observe first the development ofwriting, as people seek to preserve more informationthan their memories can hold and communicate it tothose to whom they cannot speak. We trace thedevelopment of different systems of writing until one –the alphabet – emerges and supersedes almost all of theothers because it is an adaptable and flexible means ofpreserving the languages in which we think and speak.
  19. 19. The Information SocietyEven the alphabet, however, cannot cope with all theconcepts that the human mind can invent. Systems weredeveloped which enabled our ancestors to record sound(as musical notation), numeric data and the relationshipbetween them (as numbers and symbols formathematical functions) and visual representation ofsize, shape and colour.
  20. 20. The Information SocietyIn the second phase of our history, a mechanical device –printing – was applied to the chronicling anddissemination of the information which was thusrecorded. The invention of printing has been seen as adefining moment in the history of mankind. Certainly, itfacilitated important changes in the organization andstructure of western European culture, religion andpolitics, and was to be one of the instruments ofEuropean domination of almost all of the rest of theworld.
  21. 21. The Information SocietyIn the smaller world of communications, printing hadanother effect which we consider at length: it was thefundamental reason for the commodification ofcommunications. A printer, we shall argue, needed morethan merely skills in order to practise his craftsuccessfully; a printer also needed both capital for theequipment with which the product was made anddistribution systems through which the product couldbe sold. The printed book was the first mass medium,because it was economically impossible for it to beanything else.
  22. 22. The Information SocietyOut of printing there developed the vast edifice of thepublishing industry, the first significant manifestation ofcommunications entering the world of commerce. Theprocess of writing, producing and selling printed bookswas, for 400 years, the unchallenged system ofcommunication between literate people. It became sofamiliar as to become a paradigm; its vocabulary andsome of its customs have been imitated by the producersand consumers of very different media.
  23. 23. The Information SocietyIn The Information Society, 6th edition, the paradigmhas been exploited to the full. There is a substantialanalysis of the process of book publishing, and of theindustry that has developed around it. This is developedas a model of commercial systems for the communicationof knowledge and information, which can be applied inturn to the other media that have proliferated in the last100 years.
  24. 24. The Information SocietyThe development of those other media – sound, vision,computing, and various combinations of them – is thefinal historical strand in this study. The history ofinformation and communication in the last 150 years is,in part, the history of the development of new devicesand systems which have extended our power tocommunicate in two ways. First, they have made it moresystematic and faster and hence more efficient. Secondly,and more importantly, they have extended the scope ofwhat can be communicated.
  25. 25. The Information SocietyAbove all, accurate representations of visual phenomena– photography, film, video – have become a part of ourdaily lives. We have moved beyond text and languageinto the storage and communication of images of thevisual world in which we actually live. Other inventionshave speeded the transmission of information: thetelegraph, the telephone, radio, television. These tools ofcommunication are the building blocks of theinformation society. An increasingly literate society has,paradoxically, become more dependent than ever on oraland visual communication systems.
  26. 26. The Information SocietyOnly at the very end of our historical story do we reachthe computer, and yet as soon as we do so we can beginto see its all-pervasive effects. The computer has broughttogether so many of the developments of the past. It hasboth demanded and facilitated the convergence oftechnologies, which allows us to combine computingwith telecommunications and the digitization of text andimage to permit almost instantaneous worldwide (andindeed extra-terrestrial) transmission of data.
  27. 27. The Information SocietyThe historical approach in Chapter 1 of the book (freeto view and download as a PDF here) and Chapter 2 isessentially an attempt to sketch the history of thestorage, communication and retrieval of information, interms of media and technology. We turn next to theeconomic issues that have arisen, which are becomingmore acute and which are being more urgentlyaddressed because of the increasing predominance oftechnology in the process of information provision andthe delivery of information services.
  28. 28. The Information SocietyInformation, as has already been suggested, wascommodified and valorized by the invention of printingand the consequent development of an industry whichused printing as its key technology. Publishing – theparadigm – is in the front line of exposure to changeunder the impact of the information revolution. Themarket-place itself is being redefined and extended. Someactivities traditionally associated with publishing andothers traditionally associated with libraries are beingdisaggregated and recombined.
  29. 29. The Information SocietyThe new configurations have wide implications farbeyond the boundaries of the academic world in whichmany of them originated. E-mail and electronicpublishing are only two of the more obvious applicationsof the combination of computing andtelecommunications which we broadly describe as‘information technology’.
