Do we live in an era of change or in a changing era? How can one characterize the deep transformations that come with the accelerated insertion of artificial intelligence and new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in our present society? Is it a question of a new stage in the industrial society or are we entering into a new era? “Global village”, “technotronic era”, “post-industrial society”, “information society” or “information age”, and “knowledge society” are just a few of the terms that have been coined in an attempt to identify and understand the extent of these changes. But while the debate proceeds in the theoretical sphere, reality races ahead and communication media select the terms that we are to use.

The bottom line is: whichever term we use, it will be a shortcut that allows us to reference a phenomenon - be that present or future -, without having to repeatedly describe it; however, the selected term in itself does not define content. Content emerges from usage within a specific social context, which in turn influences perceptions and expectations, since each term brings with it a past and a meaning (or meanings), with its respective ideological baggage. It was therefore to be expected that any term used to designate the society in which we live, or to which we aspire, be the focal point of a dispute over meanings, backed by the varied opposing projects of society.

Within the benchmark of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) there are two terms that have occupied the scenario: information society and knowledge society, with their respective variants. But, although the benchmark imposed usage of the former, from the beginning it caused disagreement and no single term has achieved a consensus.

History of the terms<br />

Information society

In this past decade, the expression “information society” has without a doubt been confirmed as the hegemonic term, not because it necessarily expresses a theoretical clarity, but rather due to its “baptism” by the official policies of the more developed countries and the “crowning” that meant having a World Summit dedicated in its honor.

The term’s antecedents, however, date back from previous decades. In 1973, United States sociologist Daniel Bell introduced the notion “information society” in his book The Coming of Post-Industrial Society [1], where he formulates that the main axis of this society will be theoretical knowledge and warns that knowledge-based services will be transformed into the central structure of the new economy and of an information-led society, where ideologies will end up being superfluous.

This expression reappears strongly in the 90s, within the context of the development of the World Wide Web and ICTs. As of 1995, it was included in the agenda of the G7 meetings (followed by G8, which joins heads of State and governments from the most powerful nations on the planet). It has been addressed in forums of the European Community and the OECD - Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the thirty most developed countries in the World), and has been adopted by the United States government, as well as various UN agencies and the World Bank Group. All with great repercussions in the communication media. As of 1998, the term was first selected by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and then by the UN, as the name for the World Summit to be held in 2003 and 2005.

Within this context, the concept “information society” as a political and ideological construct has developed under the direction of neo-liberal globalization, whose main goal has been to accelerate the establishment of an open and “self-regulated” world market. This policy has counted on the close collaboration of multilateral organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank, in order for the weak countries to abandon national regulations or protectionist measures that “would discourage” the inversion; all with the known result of a scandalous widening of the gaps between the rich and the poor in the World.

In fact, at the end of the century, when the majority of the developed countries had already adopted ICT infrastructure development policies, there is a spectacular peak in the share market of the communications industry. But the markets in the North begin to become saturated. Then, increased pressure is placed on the developing countries to leave the way free for investments by telecommunications and informatics companies, in search of new markets to maintain growth of earnings. It is within this context that the WSIS is convoked; a panorama that changes, however, when the stock bubble burst as of the year 2000. Regardless of this reality and the key role that communication technologies have played in the acceleration of economic globalization, information society’s public image is more associated with the “friendlier” aspects of globalization, such as the World Wide Web, mobile and international phoning, TV via satellite, etc. Thus, the information society has assumed the role of the “good will ambassador” for globalization, whose “benefits” could be within the reach of all, if only the “digital divide” could be bridged. [2]

Knowledge society

The notion “knowledge society” (“sociedad del conocimiento”) emerged toward the end of the 90s and is particularly used as an alternative by some in academic circles to the “information society”.

UNESCO, in particular, has adopted the term “knowledge society”, or its variant, “knowledge societies”, within its institutional policies. There has been a great deal of reflection on the issue, which strives to incorporate a more integral conception that is not only related to the economic dimension. For example, Abdul Waheed Khan (general sub-director of UNESCO for ¬Communication and Information) writes [3]: “Information society is the building block for knowledge societies. Whereas I see the concept of ‘information society’ as linked to the idea of ‘technological innovation’, the concept of ‘knowledge societies’ includes a dimension of social, cultural, economical, political and institutional transformation, and a more pluralistic and developmental perspective. In my view, the concept of ‘knowledge societies’ is preferable to that of the ‘information society’ because it better captures the complexity and dynamism of the changes taking place. (...) the knowledge in question is important not only for economic growth but also for empowering and developing all sectors of society.

