Do accounts of the ‘Information Society’ inevitably lead to the problem of technological determinism? 6000 words

Do accounts of the ‘Information Society’ inevitably lead to the problem of technological determinism?


In order to answer the question, I will first have to define what is meant by the term ‘technological determinism’ and why this is a problem. Secondly, I will consider various accounts of the ‘information society’. I will follow Frank Webster’s division according to categories of technological, economic, occupational, spatial and cultural accounts, and focus on various information theorists within each category, combining these with my own examples and explanations. This will lead me to a consideration of issues such as the difference between quantitative and qualitative accounts, debates over definitions and measurements of information, and types of relation between technology and society. I will then go on to look at the work of Daniel Bell in particular, in relation to the issues I have raised. Finally, I will address the problem of technological determinism in general to consider whether, indeed, it is inevitable that accounts of the information society lead to this criticism, or whether it is possible to formulate an account that does not.


Determinism, philosophically, is defined as the belief that, “every event is caused and that human actions cannot be expected” (Lacey, 1996, p.114). This outline definition suggests the lack of agency that deterministic theories entail. If events are caused, then we are powerless to act any other way. More specifically, ‘causal determinism’ is the belief that, “our choices and actions are effective as links in the causal chain, so that deliberation has a point, but are themselves caused” (Lacey, 1996, p.115). In relation to the social sciences, determinism is usually used to suggest that a certain factor determines social changes. A Marxist view of history for example may suggest that historical events are determined by economic relations (Rigby, 1998, p.178). I understand ‘technological determinism’ to mean the view that technology determines society, or at least that technology is the single main determining factor in social change, and effects it in such a way that society and its members can only passively accept. As Frank Webster argues, according to theories of technological determinism, “technology is regarded as the prime social dynamic” (Webster, 2008, p.12). A problem with this view is that it seems an over-simplification of processes of social change. By suggesting that technology is determining, or is the ‘prime social dynamic’ then other processes such as social, political, economic or cultural factors are inevitably subordinated to technology, and change is simplified to become one-way traffic rather than potentially complex networks of negotiation, resistance and force. Technological determinism then seems like it would be problematic in accounts of the information society. Whether such accounts inevitably lead to it I will now go on to analyse.


Frank Webster divides accounts of the information society into five main categories: technological; economic; occupational; spatial and cultural. Although there may be overlaps between these categories, they are useful in considering the different assumptions adopted and conclusions drawn by various theorists. Webster argues that these five categories are connected as they all share “the conviction that quantitative changes in information are bringing into being a qualitatively new sort of social system, the information society” (Webster, 2008, p.9). This immediately suggests a problem for such definitions. How do they account for the power of quantitative data to have this qualitative effect? I will return to this point later. He also outlines a sixth category, which is different from the rest as it focuses on the fact not that there is more information today, but the important point that the information available is different, “the suggestion here is that theoretical knowledge / information is at the core of how we conduct ourselves these days” (Webster, 2008, p.9). In other words, theories in this category adopt a qualitative rather than quantitative approach.


Webster’s first category – technological accounts of the information society, seems particularly relevant here. Accounts in this category focus on defining the information society in relation to developments in technology, so would suggest the possibility of being open to problems of technological determinism. Examples of this approach include theorists from the late 1970s and 1980s such as Alvin Toffler. Toffler compared the scale of advancements in computer technology of the early 1980s to the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution before, defining them as ‘the third wave’ of revolutionary advance (Toffler, 1980). He returns to his theories in more recent work such as Revolutionary Wealth (2006) and employs hyperbolic language in his embrace of the revolutionary new, “We are creating in the United States a new form of society, you could call it a new civilization” (Mantell, 2007). According to Toffler, shifts in technology are changing the way society is structured and people live. The development of nanotechnology for example will allow people to self-administer health related technologies, which were previously the reserve only of professionals, so changing the whole nature of the health service (Toffler, 2006). Such a statement does inevitably seem technologically determinist. It posits technological development – nanotechnology, as the cause, and then allows social change – health service reform, to follow. Such writing of history doesn’t account for other non-technological factors, say the rise in disease caused by a lack of healthy eating, or the spread of a virus, which equally may effect changes in the organization of healthcare. Although this is an oversimplification of Alvin Toffler’s argument, the basic premise does seem to be to bracket off other contributing factors, allowing the ‘information society’ to be defined entirely according to technology.