  30. 30. The Information SocietyThe printed word, which has been the traditionalcommodity in the information market-place, wassupplemented and to a limited extent displacedthroughout the 20th century. The informationrevolution encompasses all those media thatcommunicate information to recipients. In the developedworld, and indeed far beyond it, the most potentmedium of all is television, the near-universal domesticsource of information, entertainment and socialinteraction.
  31. 31. The Information SocietyBroadcasting, first in sound only and then in both soundand vision, has been with us for nearly 100 years. Itsability to transmit information and opinioninstantaneously, with great apparent authority anddirectly to the home, was a force whose power wasrecognized before World War II and has beenconsistently exploited by governments, pressure groupsand commercial interests ever since it was identified.
  32. 32. The Information SocietyRadio and television are integral to the informationrevolution, and yet they are also subject to it. Satellitebroadcasting, which is computer-dependent, has broughta new sense of freedom to the television industry, but,like so many other developments, has also reiterated, ifreiteration were needed, the need for huge capitalinvestment to gain access to this key medium ofinformation and influence.
  33. 33. The Information SocietyIt is not only the mass media that have changed theinformation market-place. Broadcasting is, by definition,a public activity. Information, however, is increasinglyseen, in some respects, as being too valuable to be public.Stored in databases throughout the world is informationwith commercial potential to which access is restrictedby the ability of the information-seeker to pay for it.Again a revolution is being wrought. The library is thehistoric paradigm of information storage and retrieval aspublishing is of information marketing.
  34. 34. The Information SocietyLibraries, like publishers, have been in the front line ofchange. These changes are far from superficial; it is notjust that libraries now contain a wide range of media,and are increasingly dependent upon technology both fortheir management and for the provision of services tousers. There are far more profound economic changes,for libraries are part of the increasingly commercializedchain of information supply. Traditionally, the librarywas merely the customer of the publisher.
  35. 35. The Information SocietyNow it has the potential to be the publisher’s partner inmany enterprises, and librarians are reassessing theirattitudes to the cost of information supply. Outside theconfines of the institutional library, informationproviders have few of the inhibitions that havetraditionally made librarians look askance at suchmatters. Information has values assigned to it, and it isprovided at a profit to the provider; prices aredetermined by the forces of the market.
  36. 36. The Information SocietyIt is out of these economic themes covered in Chapters 3and 4 that the political themes that predominate inChapters 5 and 6 emerge. On a global scale, there is agrowing gap between the rich and the poor in access toinformation as in so much else. The technologicaldevelopments of the last 60 years have made moreinformation more available to more people than at anyother time in human history.
  37. 37. The Information SocietyAt the same time, however, the cost of thosetechnologies, and the cost of gaining access toinformation through them, have made it often difficultand sometimes impossible for information to be obtainedby its potential beneficiaries. This is the central paradoxand the central political dilemma of the informationrevolution. As in the industrial revolution, in differentways, the benefits to the majority, encompassed in theabstraction of ‘society’, are being achieved partly at theexpense of weaker and poorer individuals whose skillsare becoming outmoded and whose earning power isconsequently declining.
  38. 38. The Information SocietyIt is out of these economic themes covered in Chapters 3and 4 that the political themes that predominate inChapters 5 and 6 emerge. On a global scale, there is agrowing gap between the rich and the poor in access toinformation as in so much else. The technologicaldevelopments of the last 60 years have made moreinformation more available to more people than at anyother time in human history.
  39. 39. The Information SocietyThe revolution in the communication of information hascreated what is sometimes called a ‘global village’. Yetinstant access and instantaneous transmission dependupon a vastly expensive infrastructure oftelecommunications and broadcasting systems on thepart of the providers, and the acquisition of appropriateequipment (and sometimes skills) on the side of theconsumers.
  40. 40. The Information SocietyThose who are excluded are the majority of thepopulations of most of the Third World and significantminorities even in richer countries. Even in the USA,the cabling of the ‘information superhighway’, the opticfibre network which can bring digital communications tothe home, was politicized as the provider companiesavoided poorer areas of cities to concentrate on thericher areas where demand and profits was higher. Thegap between information rich and information poor isincreasingly overt.
  41. 41. The Information SocietyIf that gap is the wider political dimension of theinformation revolution, its most obvious immediatepolitical consequence has been to change, or to threatenor promise to change, the relationship between the stateand its own citizens. Governments, like businesses,cannot function without information, and as theybecome more complex so do their information needs.Much of this is not only legitimate, it is both essentialand benevolent. A modern state cannot functionwithout such basic data as that provided by censuses,tax returns and electoral registers.
