E-SPEAIT T4 Information Society

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Information Society: What's the Difference?

The Rapids of Change

It is becoming more and more evident that during the last half-century, the human society is once again going through a stage of thorough changes - as thorough as was the transition from gathering and hunting to agriculture and from the latter on to industrial production. However, the intensity of this process seems to be much greater:

  • both productive and destructive capabilities of mankind are virtually unlimited (in Terran perspective)
  • as seen from the news, even the most stubborn politicians are starting to admit that the planet has got its limits. The brute force (or brute money) approach is becoming increasingly ineffective.

This text has taken a number of writings by some wise people as its starting point - including Robert Theobald (The Rapids of Change), Charles Handy (The Future of Work), Pekka Himanen (Hacker Ethic), Manuel Castells, Vint Cerf and other thinkers.

Theobald has used the metaphor of immigration - we all are immigrants to the new kind of society (and the term got a new lease long after being used by Theobald, in the notion of digital natives vs immigrants). The old saying "let the young study, the old ones know" is not valid anymore. The process of learning will more and more shift from the previous, hierarchical model towards the network model (the process is well described by Pekka Himanen as the network academy). No more is a wise sage sitting on the stage, in front of a bunch of humble disciples - the process of learning becomes increasingly bidirectional. The constructivist (and later connectivist) approach to learning, where knowledge is constructed individually from small pieces of wisdom (quite like building a LEGO) will probably become mainstream.

All people will need to master the art of surviving and controlling mindquakes. A mindquake (or mind-quake)[1] is a concept by Robert Theobald, meaning a certain point in the process of change where the old model and old understanding lose their meaning - a new one must be obtained or constructed (to borrow from the famous parodist Weird Al Yankovic - "Everything You Know Is Wrong!"). Above all, it means the skill to cut and divide the major quakes into smaller ones that are easier to contain (just as we use the staircase not to be forced to jump from the third floor). The old Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times!" can and should be turned into a blessing.

An important point in the gradual change of values is also the reduction of the materialism and 'the Cult of Getting Stuff'. For instance, some time ago in Estonia there was an (ironic) ad campaign titled "The one who has the most stuff at the moment of death will win!" - this mentality will hopefully give way to valuing the quality of life. The focus will move to the person with his/her special traits, skills and preferences - not as a kind of extreme individualism but rather the realization that personal perfection can only be achieved through interaction with others.

Interestingly, this somewhat philosophical reasoning comes down to the mindset that has been dominating among the classical Internet hacker culture from the very beginning (see also Levy[2] and Himanen[3]). We will discuss this 'classical hackerdom' later in our course as well.

(Another personal thought: yet, it might be not as simple as Theobald suggests. There is a quote that is usually attributed to Andre Malraux, a French writer and the Minister of Cultural Affairs in France after the WWII - "the 21st century will be religious, or it will not be"[4]. While religions have caused their share of hassle in history and in some versions continue to do that, the almost total secularism of the late 20th and early 21th century has been remarkably more successful in producing alienation, hedonism and nihilism in the Western civilization along with some ideologies that are pseudo-religious in nature. Some kind of balance is sorely needed. - KK)

Starting already in the 70s, Charles Handy has formulated in his writings the nine paradoxes evident in the society to come. While they are initially put into the context of management, they may well be looked at in a wider manner. An abridged text available online[5] lists them as follows:

  1. The paradox of intelligence. Intelligence is essentially turning into the dominating form of property; yet such assets never appear on company balance sheets.
  2. The paradox of work. Because the economic system discourages people from working for free, we have got plenty of work crying out to be done (from helping the elderly to environmental cleanup) and people fruitlessly searching for work - at the same time. Modern organizations cannot seem to bridge this gap.
  3. The paradox of productivity. At the organizational level, productivity improvement means more work from fewer people. At the social level, more people become inactive or enter the underground economy. The result is organizations becoming more productive and the society as a whole, much less so.
  4. The paradox of time. The application of modern technology means that less time is needed to make/do things, so people should have more spare time. But time has become a competitive weapon and getting things done quickly is imperative. As a result, many of those who work have less spare time than ever before.
  5. The paradox of riches. Economic growth depends upon more people wanting more things. But increasingly, the things people want most (clean air, safe environment) are collective and cannot be bought by individuals at any price. And because there is no customer, organizations cannot produce them.
  6. The paradox of organizations. Today, organizations need to be local and global at the same time; to be small in some ways but big in others; and to be both centralized and decentralized at the same time. Managers are expected to be more entrepreneurial and more team-oriented - also at the same time. No one knows what is needed to run organizations now.
  7. The paradox of aging. People never learn very much from the previous generations because their experiences were so different. The result is most organizations are led by people whose experiences do not equip them to lead in today's environment (the proverb "no fool like an old fool" nails it well).
  8. The paradox of the individual. Managers are urged to challenge old ways. At the same time, they are asked to remember that they are a part of a larger group - a team. The tension between individual rights and collective will has never been more explosive.
  9. The paradox of justice. People want the organizations they work for to treat them fairly. But being treated fairly means different things to different people. To some it means treating different people identically, but to others it means compensating for their differences. Either way, the manager will be accused of being unjust.