A nuance in this debate, which only concerns the Roman languages, is the distinction between “sociedad del conocimiento” and “sociedad del saber” (which both translate as “knowledge society” in English). The notion “saberes” implies more precise or practical certainties, while “conocimiento” encompasses a more global or analytical comprehensiveness. André Gorz considers that “conocimientos” refer to “formalized targeted contents, which cannot, by definition, belong to people...“Saber” consists of experiences and practices that have become intuitive evidence and customs.” [4] For Gorz, “intelligence” covers the whole range of capacities that allow combining “saberes” with “conocimientos”. He then suggests that “knowledge society” be translated as the “intelligence society”.

In any case, in general, within this context the terms “sociedad del conocimiento” and “sociedad del saber” are used interchangeably, although, at least in Spanish, “conocimiento” seems to be more common than “saber”.

Current definitions: state-of-the-art

It is necessary to differentiate here between those definitions that aim to characterize an existing or emerging reality from those that express a vision-a longing or desire- for a potential society. Both are relevant: the former for their contribution to analysis, and the latter because they guide policies and actions.

In the first category, we will refer to Manuel Castells, for being one of the researchers to have most developed this theme, in addition to being a renowned authority on the subject. Castells prefers the term “informational society” to “information society” (making the comparison with the difference between industry and industrial). He points out that while knowledge and information are decisive elements in all modes of development, “the term informational indicates the attribute of a specific form of social organization in which information generation, processing, and transmission are transformed into the fundamental sources of productivity and power, due to the new technological conditions that arise during this historic period.” [5]

Further on, he states: “What characterizes the current technological revolution is not the central personage of knowledge and information, but rather the application of this knowledge and information to knowledge generation and information/communication processing devices, in a cumulative feedback loop between innovation and the uses of innovation.” And he vouches: “The diffusion of technology infinitively amplifies its power when its users appropriate it and redefine it. The new information technologies are not merely tools to be applied, but rather processes to be developed.(...) For the first time in history, the human mind is a direct productive force, not only a decisive element of the production system.” [6]

As for the knowledge society, in a later publication he points out: “it has to do with a society in which the conditions for generating knowledge and processing information have been substantially changed by a technological revolution focused on information processing, knowledge generation, and information technologies.” [7]

Yves Courrier, when referring to Castells, differentiates the two terms in this manner: “information society” places the emphasis on the content of the work (the process of collecting, processing, and communicating the necessary information), and “knowledge society” emphasizes economic agents, who should be superiorly qualified to exercise their work. [8]

With respect to visions, the documents resulting from the WSIS stand out, for having emerged from a world process. The Geneva Declaration of Principles [9] adopted by governments, -with significant contributions from civil society-, expresses in its first article:

We... declare our common desire and commitment to build a people-centered, inclusive, and development-¬oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize, and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life, premised on the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and respecting fully and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

On the other hand, the Civil Society Declaration [10] extends its vision in several paragraphs, but essentially says:
We are committed to building information and communication societies that are people-centered, inclusive, and equitable. Societies in which everyone can freely create, access, utilize, share and disseminate information and knowledge, so that individuals, communities, and peoples are empowered to improve their quality of life and to achieve their full potential.” Subsequently, this Declaration adds the principles of social, political, and economic justice, as well as full participation and capacity-building of the peoples; it highlights the objectives of sustainable development, democracy, and gender equality; and it evokes societies where development acts as a setting for fundamental human rights and is oriented to attain a more equitable distribution of resources.

Debates in progress

One of the goals of the first phase of the WSIS convocation was precisely to develop a common vision of the information society. Although a large part of the governmental delegations and the private sector attributed little importance to this aspect, for many organizations in civil society, it was dealing with a key issue, for it was there that the controversy regarding its meaning took place, evidencing the clash among projects of society.

In fact, the entire process had been crossed by (at least) two separate approaches, which can be briefly summarized as follows:
In the first approach, to talk about the information society refers to a new development paradigm that assigns technology to a causal role in the social order, designating it as the drive of economic development.

For the developing countries, this discourse implies that the transition towards the information society is essentially a matter of time and of political decision to create adequate “empowering conditions”. [12] Something similar occurred with regard to the social sectors affected by the digital gap, which would have to be included via universal access programs.

By placing technology at the core of this model, the telecommunications industry is convoked to lead this development; while the industry that produces services and digital content assumes a hitherto unheard of ¬influence. [13]

The second approach, which contested the first in the Summit process, sustains that the new phase of human development that we are entering into is characterized by the predominance of information, communication, and knowledge in the economy as well as human activities. According to this standpoint, technology is the support that has unleashed the acceleration of this process; but it is not a neutral factor, nor is its course inexorable, since technological development is guided by games of interest.

