Unplugging the connections

Theories of the Information Society
August 23, 1996

Along with the "knowledge economy", "the information society" has entered the currency of political and business discourse. Yet is hard to know what such talk of an information society signifies or expresses, apart from a well-founded sense that we live at a time in which discontinuities with the past are pervasive and profound. It is reasonably clear that traditional forms of industrial production are in a decline that shows every sign of being irreversible, and that the shift from manufacturing to service industries is only an episode in a long historical process in which technological substitutes for human labour are becoming ever more feasible and economically viable.

It remains thoroughly unclear that anything is added to these commonplace observations by the claim that they represent a movement towards an information society. That claim, like many similar claims about postindustrialism, expresses no disciplined understanding of what is actually going on in social life. If there is any definite theoretical perspective expressed in the fashionable discourse about information-based societies, it is a species of technological determinism. This deterministic perspective encourages us to ask questions about the social impact of new information technologies, as if these were matters of cause and effect, and social and economic structures could be left out of account. The effect of such theorising is to obscure rather than to illuminate our perception of the changes that are afoot in contemporary societies.

In Theories of the Information Society, Frank Webster advances an interpretation of recent thought on information and social life that is refreshingly sceptical. He approaches the subject by way of social thought, considering the writings of Daniel Bell, Anthony Giddens, Herbert Schiller, Jurgen Habermas, Manuel Castells and various postmodernists, in order to subject the very idea of an information society to a rigorous theoretical interrogation. This critical survey enables Webster to address central epistemological and methodological issues in the social sciences without concealing his own substantive theoretical preferences, which are for the perspectives developed in the works of Giddens, Habermas and Schiller. Of these, the thought of Giddens is presented most persuasively. This is probably because Giddens's work in fact contains the most persuasive theorising that we possess on the uses of information in the societies of high modernity. In particular, Giddens's account of the role of the development of surveillance systems in the emergence of the modern nation state is empirically and historically grounded, and at the same time critically self-aware, to a degree, and in ways that the thought of Schiller and Habermas is not. The balance of novelty and continuity in the social uses of information in the late modern period is a recurring theme of Giddens to which Webster recurs repeatedly and productively.

One problem which Webster's critical survey does not, and perhaps cannot resolve is the enormous heterogeneity of issues and interests encompassed in the subject matter of the book. What do issues of censorship and secrecy in government have in common with questions about the construction of social reality by modern media of the sort asked by postmodernists? It is a little banal to answer that they both concern information management. It may be that a systematic connection between such phenomena can only be made by invoking an old-fashioned theory of ideology. In this regard it is surprising that Webster does not discuss the work of a thinker whose life was devoted to the project of illuminating such obscure connections - that of the late Guy Debord on the society of the spectacle. Admittedly Debord's leverage on historical reality was weakened by his aprioristic deployment of redundant neo-Marxian categories, and his work shows nothing of the sense of the emancipatory role of contemporary communications technologies which is to be found in the thought of a postmodernist such as Gianni Vattimo. Yet Debord's thought is no more remote from historical reality than that of much better known thinkers, such as Habermas.

The principal merit of Webster's judicious, balanced and extremely useful study is in the systematic scepticism it exhibits regarding the very idea of an information society. The implicit message of the book is that we would do well to ask again, in the new context of late modernity, the canonical questions about power and control which were addressed by the founders of social thought - Marx, Weber and Durkheim. This is not because we persist in the forlorn hope of developing a general theory of social life - a project which the fragmentation of knowledge in late modern societies makes hopeless. A recurrence to the classical concerns of social thought could not result in any return to "grand theory", but it might protect us from the error of treating a content-free idea such as the information society as a contribution to any kind of theoretical understanding.

John Gray is a fellow, Jesus College, Oxford.

Theories of the Information Society

Author - Frank Webster
ISBN - 0 415 10573 0 and 10574 9
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00 and £12.99
Pages - 257

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