Ideology of Information Technology

By Birdsall, William | Queen's Quarterly, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Ideology of Information Technology

Birdsall, William, Queen's Quarterly

WILLIAM BIRDSALL is University Librarian at Dalhousie University. He is the author of The Myth of the Electronic Library: Librarianship and Social Change in America (1994). He is currently co-editing a book on telecommunications and public policy.

Robert Fulford, in a passionate defence of the ideology of the book -- the commitment to make knowledge universally available -- expresses the concern that information technology "will change the economics of reading and the place of knowledge in society."(1) If there is an ideology of the book, is there as well an ideology of information technology? Indeed there is, and Fulford is right to be concerned. The implications of the ideology of information technology are diametrically opposed to that of the ideology of the book, and their impact potentially as profound.

THE ideology of the book as knowledge made universally available is apparent in many ways although it has been with us for so long that few people think about its manifestations. Access to knowledge has been promoted through universal public education; publicly supported institutions such as libraries; reduced postal rates for the distribution of printed material; wide-spread economical distribution of government publications to public and university libraries; copyright policies that balance the needs of users of information and knowledge with those of creators.

The fundamental assertion underlying these initiatives is that knowledge is a public good whose widespread distribution is critical to the development of informed citizens and a dynamic national culture. For much of the twentieth century the ideology of the book was unchallenged in North American mainstream political ideologies -- left, right, and centre. However, over the past two decades it has been under increasing assault by a set of values that have coalesced into an ideology of information technology. This alternative ideology is a con-joining of free market economics, new right politics, and technological determinism.

The ideology of information technology emerged explicitly in the 1970s in the United States when federal government policy on science and technology focused on the objective of improving American economic strength through increased productivity in the private sector. Federal policy favoured scientific and technical research with development in the private and public sectors that would contribute directly to economic productivity. The business community and successive federal governments actively pursued a strategy that promoted the virtues of the free market, the need to give priority to competitive innovation and greater productivity over social welfare issues, the demand for greater efficiency in all spheres of public and private enterprise, and the glorification of science and technology as a means of achieving these ends. This strategy supported high-tech developments, including information technology, by the private sector, university researchers, and the military establishment. (2)

This campaign, oriented to productivity and technology, found support in the social analysis provided by scholars, management gurus, and popular futurists who asserted that we were moving from an industrial society into a high-tech post-industrial information society. It was asserted that this change was occurring in major historical megatrends or waves, driven by the inevitable consequences of technological change alone. Peter Drucker, Daniel Bell, Marshall McLuhan, Alvin Toffler, John Naisbitt, and many, many others reinforced the view that we were witnessing the emergence of a post-industrial economy whose primary resource was information and whose workforce would consist of an elite class of knowledge workers. Consequently, the demand for information, for more sophisticated technologies for manipulating and distributing it, and for the privatization of all means of its production and distribution were part of the drive to increase productivity in a global information economy. …

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