There are other examples of technologically based accounts of the information society, which focus on other advancements such as the rise of the internet, networking and wireless connectivity. Ian Angell for example, in his essay, ‘A Brave New World: Where is Information Technology Taking the Small and Medium Sized Enterprise’ published in 1995, adopts a similarly hyperbolic tone to suggest that the effects of information technology on business “will be just as significant as those of the Industrial Revolution” (Angell, 1995, p.1). The language he uses in relation to technology echoes Toffler, “our world has reached the threshold of a new economic reality – a reality that is perched precariously on the ‘Edge of Chaos’” (Angell, 1995, p.1), and it is clear in his analysis that it is technology that is in determining control, “the new order is being forced on to an unsuspecting world…whether we like it or not, the comfortable world we know will soon be lost forever” (Angell, 1995, pp.1-2). His focus is on ‘information superhighways’ and the way that the networking offered by the convergence of technologies will undoubtedly change society beyond recognition. Perhaps technological determinism operates not so much as a limitation but as a contagion. Writers are excited by the prospect of a new age, carried away by their own lack of power in the face of perceived incredible technological advance, and quick to propose a dystopian sci-fi inspired vision of the future, where human agency disappears.


Another problem emerges here. Accounts of the information society are necessarily revolutionary, as they, in their nature, propose that we are entering into a new age. Such accounts of radical social shift are inevitably framed in terms of revolutionary language either in awe of or in fear of the mighty power of technology. Descriptions of the revolution and a future that is, necessarily, unknown, tend to lead to descriptions of technological determinism. As a counter-example, other writers on technology take a less revolutionary view. Brian Winston for example argues that technological developments, rather than suggesting the dawn of a new age, can be read back into past histories:


What is hyperbolized as a revolutionary train of events can be seen as a far more evolutionary and less transforming process. The suggestion that we are in not in the midst of monumental and increasingly frequent change in information technology runs so counter to our whole underlying philosophy of progress, as well as the particular rhetoric of the ‘Information Revolution’ itself, that it must surely be doubted…But the position taken here is, rather, Western civilisation over the past three centuries has displayed, despite enormous changes, fundamental continuity – and that it continues to do so. (Winston, 2003, pp.1-2)


Winston makes some interesting points here. The aligning of accounts of the information society with narratives of progress is a point I will return to later. For now, I want to remark on Winston’s position as anti-revolutionary. His style is sober and he adopts none of the excited tone of Toffler or Angell. However, it is not the case that only revolutionary accounts are subject to determinism, as Winston’s account is itself equally as deterministic in its use of technology in relation to society. It alters only in suggesting that technology has changed society (in the past) but is not changing enough to radically change it now. Problems of technological determinism can equally apply to the writing of technological history from either perspective, suggesting that if this is the case, then perhaps the case is not as simple as at first thought.


Webster points out that pragmatic academic discourses have shared similar assumptions to those adopted by Toffler and Angell. He gives an example of developments in Japan where the Japanese ministry for Post and Telecommunicatons use sophisticated techniques to chart the rise of information transfer (Webster, 2008, p.10). As he argues, on one hand, such accounts seem to make sense. If we read history in terms of how technological developments such as the steam train have effected social change through, say through increased mobility, the development of trade and shifts in labour, then it seems common sense to propose recent developments such as those in computing, as a major impact and contributing factor to changes in the ‘information society’ today. On the other hand however, he points out a number of difficulties. Firstly, there is what he calls the ‘vagueness’ of uses of technology in such accounts (Webster, 2008, p.11). If developments in technology are to lead to the definition of a new form of society then exactly when does this happen? When do we draw the line and say that now, so much ICT has been developed that we have passed a tipping point and entered into a new society? What factors must be considered and how would we measure them? It seems arbitrary, and of course dependent on commercial influences, to make a proposal like, ‘we will say that any given society becomes an information society when more than 50 percent of its members own an iphone’, yet to make no kind of proposal of measure is equally problematic leading to the vagueness that Webster points out. In other words, this critique emphasizes not only the problem of adopting a ‘tipping-point’ approach to discretely defined social ‘ages’, but also the lack of adequate modes of measurement proposed by many advocates of technologically determined claims of the information society:


