Technological Diffusion or Cultural Imperialism? Measuring the Information Revolution

By Hedley, R. Alan | International Journal of Comparative Sociology, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Technological Diffusion or Cultural Imperialism? Measuring the Information Revolution


Hedley, R. Alan, International Journal of Comparative Sociology


Introduction

The Internet is like a 20-foot tidal wave coming, and we are in kayaks.

(Grove, cited in Schlender 1996:46)

These are the words of Andy Grove, CEO of Intel, the company credited with launching the PC microelectronic revolution in 1971 (Gilder, 1989:91-112). By most accounts, we are deeply ensconced in a technological era in which all of us are (or can be) interconnected via the information superhighway. What, then, is Grove talking about?

As a preliminary reality check, I asked my students to search the index of the local Yellow Pages to identify evidence of the information sector, i.e., "the part of the economy that produces, processes, and distributes information goods and services" (Hedley, 1992:20). Although they uncovered numerous examples of information products, services, occupations, and organizations, the overwhelming majority of these predated 1960. In fact most entries were illustrative of an earlier information era spawned in the mid-fifteenth century by Gutenberg.

The now overused term, "information highway," only came into being during the 1970s as a result of scientists at Coming Glass who "created a medium [optical fiber] that could transport unprecedented amounts of information on laser beams for commercially viable distances" (Diebold, 1990:132). "Today's most advanced light wave systems can relay data at 1.7 gigabits per second - fast enough to transmit the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica in just two seconds" (Diebold, 1990:148; emphasis in original). While this speed is impressive, should current work in developing "high temperature" superconducting material yield the results anticipated, such a resistance-free communications line could "transmit the text equivalent of one thousand Encyclopedia Britannicas... [in just one second].... Such a transmission line could transmit the entire 25 million books of the Library of Congress, the world's largest library, in two minutes" (Meredith, 1987:25; emphasis added). Clearly, we have come only a brief distance along the information highway.

I open in this way to emphasize a number of key points. First and most important, if we are interested in charting the effects of a particular phenomenon, it is essential to develop measures of its presence and extent. This statement seems obvious, but the history of social change is filled with case after case in which conclusions have been drawn on inadequate or even nonexistent measurement (Hedley, 1992:34-40).

Second, contrary to many studies, careful analysis of the information revolution reveals that it is still very much in a nascent stage. Grove's analogy is appropriate. While the information technology (IT) market is growing quickly, it is limited primarily to the developed countries. Just five G-7 nations (US, Japan, Germany, France, and the UK) accounted for 80% of the IT market in 1994 (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 1996:7). Furthermore, even within these countries, more than 90% of households do not have access to the Internet (OECD, 1996:106). In other words, most of us are facing Grove's tidal wave without any boats at all. Consequently, effects that we can now attribute to the information revolution are likely to intensify as IT permeates the mainstream.

Finally, if we examine how information technology is developing within the countries where it has taken hold, we can extend Grove's analogy. While some of us may be in kayaks (Americans and Canadians), others are in life boats (Japanese, and possibly Germans), and still others are in craft yet to be clearly identified. In other words, information technology is being introduced and adapted along now familiar cultural fault lines; this aspect forms a major focus of my paper.

My analysis first conceptualizes and then measures the multidimensional term "informationalization." This allows us to observe both similarities and differences in this phenomenon as it is manifested in each of the G-7 countries.

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