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Social interaction hinges on the availability of means ('media') for exchanging information. In most human societies these means are provided through information and communication technologies. These technologies have always had a considerable impact on economic, social and cultural practices. In our times this impact appears to be stronger than ever. Not so long ago, large scale energy production, the engineering of manufacturing tools, and the mass production of goods have put an end to agrarian societies in many parts of the world, and ushered in the industrial age. Today, however, many economic processes, at least in the so called developed countries, seem to be dominated by activities that guarantee the provision and expedient communication of information. This may indicate that we have already entered a "post-industrial" era. The term Information Society has been coined as a convenient (and sometimes misleading) façon de parler about these developments and their results.
It is necessary to maintain a meaningful debate on what has come to be called the Information Society, to be aware of the many different contexts (political, economic, social, cultural, ..., psychological, ...) to be considered, and of the many different perspectives (technocratic, scientific, humanistic, liberal, religious, linguistic ...) to be taken. Technologists would indeed run the risk of getting blinded by the advances of technology and its potential applications if they were unable to also reflect upon their doings within a much wider frame of reference, including non-technical ramifications of all sorts. (Some say, technology is at the heart of the "information society". Obviously, the proponents of this kind of assertion forget the simple truth that people, individual human beings, are at the heart of every society, be it labeled agrarian, industrial, or whatever.)
A first and basic question, of course, is about the very name of the concept. Is information really the right word to characterize the changes brought about not only by the rise of computer and communications technology in, say, the second half of this century, but also, and perhaps in an interrelated way, by a profound rearrangement of global power structures? Are these changes so drastic that their effect deserves a new name? Our public and private (material) wealth will, after all, continue to depend on our ability to manufacture tangible products, tools, machines, etc (or to have them manufactured...), although fewer and fewer people will be involved directly in the production process proper. Would Service Society, Media Society, Entertainment Society (see also: Torvalds: Linux is fun) or Leisure Society (see also: The Abolition of Work) be more appropriate? Or perhaps Unemployment Society?
And there is, it seems, a chicken-and-egg problem: Globalisation (of economic and to some extent, cultural processes) and dualisation (i.e. the various divisions between haves and have-nots, information-rich and information-poor, etc., globally and on national levels) on the one hand, and what we may call the Information Society on the other hand, seem to be inextricably entwined: In what way are the developments underlying the Information Society a reaction to globalisation and dualisation (processes that, after all, have been going on for centuries)? And to what extent are (the modern forms of) globalisation and dualisation results of developments underlying the Information Society?
Depending on the answers to these questions: Can the Information Society (as one may hope) cure self-inflicted diseases such as widespread social decline (as evident for instance in the weakening of public welfare institutions in industrialised countries, more an effect of globalisation than of an aging population) (see also: Mastering Germany's Pension Crisis )? Or will it rather aggravate these diseases? (Cheap labour, for instance, in the software business, can already be bought worldwide, via the Internet or other networks!) Is Neoliberalism the "natural" ideology of the Information Society?
Studying these questions, it may be appropriate to look to the USA first, as a part of the industrialised world that is perhaps further on its way towards an Information Society than most European countries and even Japan. However, in spite of the assumption that sur le fond, la structure des personnes (on both sides of the Atlantic) n'est pas nécessairement différente, it may be desirable to pay more attention to European (Asian, African, Latin American (see also: Estela Morales) Arabic ...) idiosyncracies. Any attempt to give meaning to the Information Society must, after all, take into account regional aspects, be they historical, political, social or cultural.
This is in fact a (if not the) key problem: The quest for meaning. (Clearly, this has nothing to do with the mere definition of the term Information Society.) A quest religions used to thrive on and still thrive. (Again, in the US, the religious phenomenon (see also: fundamentalism) is perhaps more virulent than elsewhere.) How do people live in an Information Society? How do they interact? What makes them happy, what makes them sad? What will they derive their values from? Their beliefs? Will they drown in confusion? Is unaffective rational structure, supported by technology, going to replace social and moral cohesion? Is there a positive vision? And if so: what can we do to make this vision come true?
Political structures have always adapted (often painfully) to changes imposed by technological / scientific developments on economic and social conditions. A society brings forth its institutions depending on its needs, traditions, etc., depending, in short, on everything that defines it. What are the institutions that will be brought forth by the Information Society? How will power be (re)distributed? Who benefits? Who looses? Will, can, the Information Society be more democratic? Will it provide better means for everyone to participate in political processes? Or will it, on the contrary, evolve into an Orwellian nightmare? Will it be supra-national (perhaps even global)? How should existing institutions (on all levels) change to meet the challenges of the Information Society? To cope with its risks? How can these transitions be effectuated without causing too much friction (globally, nationally or Europe-wide)?
Whatever crises may be due to the advent of the Information Society (and to the acceleration and aggravation of companion phenomena such as globalisation and dualisation): they are not likely to be more serious than any of the many crises mankind as a whole and individual communities (nations, states) separately or jointly have lived through in the past. The question is: What can we learn from previous crises, in order to cope with present ones without obtaining too many bruises? How can we avoid the damages caused by the industrial revolution(s) (as opposed to the information revolution)? Of course, any answer to these questions must be closely related to the "institutional" questions posed above.
Last but not least: Technology provides tools - but we have to decide whether we want to use these tools and for what. We have to stay the masters of our inventions. It is up to us to shape the Information Society. Of course, this is much more easily said than done. Inventions, discoveries, etc. cannot be suppressed (forever), although their use can be restricted and controlled (as it may or may not happen e.g. in the field of genetic engineering (see also: ICGEB, UCS)).
But who is "we"? Who is legitimated to make decisions of such import (see also Scharpf1, Scharpf2, UNDP, Telecom standards)? Do the traditional principles and mechanisms of democratic representation suffice to act on a thorough anticipatory understanding of real needs (whatever these are) and the ways to satisfy them? Do we need additional and perhaps more efficient, checks and balances? Or are we completely powerless in view of an international market democracy where, in a final analysis, banknotes are the ultimate ballots?
Copyright Hans-Georg Stork 1999
democratic representation Creating the Active Citizen? Recent Developments in Civics Education (Kate Krinks, Politics and Public Administration Group 23 March 1999; Parliament of Australia) <back> <top>