Asking these questions, one becomes conscious that a technological definition of an information society is not at all straightforward, however self-evident such definitions initially appear. (Webster, 2008, p.11)


Webster’s second mode of critique gets to the heart of issues of technological determinism:


Critics object to those who assert that, in a given era, technologies are first invented and then subsequently impact on the society, thereby impelling people to respond to the new. Technology, in these versions, is privileged above everything else, hence it comes to identify an entire social world. (Webster, 2008, p.11)


The idea of technologies impacting on society and causing change seems to be an over-simplification of complex processes, which doesn’t account for other social factors at all. As well as the problem of oversimplification Webster also points out that, according to this technologically determinist approach, the categories of social, economic and political process are all subordinated to the technological and removed to separate categories. As he argues,

Technology in this imagination comes from outside society as an invasive element, without contact with the social in its development, yet it has enormous social consequences when it impacts on society. (Webster, 2008, p.12)


This clarifies the paradoxes of such theories of the information society. Technology is posited as something somehow existing outside of and untainted by social relations, and simultaneously as something that has concrete effect on those very social relations of which it was previously posited as outside of. Such problems apply to Toffler’s definitions, to Angell’s and also to Winston’s.


In opposition to such accounts, Webster suggests that, actually, technology is very much part of the social sphere, part of a complex network of negotiating social, economic and political factors, “for instance, research-and-development decisions express priorities, and from these value judgements particular types of technology are produced” (Webster, 2008, p.12). He goes on to give the example of developments in automobile technology but many others could equally be given. Take the development of mobile internet technology for example. It seems strange and oversimplifying to argue that such technology developed in a vacuum, immune to any social factors, and then emerged fully formed to radicalise the way society is organized and communicates. Firstly, there are questions such as technological research funding. Politically, funding will go to those who best serve the interests of the Government or funding body. Technologies then emerge at the service of those who pay for them. The force of colonization of mobile internet signals by contract service providers such as T-Mobile or Orange, who combine their interests in collaboration with other multinational corporations such as, for example, Starbucks or other global coffee chains who could increase profit through employing the technology, creates a situation where changes in society (the ‘placeless’ embodiment of information) are effected as much by, say, consumer strategies (clustering consumers around sites where they will buy goods while paying to access information), and other commercial factors. On the other hand, counter-communities emerge such as in the marking out of free network territories through the phenomenon of ‘war chalking’, marking symbols to show where free networks are and can be accessed (Jones, 2002). Shifts in society and development in technology also of course rely on other assumptions such as, in this case, the broad ownership of portable computers, the development of types of flexible mobile labour, which may lead people to go to cafes rather than offices to access internet, even culturally specific factors such as weather which would, in countries like the UK, combined with the increased privatisation of outside space, generally prevent people from using internet while sitting outside anywhere. At the intersection of these competing political and social discourses, technological and social changes emerge. To bracket off all the other factors and read the social change purely in terms its effect by technology seems a reductionist approach, disallowing of any human agency, and subordinating any factor except for the all powerful, faceless and universal force of technology in its march to the new. As Webster concludes, “it is facile… and it is false… and therefore ICTs separate and supreme role in social change is dubious” (Webster, 2008, p.12) This, essentially, is the problem with technological determinism, and many theorists of the information society have fallen for its allure.


