Selected Papers (pre-publication version)

(The following paper as an earlier draft of the published version).


A Curmudgeonly Look at the Myth of the "Information Age"

Jim Thomas / Department of Sociology Northern Illinois University ( (Fall, 2000) (Early draft; Later published in SSSI Notes, 27(December): 8-9. In discussing some of my increasing discomfort with online distance education, an interactionist colleague suggested that I simply did not understand the "information revolution." Nothing like it has ever occurred before, so the argument went. "You can't escape it. Publishers are adding a Net component to their text books, and qualitative data coding software is changing how we view symbolic interaction. You can't get in the way of history." Maybe not, but we can briefly examine the social construction of a historical moment. As one whose living derives primarily from computer technology, I'm quite happy to ride the wave. But, as an interactionist, I have a few reservations about the glib, and somewhat cavalier, use of the term "information age" (or "information revolution" - the terms are often elided) and how it becomes a symbolic meme, a genetic-like cultural replicator, for conferring identity on an era. Even granting the formidable impact of computer-mediated communications, the term "Information Age" arguably takes on a mythopoetic function that symbolizes an extreme representation of social processes in ways that gloss over broader social and historical processes. Myths, those narratives we weave to help make sense out of our world, are helpful to provide a sense of conceptual and theoretical order to guide our thinking and actions. But, myths also can distort and obscure our existence as easily as they can help us understand it. Labelling contemporary society as a new "information age" not only promotes a set of erroneous images that distort how we understand our culture, but it also obscures the historical role that information has played in cultural formation. It feeds a mindset that offers a totalizing theory of social development and obscures its historical antecedents. What difference does it make whether we call the period we're in an "information revolution" and see it as a dramatic transition in social relations? One maddening characteristic of modernist society is the tendency to reduce complex phenomena to a single, simple entity and then give the entity a name. The name, an arbitrary symbol for a set of arbitrary characteristics, becomes "real." We call this reification: We reify the label in that we change the symbol to a "thing" and act on that thing as if it were non-arbitrary, real, and substantial. As Baudrillard might say, the simulacrum becomes the thing itself. Modernist thought, proceeding from the Enlightenment tradition, seeks forms of knowledge and understanding that unify and ultimately provide a grand explanatory theory. Some call this "totalizing knowledge," because the goal is to provide a complete, interconnected system of concepts and theories that give us a total picture of whatever we are trying to explain. For interactionists especially, this leads to sticky questions, because modernist thought generates broad concepts such as "pre-industrial society," "industrial society," or post-industrial society," all of which are useful analytic types, but none of which is a completely accurate term to describe any given culture or epoch. To confound this problem by labelling the present system as a transition to an information society strikes me as intellectually irresponsible. Not only do we deceive ourselves about social structure, but we avoid confronting the classic problems underlying social information and its role in society. The labels of our discourse provide a unifying narrative that gives us a common set of shared assumptions about our experiences and how to talk about and act upon them. "Information Age" suggests something new, something dramatic, something mysterious. The consequence is that we, or some of us, develop a false sense of cultural identity and fail to realize this identity is shared by only an elite few. We fail to recognize how the "new" is built upon and blends with the old, and we lose sight of who we are. Or, more accurately, we think we're something we aren't, and our focus emphasizes novelty rather than substance. To view the present as an "information revolution" requires a certain hubris. It assumes that we are the first society to take information seriously and make it central in daily life. However, there is an abundance of anthropological literature illustrating how information played a central role in the development of some so-called primitive societies, and Durkheim's discussion of "primitive" science, based on religious precepts, illustrates the importance of information in social organization of some pre-literate cultures. "History begins at Sumer," and we forget that the Sumerian contribution to society was the written symbol, the word, the record, the archival documents. The symbols contained information, and this revolutionary innovation shaped how information would be coded, recorded, and employed. Yet, in our enlightened and sophisticated culture, we think that we, the pioneers of the 21st century, are revolutionizing information. Yes, to some extent we are making a dramatic impact, but our folly is in thinking we are unique or that we are special because we are an "information society." We are not. Gutenberg's Mazarin Bible, considered the first significant document printed with movable type (circa 1455) was an information revolution similar in many ways to the computer revolution. For the first time, information could be quickly accumulated, compiled, and disseminated. By providing a means to quickly and easily put data and ideas to paper, the printing press expanded literacy, contributed to the breaking down of cultural barriers, and capped the late Renaissance's influence that, by the sixteenth century, had spread through most of Europe. Like computer technology, the spread of information through this new technology created new and often competing ways of thinking. It was a major step toward formation of the "global village" that later technological advances in communication (including computer-mediated communication of the present) intensified. Advances in the printing press made possible the "penny papers" that contributed to eighteenth century political upheavals, and Thomas Paine's _Common Sense_ in 1776, along with the