Thursday, August 23, 2018

Do we live in an information society?

One of the things that struck me as I read John Feather's introduction to The Information Society was that the difference the Information Age brought was that beforehand, in the Manufacturing Age, technological advances allowed us to do our jobs better; after the "revolution" that Feather describes, technology was the job itself. This is a huge shift in its own right, but still has tethers to the old way: spreadsheets could be (tediously) done by hand in ledgers; even space flight could be 'computed' by a single woman in a NASA office. Since then, the work that we do cannot be replicated outside the virtual technological space in which it takes place: mapping the genome, for instance, is simply not humanly possible.

But for the idea of an information society to be evaluated, I think the emphasis is on society more than information. Our social interactions, not just our vocations, are now built on foundations that assume a level of information availability. This presents as everything from googling answers at a table to feeling deeply connected to virtual friends while barely recognizing neighborhood residents. The socialization of information networks has also created a major ripple in the social fabric, leaving those who are not able to participate in the social stream as nonentities more often than not, without access to the basic framework of adult citizenship. I remember when we thought that the internet would be the great democratizer, and in many ways it still is. But with phones that cost over a thousand dollars, with platforms that eat huge amounts of data, the digital revolution has been leveraged into the land of the Haves v. the Have-nots once again. I'm increasingly experiencing news "articles" that are actually videos, and this change in format -- without the text component of the traditional written article -- means that many people simply cannot access that piece of information.
The idea of social currency is also being impacted, in that the idea of "followers" to a feed or "likes" to a post have real social meaning, at least in the moment, and fame seems to be shorter and shorter. Andy Warhol's "fifteen minutes of fame" might well be only fifteen seconds these days, if that.

I think we absolutely live in an information society, and the fact that outside agents chose to target information social networks as a valuable asset for hacking speaks volumes. Our social interaction with digital information and the media continues to be as meaningful a piece of the infrastructure as the electricity grid or clean water delivery.