It makes sense now then, to look at Webster’s other categories of approaches to the information society, in order to see whether these provide potential alternative formations, which are not open to technologically determinist problems. His next category is that of the ‘economic’. This includes theorists who take economic data as the main determining factor in assessing shifts to an information society. These accounts are based on looking at what proportion of a country’s GDP comes from information based work, and then assigning a threshold percentage at which point this society becomes an information society. This includes the work of theorists such as Marc Uri Porat. Porat published a report in 1977, which measured the shift to an information society in roughly the economic terms I have outlined above. In 1966 ‘information-related’ activities constituted 47 percent of US GDP. (Cohen et. al, 1998, p.103). Such research however, is also problematic. It leads to the initial question of how ‘information-related activities’ are defined. Porat did elaborate on this, splitting information into three categories: financial; cultural; and knowledge (Cohen et al., 1998, p.103), but there still remains the question of all the value judgements and decisions taken in order to reach these final figures. This point is taken up by Webster who suggests that seemingly simple statistical data can hide a wealth of complex decision making and interpretation, and more importantly such an approach can’t account for what is at stake in these interpretations (Webster, 2008, p. 13).


Porat raises the question himself of the problem of categorizing information workers:


Stating precisely who is and who is not an information worker is a risky proposition…we are trying to get at a different question, which occupations are primarily engaged in the production, processing or distribution of information as the output. (Porat, 1998, p.103)


Nevertheless, despite making transparent this distinction between occupations and workers, Porat’s work still focuses heavily on the use of statistical evidence to back up a supposed revolutionary shift. Another criticism pointed out by Webster is the way that such amassing of data can tend to homogenize difference by erasing questions of value. Focusing purely on the economic effect of information work doesn’t allow a distinction to be made between, say, The Sun and The Financial Times, which would differ in economic effect and valuable effect within a certain sector (financial). Theories such as those of Porat then, do suggest the avoidance of technological determinism – we are no longer spoken and played out by all powerful discourses of technology. However, it could be argued that they simply replace one form of determinism with another. In this case, economic factors are seen to be the prime determining factor in the shift to an information society, not fully accounting for the variations in data, other factors, and ideologies and assumptions of the researchers, which are equally as important yet left out from such accounts.


The next category proposed by Webster is the ‘occupational’, which he suggests is the closest to the work of Daniel Bell. In this category, theorists examine occupational structure over time and observe patterns of change. When most people are in information related work, then we are in an information society. Such analysis may be useful in moving away from technological determinism, as Webster argues, it “stresses the transformative power of information itself rather than that of technologies” (Webster, 2008, p.15). As Daniel Bell argues, “It would seem plausible to argue that we inhabit an information society, since the predominant group [of occupations] consists of occupation workers” (Bell, cited in Webster, p.15). However, again, such categories hide complex processes of selection and hierarchy. (Webster, 2008, p.15). His ‘Spatial’ category includes those theories of the information society that focus on the effects of information networks on organizations of time and space, with a particular focus influenced from geographical research, on space. This includes theorists such as Barren and Curnow who write of the ‘wired society’ (cited in Webster, 2008, p17) as a metaphor for how people are increasingly ‘plugged in’ to connections, which encourage different modes of organization, and so come to define the information society. Such analysis would offer an alternative way to approach the theorizing of my earlier example of developments in wireless technology, or more productively, various approaches could be combined.


Another example from this category is Manuel Castells who defines ‘the network society’ as “the emerging, dominant, social structure” (Castells, 2004, p.139). For Castells, this network society is defined geographically, even though it is “characterized by an extremely uneven geography” (Castells, 2004, p.140) meaning that it is not universal – it excludes those that don’t fit into its parameters, “it scans the whole world, and links up valuable inputs, markets and individuals, while switching off unskilled labour and poor markets” (Castells, 2004, p.140). Castell’s outline again seems to make sense. Webcam and Skype technology for example may make me able to communicate with someone in another country without having to move, suggesting a shift in the way I perceive and relate to space. This focus, along with the idea of a network as a decentred force, structured around relations rather than definitive points, possibly suggests a useful move away from problems of technological determinism towards directions of interactivity based around nodal points and flows, with people shaping social structures as much as being shaped by them. Castell has been criticized, however, precisely for his determinism. Garnham, for example, argues that he uses information as both cause and effect in his theory of competition, “Castell claims without producing any evidence that the network economy has become more competitive on a global scale and that the mobilization of the informational paradigm has both caused and is a response to this growth in competiveness” (Garnham, 2004, p.172). For Webster, the problem again is imprecision. He points out that there have always been networks, the Post Office for example, but is this necessarily so revolutionary as to signal a new age? (Webster, 2002, p.18)


