Information Society: European Considerations in Economic and Cultural Contexts

By Holland, George Adam | Library Philosophy and Practice, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Information Society: European Considerations in Economic and Cultural Contexts


Holland, George Adam, Library Philosophy and Practice


We have the technical know how, the technology to do it, and the economic and institutional strategies to implement it. The obstacles, of course, are political. (Castells 1999:12)

Introduction

Data, information and knowledge are words that conjure up distinct connotations for various people. "Data society" or "knowledge society" are not common phrases, but "information society" is used with increasing frequency. What should we make of the phrase "information society"? Even a cursory review of literature shows multiple approaches that argued for enthusiastically. This paper is informed by some of those discussions, but focused on particular aspects to develop a balanced view of the information society. This paper focuses on two of Webster's (2002: 12, 18) five definitions of information society: economic and cultural. European community initiatives, particularly those in Finland, are used to explore these definitions.

Approaches

There is no universal definition of "information society" that is applicable at all times and places. The richness of the topic defies a single sentence explanation. The literature on the topic includes many vague and imprecise uses of the term. Webster (2002:4) states that, [s]Such approaches have infected--and continue to infect--a vast swathe of opinion on the information society: in paperback books with titles such as The Mighty Micro, The Wired Society, Being Digital and What Will Be, in university courses designed to consider the 'social effects of the computer revolution', in countless political and business addresses, and in scarcely calculable amount of journalism that alerts audiences to prepare for upheaval in all aspects of their lives as a result of the coming information age." (Webster 2002:4) Webster is clearly skeptical of the "grand theory" of cultural change ushered in by the information society. He uses current social theory combined with empirical evidence to look at the cultural impact of an information society in order to to avoid a simplistic and misleading approach.

Everyday life is information rich. In an average day we may get information from a radio, television, computer, handheld computer, book, or newspaper. Theoretically, all of the above could be active at a single moment, through digital television, wireless Internet access, national radio broadcasters, etc. It is not just availability but also extraordinary variety, as Webster notes (2002:19). These are technological features of life. It is clear that technological revolutions have occurred in the past with pervasive outcomes. What distinguishes this technological revolution? The industrial revolution focused on energy, although it incorporated other technological fields, while the current revolution focuses on information technologies. This technological basis reformulates economic systems, communication systems, productive forces, knowledge accumulation, and the information capacity of society. While these features seem economically-focused, they are ultimately cultural; they affect professional contexts, political movements, social campaigns, life and death. Many argue that our world is essentially informational. Others debate how unique the use of information is to current society (Giddens 1981, 1991; Schiller 1991).

Economic and Cultural Approaches

Castells (1994:3) states that, "[b] this concept, I understand a social structure where the sources of economic productivity, cultural hegemony and political-military power depend, fundamentally, on the capacity to retrieve, store, process and generate information and knowledge." Urban space may seem a strange place to apply this definition but rigourous research and argument support his perspective. Castells makes the basic point that societal change manifests itself in a variety of ways and can be best investigated through urban space; places where social groups live, work, and function. Castells argues that informationally-competent and--incompetent residents of a city inhabit distinct existences in the information society. …

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