Information Society

For many writers, pundits and policy makers the rapid development and diffusion of INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATIONS TECHNOLOGIES (ICT) heralds the development of a new kind of society - a society where the production and exchange of information is a key feature in both the economy and social life in general.

While the first half of the 20th century saw the dominant form of economic production shift from agricultural to industrial, the second half was characterized by a shift toward the production, distribution and manipulation of information. As both technology and information take on growing roles in the economy and other elements of social life, more impetus is given to naming this new environment the Information Society. These changes are also sometimes framed as leading to a post-industrial society,"knowledge economy," and "digital economy."

Context

Through the 1950s and 1960s, advances and reliance on technology fuelled research and speculation on the growing role of technology in both the economy and social organization in general. Technology and technological systems were increasingly seen as key to the creation of wealth and the direction of social development. Working in this vein, Marshall McLUHAN pondered the ways in which electronic media extended the human senses and shattered the barriers of space and time to provide the experience of living in a global village.

Drawing on these themes, Daniel Bell published The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973) and set the stage for a debate on the changing structure of the economy. As the postwar economic boom began to lose steam through the late 1960s and early 1970s Bell and others following his lead posited that the economy was shifting from a dependence on large-scale industry to a post-industrial phase where knowledge and information workers would predominate. A flurry of reports followed as governments and researchers across the industrialized northern hemisphere undertook a series of investigations into the changes rocking the economy.

While there is still some debate over whether there has been a wholesale shift to an information-based economy or simply an expansion in what has traditionally been labelled the service sector, there is little doubt that the structure of the economy has changed and that ICT has been central to these changes.

Since the mid-1970's, economic recession and the lure of cheap labour have fuelled international trade agreements and the investment of capital in manufacturing industries in places like Southeast Asia, China, northern Mexico and the American "sunbelt." To meet this competition, companies remaining in traditional industrial centres restructured, reducing staff and adopting labour-saving technologies.

Through facilitating the movement of capital and goods, ICT has played a key role in facilitating this shift in labour processes. ICT provides a vital link between the newly industrialized countries where these goods are now produced and the markets in old industrialized centres - such as North America and Western Europe - where they are consumed. ICT has also been central to the reorganization of industry in these old industrial centres, where it has been used to centralize control over operations, amalgamate responsibilities and functions, and more closely monitor and co-ordinate employees as companies have restructured to meet new global competitors.

On another front, as traditional manufacturing has restructured and shifted location, both government and industry have struggled to create new economic opportunities - opportunities based upon ICT and information products.

Since the early 1970s the federal government has been commissioning studies and reports and fashioning public policy focused on fuelling the manufacture of computer and telecommunications equipment and software in Canada, as well as creating legislative infrastructure to support a growing trade in information.

Key policy directions for leading Canada toward the Information Society are laid out in Preparing Canada for a Digital World: Final Report of the Information Highway Advisory Council (1997). Three planning objectives guided the Council's deliberations on formulating policy development: to create jobs through innovation and investment in Canada; to reinforce Canadian sovereignty and cultural identity; to ensure that Canadians have universal access to the Internet at reasonable cost (IHAC: x). Whether or not current policy meets with these objectives remains the subject of debate.

As the information economy has taken form, both the production and distribution of information have increasingly come under the regimen of the market. For instance, changes in COPYRIGHT LAW provide legal sanctions against the unauthorized reproduction or retransmission of computer software, video and sound recordings, television programs and other forms of data. This legislation has been instrumental in developing and expanding multi-million dollar markets for these products. Similarly, sanctions against photocopying for other than personal use and royalties on public photocopiers and blank tapes have created new revenue streams for creators. The distribution of information has also become big business as new communication systems and networks have given form to a range of new information-based services such as electronic banking, pay-per-view television and Web-based businesses.

Promises and Problems for Canada

Studies and reports have been extolling the virtues of the coming information society for over 30 years. New jobs, a more productive work force, greater and faster access to important news and information, improved freedom of speech, greater participation in the political process, a developing "knowledge" economy, and more choice in music television, film and other entertainment products - these are oft-touted benefits of new communications technology. However, the social reorganization that characterizes the diffusion of this new technology is not without its problems and pitfalls.