Webster suggests then that work within all of the categories I have outlined (and the cultural category, which I don’t have space to go into here) is “either undeveloped or imprecise” (Webster, 2008, p.21). The problem, more generally, he suggests, is with an overfocus on the quantitative. By focusing on measuring data quantitatively, whether relating to economics, technologies, space or cultural factors, these approaches run into similar difficulties. Firstly, if there isn’t a qualitative change, just an increase in the amount of the same kind of data, then how can this be cause for a revolutionary new age? Secondly, how does one measure and decide when the ‘tipping point’ from one age to another takes place? Thirdly, such focus on data can act as a mask for various ideological decisions and value judgements taken along the way, yet subordinated to the focus on figures and data. Fourthly, in a point I will return to, such analyses show an interpretation of information without any semiotic content, Fifthly, these approaches don’t account for or allow the analysis of qualitative changes, and finally, in a related fashion, how can it be argued that these quantitative changes do actually somehow have some kind of qualitative effect? If so, then what kind of relation of effect is this?


Indeed, all of these points, and the last one in particular can be reframed in terms of determinism. An overfocus on qualitative data leads, both simply, and in a mysteriously unexplained fashion, to a situation where information is presumed to have some kind of effect on society, simultaneously reducing data to contentless form, and making it all powerful. This is the fundamental structure of determinism, whether it is technological or otherwise (economic etc..). So, can there be any account which can avoid these problems? It is useful here to turn to Roszak’s critiques of definitions of the information society. In his critique of the quantitative overemphasis of definitions of the industrial society, he draws attention in particular to the ‘levelling out’ inherent to a lack of address to the quality of data:


For the information theorist, it does not matter whether we are transmitting a fact, a judgement, a shallow cliché, a deep teaching, a sublime truth, or a nasty obscenity. (Roszak, cited in Webster, 2008, p.22)


Against this, he proposes addressing such questions as what sort of information is circulating. What is it actually doing? (Webster, 2008, p.23). In other words, he proposes thinking of information not as an empty content-less vessel but as actually having some meaning. Thinking of information in non-social terms can lead to determinism.


We have…the assessment of information in non-social terms – it just is – but we must adjust to its social consequences. This is a familiar situation to sociologists who often come across assertions that phenomena are aloof from society in their development (notably technology and science), but which carry with them momentous social consequences. (Webster, 2004, p.25)


This suggests that in order to propose a theory of the information society in a non-deterministic fashion we would need to challenge the definitions of information (as contentless) and quantitative approaches, made by previous theorists. One approach that Webster suggests in this respect is that of ‘theoretical knowledge’. According to this model, “a decisive qualitative change has taken place with regard to the ways in which information is used. Here an information society is defined as one in which theoretical knowledge occupies a pre-eminence which it previously lacked” (Webster, 2008, p.28). He goes on to define this theoretical knowledge as “abstract, generalisable and codified in media. It is abstract in that is not of direct applicability to a given situation, generalisable so far as it has relevance beyond particular circumstances, and it is presented in such things as books, articles, television and educational courses” (Webster, 2008, p.29)

There are problems with this approach. Firstly, it is hard to think how such knowledge could be measured and assessed. What exactly would qualify as theoretical knowledge? There seems to be many possibilities for vagueness and overlapping of categories, making measurement difficult. Secondly, assessing the shift to ‘pre-eminence’ that Webster proposes seems to suggest a possible collapse back into quantitative methods. Thirdly, there is a universalism underlying the theory that seems problematic. Cultural specifics of knowledge are not accounted for in the description of a universal shift in types of knowledge. Fourthly, it is arguable whether such an approach would actually get away from determinism. It is possible that theoretical knowledge now becomes the determining factor rather than technology itself. Bearing these problems in mind however, making such qualitative distinctions seems to suggest ways of getting away from the problems of purely quantitative methods, and potentially avoiding technological determinism. Interestingly Webster does not propose this theory as a radical shift in society and the entering into of a new age, but rather as a tendency already existing within modernity itself. (Webster, 2008, p.30). This position aligns him more with theorists such as Winston who are deeply critical of the whole notion of moving into a radically new ‘information society’ (Winston 2003). It also however suggests a different approach to history, one where various strands and threads co-exist, become dominant or fade away at different times, rather than the linear march proposed by some of the other theorists I have discussed. This leads to an important difference from the work of Daniel Bell, who I will now go on to discuss.