Federalist Papers, were examples of how ideas distributed through the information technology of printing, shaped the political and social structures across two continents. Television technology was a dramatic change in how we conveyed information. Rather than rely on symbolization, the graphic immediacy of t.v. brought information about news, other cultures, life, and death directly to us. This was a qualitative shift from previous forms of conceptualizing information, yet we did not recognize it as an information revolution. And, other than convey images and facts, it did not directly stimulate any fundamental change in social relations--in how we live, work, procreate, or die. To see computer technology as a revolutionary new phenomenon glosses over the fact that it reflects existing social practices. Like the printing press or t.v., what we do with computers is generally just a fancier way of what we did before we had them. The difference is that now we can do more of it faster. Granted, the potential of computers to change aspects of our lives is profound. Gameboy, Nintento, cellular telephones, and the Internet are fine. But, these new changes have not yet qualitatively altered our social existence. We arguably have more poverty, more homelessness, more overt intolerance and bigotry, more ecological destruction, more crime, and more illiteracy in 2000 than we did in 1980. Computer technology did not cause this, but neither can it change it. The dramatically increased information processing spawned by computers simply processes old ways of doing things much more efficiently. The information-processing capacity of computer technology both liberates and constrains. It facilitates research by allowing data collection and analysis, modeling, and other tasks to do in hours what once took weeks or years. It allows for more safety in autos, appliances, and shopping malls, provides a means for hitting military targets with reasonable precision, and subtlely improves our lives often for the better. But, it also creates problems. It allows students to click on to purchase term papers, allows Metallica and Debbie Does DeKalb to be downloaded more easily, and lets students query their instructors via email. Less benignly, computers allow law enforcement agents, mass marketers, and others, to compile extensive records on the populace, raises new issues of privacy, security, and interaction, and creates new classes of deviance--and thus crimes--by providing a new means for predatory behavior. There is no evidence, however, that these advantages and problems represent a qualitatively new type of society. To view the start of the Twenty First century as a qualitatively new information society, then, is to fail to recognize the historical role that information has played in previous societal transformations. Worse, it creates a myth that fails to explain both the nature of current society how it came to be as it is. The term "information society" reduces social processes to a single, simplistic metaphor that provides a set of legitimating myths to guide education, communication, politics, and social life. The term makes us believe that we something we are not. We may have more, faster, in information, but this hardly translates into more wisdom or enlightenment. Yes, the innovations in science have been aided by information technology. Cashing checks is easier. Television technology will change and give us better pictures and more of them. But, such changes have been occurring for decades, and they are not indicative of a dramatically different way of life. The same social problems remain, the same ways of laboring persist, and the traditional forms of social domination and oppression continue. Even though we now produce and process information in a technologically sophisticated way, it still tends to be a labor-intensive enterprise. Computer manufacturing, data accumulation, and data processing, even though aided by hi-tech applications, remain the task of individuals tediously working over a keyboard or production line in much the same way as typists, weavers, or assembly line workers also engaged in what was once an equally new technology. Information workers still sell their labor to a producer or to agencies (such as computer companies or universities) that indirectly support production. The wage system still dominates. The class structure survives and, if anything, information technology creates increasing polarization between a techno-literate group and a marginal population left on the periphery. To view our current status as a new "information revolution" glosses over the fact that a) information dependance is not new, b) the society being shaped by technology is only superficially different, and c) the historical roots of social development are far more complex than "end of ideology" theorists recognize. The danger in uncritically accepting the label "information revolution," then, is that it distorts the nature in which human struggles and conflict have shaped the world. To fail to recognize this is to fail to recognize the role of human agency in bringing about a more just society and instead becoming more passive as those who control both the technology and the information simply invent new forms of unnecessary social domination. In _Snow Crash_, Neal Stephenson suggests that religion is a type of virus analogous to a biological or computer virus. We can look at information in the same way. Information has a habit of replication, installing itself in the minds of its hosts, re-programming the synapses of those infected, and producing outcomes that can be both benign and malign. I am not arguing that information is bad. However, I am suggesting that the term "information age" is itself a type of coded information that perniciously, and inaccurately, shapes how we think and act. To uncritically accept this information without recognizing that it is an arbitrary metaphor that creates a new myth without creating new forms of cultural existence or social justice is to ignore a long history of "information revolutions." The dangerous irony is that we celebrate the myth and are inattentive to how it prevents us from recognizing the information about history, society, and social organization that the myth conceals. ==================== Much in these comments is probably floating around cyberspace somewhere. After all, that's what happens when we post in the "information age."

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