Following this perspective, policies for information society development should focus on human beings and should be conceived in terms of their needs and within a benchmark of human rights and social justice. [14] The developing countries and the social actors should play a key role in the orientation of that process and the decisions.

In other words, for this second approach, what is fundamental is not “information” but rather “society”. While the first approach refers to data, transmission channels, and storage space, the second talks about human beings, cultures, forms of organization and communication. The information is determined in terms of society and not the inverse.

That is why the campaign for Communication Rights in the Information Society -CRIS- points out in the document on the WSIS, “The Question for Civil Society” [15]:

If civil society is going to adopt and recover the notion of an information society, it should return to these basic notions, posing the correct questions:

- Who generates and possesses information and knowledge? How is it valued?

- How is knowledge spread and distributed? Who are the custodians?

- What restricts and facilitates the use of knowledge on the part of people to attain their goals? Who is best and least positioned to take advantage of this knowledge?

Alternative formulations under debate

Given the predominance acquired by the term “information society”, alternative formulations tend to use this term as a demarcation reference. An initial objection has to do with the word “society” in the singular, as if it was dealing with a uniform world society. The proposed alternative is to speak about information or knowledge “societies” (using plural). Several UNESCO documents refer to “knowledge societies”. This idea was taken up by civil society actors who participated in the Summit and who adopted the term “societies” in their consensus documents.

As for “information”, the argument brought forward by Antonio Pasquali (2002) [16] had repercussions on civil society at the Summit: “To Inform essentially connotes causative and ordering unidirectional messages with a tendency to modify the behavior of a passive receiver; to Communicate, the interrelation of relational, dialogical, and socializing messages between speakers equally qualified for free and simultaneous reception/emission. If Information tends to dissociate and create hierarchies between the poles of the relation, Communication tends to associate them; only Communication can give birth to social structures.” (emphasis by the author.)

And in fact, civil society consensus documents adopted the formula “information and communication societies” in order to be set apart from the technocentric vision present in the official discourse, without losing their referentiality to the Summit theme. One could consider that this option was an important gesture within the context of the WSIS; but it does not escape from being a weighty formulation for current usage.
As for the debate on the “knowledge society”, those who uphold it consider that it evokes precisely a more integral vision and an essentially human process. Others, however, object to it for its association with the dominant concept that reduces knowledge to its economic function (the notion, for example, of “knowledge management” in companies, which emphasizes essentially how to assert one’s claim to and take advantage of employees’ knowledge); which values only the type of knowledge that is supposedly objective, scientific, and digitizable, disparaging that which is not.

An interesting variant, which emerged within the framework of the WSIS debates, even if there were very little repercussions in the process, is “shared knowledge society (ies)” (“sociedad(es) del saber compartido” or ... “de los saberes compartidos”).

Among others, Adama Samassékou (at that time president of the WSIS bureau) proposed regarding the information society: “It is important to understand what this concept covers: it does not have to do with information that is disseminated and shared, but rather with a society in which there is a wish to communicate in another manner and share knowledge. It has to do then with a shared knowledge society and a knowledge society.” [17]

Alternate definitions

The concept “information society”, born under the precepts of neo-liberal globalization, infers that henceforth it will be the “technological revolutions” that will determine the course of development; social conflicts would be things of the past. For the same reason, this concept is no longer the most appropriate to qualify the new trends in societies, nor much less to describe a counter-hegemonic project of society.

Our position is that, beyond debating the appropriateness of one term or another, what is fundamental is to contest and delegitimize any term or definition that reinforces this technocentric conception of society.

We do not intend to propose an alternative formula herein, but rather present criteria to foment the debate.
First, we welcome the notion that any reference to “societies” should be in the plural, recognizing the heterogeneity and diversity of human societies. This also implies reaffirming the interest of each society appropriating technologies for their specific development priorities, and not simply adapting to them in order to be part of a supposed predefined information society.

Second, we affirm that any definition that uses the term “society” cannot describe a reality circumscribed to the World Wide Web or ICTs. The Web may be a new social interaction scenario, but this interaction is strictly integrated to the physical world, and the two spheres are mutually transformed.

Lastly, we are backing a project of society where information is a public good, not a commodity; communication, a participative and interactive process; knowledge, a shared social construction, not private property; and technologies, a support for it all, without becoming an end in itself.

29 May 2006

couverture du livre enjeux de mots This text is an extract from the book Word Matters: multicultural perspectives on information societies. This book, which has been coordinated by Alain Ambrosi, Valérie Peugeot and Daniel Pimienta was released on November 5, 2005 by C & F Éditions.

The text is under the Creative Commons licence, by, non commercial.

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