For Bell, the concept of the ‘information society’ is inherently bound up with the concept of ‘post-industrial society’, indeed as Webster argues, “the terms are generally used synonymously” (Webster, 2008, p.32). His book The Coming of Post-Industrial Society published in 1973 is still referred to today in discussion about formations of and definitions of the information society. Bell argued here that society was entering into a new phase, or a new system of organization, which, while it may have many factors, its main defining feature is the increase of and increased significance of information. (Bell, 1973) In this sense, his account is both qualitative and quantitative – there is more information in the world and there is a shift to more ‘theoretical knowledge’. According to Bell’s argument, society consists of separate and independent realms of social structure, polity and culture. Each realm is presumed to have autonomy so it is assumed that neither one can shape the others. His theory then is essentially non-organic – society is not a coherent whole but is constituted of entirely separate spheres. According to this theory, technological determinism is not so much of a problem, as events can happen in one realm without Bell having to explain how they effect another, “in the economy, a labor issue remains, but not in the sociology and the culture” (Bell, 2004, p.102).


Critics have been sceptical of this division. Webster for example suggests that this is Bell’s way of ‘side-stepping’ problems of determinism rather than engaging with them, a way of “avoiding the awkward issue of inter-realm relationships” (Webster, 2002, p.35) and so of determinism:


He can, and does concede that there are ‘questions’ posed by events in one sphere for others – but he goes no further than this, concluding that his concern is with only one particular realm. (Webster, 2002, p.35)


Others suggest that in Bell’s work, the realms, actually, are connected, “for all his analytical division of the three realms, he cannot get away from the notion of society as a whole” (Steinfels, cited in Webster, 2002, p.36). Melin suggests that although change is examined on separate levels, they do effect each other (Melin, 2004, p.81). Bell’s theory can indeed be seen as a kind of occupationalism – he analyses the types of work at each stage of development, sketching a shift from agricultural labour to factory work to service employment. He highlights the increase in productivity of each stage in an onward march to more mechanization and more profit. He then suggests that this will carry on to the next age, when there will be less people employed in factories, more automation and unrelenting rationalisation, but also a continued increase in wealth and the creation of new needs, which will lead to a never ending supply of new jobs in industries spawned by these insatiable needs, so therefore total employment, “a third sector, that of personal services, begins to grow: restaurants, hotels, auto services, travel, entertainment, sports, as people’s horizons expand and new wants and tasted develop” (Bell, 2004, p.88). He then proposes the utopian claim that this society will be fundamentally better, as Melin suggests, based on relationships rather than economic efficiency (Melin, 2004, p.82):


The post-industrial society is defined by the quality of life as measured by the services and amenities – health, education, recreation and the arts…A new consciousness starts to intervene. The claims to the good life that the society has promised become centred on the two areas that are fundamental to life – health and education…The post-industrial society is thus a communal society, in which the social unit is the community rather than the individual. (Bell, 2004, pp.87-8)