  42. 42. The Information SocietyThere is, however, a debate, perhaps not yet sufficientlywell articulated, about the boundaries of the legitimateinformation needs of a democratic state. Informationabout identifiable individuals is sensitive, and yet thereare cases in which its dissemination, perhaps to a tightlydefined group of recipients, is clearly in the publicinterest. In other cases, there can be no such interest,and dissemination is clearly an invasion of legitimateprivacy. But there is an increasing number of less clear-cut areas, where the organs and agencies of the state arecollecting information of great potential value or harm.
  43. 43. The Information SocietyThe process of regulation – of balancing the generalgood against individual rights – has begun, but is stillembryonic. The whole issue, complex enough already,was at the beginning of the 21st century furthercomplicated by the growing concern with internationalnetworks of both criminals and terrorists; they are alsoamong the beneficiaries of information andcommunications technology.
  44. 44. The Information SocietyHistorically, the state has always been a participant inthe process of information transfer. It regulates theoperation of the market-place through laws that controlthe dissemination of intellectual property, such ascopyrights and patents, and also, in most cases, byexercising a certain level of moral jurisdiction throughcensorship. The state’s role, however, like so much else,is being transformed by the information revolution.
  45. 45. The Information SocietyThe very concept of copyright, which for 300 years hasbeen the legal foundation-stone of the publishingindustry, becomes blurred when the technology ofcopying is uncontrollably widely available. As thehistoric functions of publishers and libraries begin toconverge in electronic publishing and electronicdocument supply services, the very nature of copyrightwill need to be redefined.
  46. 46. The Information SocietyThere are changes too in the general perception of thestate’s right to intervene by intercepting privatecommunications and controlling the content oravailability of those intended for public consumption.These are lively political issues which touch on thefundamental principles of political democracy and anopen society.
  47. 47. The Information SocietyThese three aspects of the evolution of the informationsociety – the historical, the economic, the political – areconsidered in turn. Each raises its own questions, yet allare interrelated. The questions are not new, but theyhave all been made more urgent by the power of thecomputer to store, process and transmit information. Inthe industrialized countries it is no longer possible toconduct many of the most basic transactions of daily lifewithout using the power of computers.
  48. 48. The Information SocietyOur greatest tool of information and communication isin danger of becoming our master. Much of TheInformation Society, 6th edition is concerned withtrying to define the issues that are raised by thisprospect.
  49. 49. The Information SocietyFinally, there is one group of people in society who havea special role to play in the information revolution.Computer scientists and information workers are theengineers of the post-industrial revolution (see Chapter7). More than any other group, publishers, librariansand archivists have seen their professions transformed;whole new professions have come into existence asgovernments, businesses, industries and institutions havestruggled to reposition themselves to deal with the newtechnologies of information and communication.
  50. 50. The Information SocietyIn those parts of the world where the informationrevolution has made its greatest impact, the informationprofessionals are becoming a larger and larger part of theworkforce as a whole. But it is not only thoseprofessionals whose lives are being profoundly changed.Patterns of work and patterns of employment are beingtransformed as radically now as they were in the movefrom an agricultural to an industrial economy 200 yearsago. Manufacturing itself is no longer dependent uponthe mass employment of labour as computer-baseddevices are made which can undertake the routine workof making and assembling parts.
  51. 51. The Information SocietyWe are living in the midst of this revolution. Those whoare seeking to enter the information and communicationsprofessions – for whom this book is principally intended– need to be able to formulate the questions to whichthe answers will prescribe the limits of their professionallives. Some of those questions are posed, and a few ofthe answers are suggested, in the rest of TheInformation Society, 6th edition.
  53. 53. You can click here to order the bookfrom the Facet Publishing website.Customers in the US and Canada canclick here to order from the ALA.You can browse a free sample chapterof the book here.
  54. 54. Image SourcesAll are cc images from Flickr from the following users:Slide 5: choffeeSlide 7: Mike LichtSlide 10: jon smithSlide 13: SidPixSlide 21: bryanwright5@gmail.comSlide23: wsilverSlide 26: purdman1Slide 28: Eneas De TroyerSlide 34: theducksSlide 39: videocrabSlide 42: woodleywonderworksSlide 51: JlhopgoodSlide 52: marfis75