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The names that we give things make us think about them in a certain way. Sometimes that's valid; sometimes deceptive. Sometimes we end up using terms that are no longer relevant.

Some thoughts this week on some of the names we've given phenomena in the world of ICTs - and whether what we mean by the biggest term of all (the 'Information Society') is changing or should change.

Many words are value-laden

Many of the words we use are value-laden, positive or negative. Sometimes we're conscious of this, sometimes not.

Take 'progressive', for example. For many people, that implies improvement on what's gone before, as opposed to (say) 'conservative' (which implies the status quo is usually to be preferred) or 'reactionary' (the wish to return to good old days that went before).  

That's presumably why the founders of APC chose ‘progressive’ back in 1990. It's part of APC's identity; it places it within a range of possible perspectives, in its case on communications; alerts potential readers, partners, friends or foes to the sort of thing that it will likely think and say.

What about the 'Information Society'?

This blog is called 'Inside the Information Society'.  Why? Because it tells people what it's meant to be about. 'Information Society' because that's what we've come to call the society emerging from a transition that we’re living through. 'Inside' because it tries to get beneath the surface and question assumptions that have come to be associated with it (some good, some not so).

The ‘Information Society’ is actually an old term, dating from the 1960s as sociologists explored the possibilities of post-war post-industrial development and communications and computer scientists experimented with digital technologies.  

It's lain since then at the interface between technology and wider change within society, economy and culture, without clear definition and with varying perspectives.  

One question that I used to ask, and still think relevant, is this: when we refer to the 'Information Society', are we thinking of something that is currently happening (an observable phenomenon) or something that we hope to bring about (an aspirational goal)? Or, today, also, I might add, something that we also fear (a surveillance society).

The answer will be different in different places and at different times. From the point of view of global policy, in the UN and elsewhere, however, I’d say the 'Information Society' became a defining goal when the International Telecommunication Union called in 1998 for a World Summit on 'the concept of the information society, in which telecommunications play a central role.' 

What does 'information' imply?

'Information' is itself, of course, a value-laden word.  More information is obviously a good thing, most of us would say, and so an 'information society' will be better than what went before (or, perhaps, even, 'progressive' - see above).  When we call it ‘information’, we feel positive about it.

But is everything that happens online really 'information' in that sense?: information that brings knowledge which brings benefits to people? The early drivers of mass market Internet, after all, were pornography and gambling. Are they really what people mean by 'information'? Are ‘fake news’, trolling and late night drunken tweets 'information' in the same sense as online shopping services, say, or news of how to fix the latest Windows update failure?  

Is all 'content', in short, 'information'?

Are there alternatives?

Personally, I think the term 'Information Society's has been fairly robust so far, provided that one's conscious that it begs the question 'what is information?' and that it prioritises one aspect of what is happening at the expense of others. But is it future-proof? Were there - are there - alternatives?

  • It might as easily have been called the Communication Society. After all, we talk of 'information and communication technologies', and 'communication' is just as important - and perhaps more fundamental - in that binary relationship.  

  • Manuel Castells' concept of a Network Society might be said to give more emphasis to communication, since that’s what enables networking, though it's more wide-ranging and probably too rooted in academic sociology to have wide appeal.

  • 'Knowledge Society' has been favoured by some, with different meanings, from Peter Drucker, who emphasised the role of knowledge in economic growth in the 1960s, onwards. Robin Mansell's influential report for the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development in 1998, describing experience to date, was called Knowledge Societies. That plural term has also been favoured by UNESCO.

  • More recently, as ICT development’s accelerated and the Internet's begun to be eclipsed at the Information Society’s epicentre by computing innovations such as artificial intelligence, terms such as the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Second Machine Age have become fashionable

  • Dystopians, meanwhile, have continued to sound alarms about a potential 'Surveillance Society' – as they have been for longer than many people think.

Information Society's the term we have, and it's likely to be lasting simply because it’s so entrenched. My own preference, though, if we were to start from scratch today, would be the 'Digital Society'. That would be more neutral in its nuance; focus on the root (like Agricultural Society and Industrial Society) rather than a symptom (information); and embrace more of the range of change that's happening now and will continue in the future. It has some limited currency. Perhaps it will gain more.

What about new names for new phenomena?

New phenomena need new names. We talk about the advantages that first movers have when it comes to selling things. There's sometimes a first-mover gain, as well, in naming them. (Marketing professionals are aware of this.)

Take 'the cloud', for instance, as a term for the storage of data and location of applications in data centres managed, by and large, by global corporations (see picture). What was once a diagrammatic tool to illustrate a structure for data management has become a definition with marketing advantages.

For most people, the image conjured by 'the cloud' is friendly, free, open and natural. We’re happy to store our personal data – including very personal data, photographs, confidential documents – in ‘the cloud’ because it sounds unthreatening. We’d be much less likely to store them in 'the vault’ or in ‘the data complex’ than we are to store them in 'the cloud'.  

Or take the word 'smart' as used to describe digital management of aspects of our societies and lives - smart cities, for example; smart power grids; smart cards; smartphones; in more general terms, 'smart systems', 'smart solutions'.  Everyone wants to be 'smart', don't they?; no-one wants to be thought the opposite - like, you know, ‘stupid’.

For sure, 'smart' systems are likely to improve the efficiency of operating systems in many ways that will be beneficial to us. There’s likely to be lots to welcome.  But we should always be alert when positive adjectives like 'smart' are used to describe developments which raise more complex issues.  

Smart systems depend on the use of personal data and raise complex issues of balance between individual privacy and social benefit. The decisions that are made by them are political as well as technocratic - which communities, for example, will be prioritised in traffic management or the allocation of medical resources? It isn't stupid to question how smart systems work.

In conclusion

When we name phenomena, we should be careful what we call them. We should recognise that the terms we use influence the ways in which we think of things (and the priorities we emphasise). We should remember that times change and new names may be needed for changing phenomena that need different policies. And we should avoid adopting marketing terms which tend to favour vested interests.  

Next week: a word on international thinking about gender and ICTs.


David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.


Image: Virginia Tech - data center, by Christopher Bowns on Flickr.