His account then is definitely revolutionary, “the changes which are summed up in the post-industrial society may represent a historic metamorphosis in western society” (Bell, 2004, p.102) and it does seem to propose technology as agent in this revolution. One problem for his work is his belief in progress. His argument has an underlying assumption that society is evolving for the better, constantly moving forward. This of course runs into many possible objections – how can he propose a universal notion of progress? It suggests a colonial attitude that those ‘less progressed’ must be forced to reach the supposedly ‘universal’ standard of progress he imposes, and shows no understanding for alternative modes of development or modernity which are bracketed out of his account. As Melin points out, “he has been criticized for over-generalising from conditions he found in the United States, suggesting that its expression of post-industrialism is the path that others must follow” (Melin, 2004, p.82). Equally, why should his theory even apply across all of the United States. Theorists such as Kumar have been critical of Bell’s neo-evolutionist and teleological approach – the way it is focused on a presumed end point and we are powerless in moving towards this. Kumar questions the notion of whether there has actually been change at all, suggesting instead that society still operates according to Fordist parameters (Kumar, 2004, p.105). As I pointed out before, Webster agrees, suggesting that although there has been change, this does not necessarily herald the beginnings of a new age. To return to the main point then, is Bell technologically determinist? According to Webster’s definition:


It [technological determinism] carries two especially dubious implications: one, that technologies are the decisive agents of social change; two, that technologies themselves are aloof from the social world, though they have enormous social effects. (Webster, 2002, p.44)


Taken on this level, I would argue that Bell’s account is technologically determinist. Despite his proposition of separate spheres, the underlying assumption is still that of continuous progress driven by technology, having effect on society. Webster goes on:


Where, critics ask, are people, capital, politics, class interests in all of this? …How can technologies be at once the motor of change and simultaneously untouched by social relations? Whatever happened to the values and powers which determine R and D budgets? To corporate priorities in investing in innovation? To government preferences for this project rather than that one? (Webster, 2002, p.44)


Bell refuses the charge of technological determinism, but, Kumar suggests, can only do this by claiming ‘rationalisation’ as an even deeper and more determining cause for change (Kumar 2004). Kumar argues that Bell’s work is a continuation of Weber’s account of rationalization:


Almost every feature of Bell’s post-industrial society can be seen as an extension and distillation of Weber’s account of the relentless process of ‘rationalisation’ in Western industrial societies. (Kumar, cited in Webster, 2002, p.43)


So, technological determinism is here traced as a legacy of Weberian accounts of rationalization, suggesting a potential reason for why so many accounts of the information society run into its problems. Melin suggests that Bell’s determinism is necessary:


One might object that there is something determinist about [Bell’s] approach. However, it should be added that it is an inexact and contingent exercise, and that, moreover, [predicting the future] is necessary if politicians and policy makers are to exercise informed influence when they make their recommendations and interventions (even though these may redirect social relationships).

(Melin, 2004, p.82).


I would suggest however, that new directions could be developed to predict the future without recourse to determinism. My research has led me to suggest directions for an approach to the information society, which could avoid technological determinism. Firstly, it must take full account of social, economic and political factors in developments of technology. One of the main problems for technologically determinist accounts is that they desocialise or decontexualise technological change (Webster, 2002, p.272). Secondly, it must adopt qualitative as ell as quantitative methods. Using purely qualitative methodology runs into problems such as having to define a ‘tipping point’ into the information age, and the reduction of everything to data. A qualitative approach allows for more focus on what types of information are circulating in society. Thirdly, and closely linked, one way to avoid having to define such a tipping point is to follow a notion of historical continuity (Webster, 2008; Winston, 2003) avoiding problems of at what exact point to announce the beginning of a new age. Tendencies to the new are already existing within modernity. Fourthly, it must incorporate a concept of information as meaning rather than contentless data. Finally, it must suggest the possibility of some kind of agency and have a pragmatics. Robins and Webster focus on this in an earlier essay, “we have argued that this disconcerting ‘revolution’ cannot be understood simply in terms of ideological or economic issues…We must also understand the current upheaval in terms of the mobilization and transformation of everyday life” (Robins & Webster, 1986, p.71). They go on to propose a more pragmatic approach to information – the use of actually existing technologies, reclaiming them to confront the information age (Robins & Webster, 1986, p.72). They write specifically in relation to a Thatcherite context, but any new concept of the Information Society now, must equally show an awareness of, and potential pragmatic response to, rather than deterministic acceptance of, the current world context of global economic power relations and structuring of the capitalist social sphere.





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