Employment

While some studies show that investment in ICT creates jobs, its relationship with employment growth is not straightforward. There are many factors at play, including rates of diffusion, competition, and whether or not cost savings from investment in computers and ICT are passed on to consumers. And while this technology has contributed to job growth in some sectors, such as the computer industry and information processing, in many industries ICT has been used to either reduce the skill required in jobs or replace workers altogether. Moreover, ICT is often introduced in ways that increase management's control over the workplace. Consequently, skilled and semi-skilled jobs are sometimes automated or downgraded in ways that "de-skill" workers and reduce them to simple adjuncts of electronic equipment. Changes in technology are also implicated in health problems such as repetitive strain injuries.

Digital Divide

The cost of both the technology and access to computer networks and information systems has begun to create a "digital divide" between the affluent people who can afford the new equipment and services and low-income people who cannot. Internet usage in high-income Canadian households was more than twice that of low-income households in 2001, and computer ownership is still much more common among wealthier members of our society than those of lesser means.

Similarly, as acquiring information increasingly hinges on the ability to pay for it, it is difficult for public libraries, schools and universities to keep up with the mounting cost. Consequently, both the quality of education and general availability of information are being reduced and those people and organizations that cannot afford to pay for information are being left behind.

There are also many places on earth outside of the wired world and, thereby, outside the reach of the information revolution. In Africa, for instance, there are fewer than seven telephones per 100 people, and owning a computer is out of the question for all but a very privileged few.

Privacy

As social life is increasingly mediated by ICT, information about our activities is being monitored and collected by a wide range of organizations. The unauthorized use of this information threatens our privacy in a number of ways. In the workplace, ICT can be used to monitor e-mail and telephone conversations, or count keystrokes and attempt to measure the volume of work undertaken by employees. Insurance companies purchase health and accident records in an attempt to assess the potential risk of applicants, sometimes denying coverage on this basis. Law enforcement agencies are considering ways to use the information contained in databases to identify "potential" criminal suspects. And in the US, there is ongoing debate between law enforcement agencies and public interest groups over the rights of government agencies to monitor electronic conversations and data flow.

Concern over these infringements on personal privacy centre on the issue of self-determination. As both private corporations and governments increase their abilities to monitor and control individual action, personal freedom is reduced to a series of choices that are predetermined by forces outside the individual's knowledge and control.

Sovereignty, Trans-border Data Flow, and Representation

On another front, both personal information and important social, legal and economic information is often stored and processed outside the country. Private corporations, government, universities, libraries, the legal and engineering professions - all sometimes utilize data services and networks outside of Canada to process and store personal tax, credit and medical data, as well as educational materials and information on natural resources and other matters of national import. Because this trans-border data flow places this information outside the reach of national laws and regulation it raises a host of issues for both Canadian sovereignty and the economy, as well as leaving Canadians vulnerable to a range of problems including trade sanctions, bankruptcies and theft.

Another concern arising from dependence on foreign sources of information focuses on the fact that information is not value neutral. It reflects particular ideas and attitudes that provide specific ways of approaching and thinking about the world. For instance, do imported educational materials incorporate Canadian values of diversity, tolerance and common purpose, or are they underwritten by notions of competitive individualism that place the interests of the individual over the community at large? Do reports and studies authored elsewhere in the world and used by Canadian governments and industry to formulate policy and investment decisions take into account local and/or national environmental and community concerns or are they simply based on abstract global economics? The lives of Canadians are spun in an ever-growing global web of dependencies and it is in our interest to carefully consider how these relationships are shaping our lives.

Conclusion

The Information Society holds the potential to democratize communication, provide greater access to health care and education, create jobs and promote economic development, increase public input to political decisions and government action, and allow people to be creators of information rather than just consumers. But ICT and the products and opportunities it has spawned have been primarily developed and instituted in pursuit of economic gains - not widely shared social benefits - and the changes they have wrought have bestowed disproportionate benefits to the more affluent members of our society. Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that technological development is not an autonomous or inevitable force in society. Copyright legislation, telecommunications regulation, labour law, international trade regulation - changes in these kinds of laws and regulations both underlie and give form to technological development. Consequently, as the forces associated with technological change continue to reconfigure Canadian society and reshape our lives, it is important that all Canadians participate in the debates and decisions that guide this process.

See alsoCOMMUNICATIONS TECHNOLOGY; COMPUTER COMMUNICATIONS; INTERNET; SATELLITE COMMUNICATIONS; INFORMATION HIGHWAY.