Note that while Handy wrote the above during the last decades of the 20th century as predictions for future, at the beginning of the new century we see several of them around already.

We can complement Handy with Manuel Castells' network society descriptions[6] (further commented by me - KK).

  • information-based economy - the success of economic processes depends directly on information and its availability; the information economy also includes agriculture and service industry. A threat is the exclusion of those not keeping pace - in absence of adequate regulation, this threat is much more serious than in industrial society.
  • global economy - technology-based relations favour some players while pushing aside others. Castells predicts the "third world" becoming much more diverse; the "first world" keeps producing exclusion, which results in the emergence of the "fourth world" consisting of excluded people regardless of the "world" they live in.
  • network enterprise - a new kind of organization, which will develop from the initial purely economic entity towards a wider one.
  • changes in work and employment - emergence of flexi-workers (working without fixed time, place, or regulations); new methods allow more flexible approaches, but also produce more stress and discontent; the share of temporary and telework increases.
  • social exclusion and polarization - work becoming more networked and personalized will weaken NGO sector, including trade unions and the protection mechanisms of welfare society.
  • the culture of true virtuality - the network becomes a real medium and cultural environment, whose symbols will become cultural reality (today, a perfect example is Second Life).
  • hard and dirty politics - politics will focus on network media and become even more cruel. Castells sees the following chain:
    • politics needs the simplest possible message
    • the simplest message is an image
    • the simplest image is a person
    • the most powerful political message is a negative message
    • the best negative message is ruining the opponent's personality. Thus, the politics will become even more dirty and unpleasant than it is now.
  • timeless time - in a networked society, time becomes relative (e.g. we can chat in the Net in real time with someone from the other side of the globe - she has morning while we have evening).
  • space of flows - social processes will become dependent on things similar to the atmospheric phenomena like winds and streams - flows of technology, capital and information.

Note: Himanen has quite an interesting comparison resulting from looking at three very different thinkers who dealt with social processes - Karl Marx, Max Weber and Manuel Castells (and himself). On one hand, every next one of them opposes to the previous one, on the other hand, all three are hard critics of classical Capitalism. Yet, this does not need to mean that anyone of them is actually right - but it illustrates rather well that things are not always so 'cut and dried' as it may seem at first.

Vital skills

The educational landscape of the 21st century will probably become very diverse. While all possible 'alternatives' keep thriving (Waldorf, Montessori etc), some will advocate return to strict Prussian models (note: it is also possible to run otherwise very traditional education via technology, e.g. e-learning!). Whatever the model, almost everyone seems to agree with the concept of lifelong learning. No one can be pronounced 'complete' anymore.

Education will move towards greater personalization. Traditional 'same time, same place' teaching model is increasingly contested by 'same time, different place' (tech-supported distance learning), 'same place, different time' (correspondence learning; centralized, but web-based learning) and 'different time, different place' -models.

Already in the Future of Work Conference at Liverpool Hope University back in 2000, Dr Paul Redmond outlined some interesting tendencies of future society. Regrettably the presentation which was online at http://www.hope.ac.uk/careers/mchtm/future2.htm for a while have been removed by now, but it's still available via the Wayback Machine. While we can - at least somewhat - substitute the "traditional" with "past" and "future" with "present" by now, the comparison is still much to the point.

Traditional vs future - Paul Redmond 1995

Traditional Future
Clarity Fog
Employer Customer
Job Adding value
Career Portfolio
Progression Personal growth
Degree course Lifelong learning

As seen from the table, the keyword is 'flexibility'. Even in Japan, where 'a job for life' was a rule for long (a Samurai did not change his master!) and people sometimes still identify themselves via the company ("I'm a Mitsubishi man"), the increasingly global capitalism has forced changes in workforce much more frequently than it used to be in this tradition-loving society. So the job market of the future will be ruled by those young people who combine their good base education with open thinking and readiness to learn new things. The McJob popularized by Douglas Coupland will perhaps back off, but not disappear - it will keep preying on those who lack the qualities mentioned above.

The new way of working

Some people have proposed that our current economic system is often based on extensive growth of production, buying power and jobs. Already back in 1961, William Gomberg defined it as "whirling dervish of compulsive consumption" (accompanied by a handmaiden called "synthetic obsolescence"[7] - everyone could think of all the new gadgets we've been buying recently). The effectiveness decreases due to several reasons. For a long time already, consumption has been uneven and the gap between the rich and the poor keeps widening. Preserving the environment becomes more and more expensive, while not all of those able to contribute are not willing to do it (and others use "green" topics as a convenient excuse to push their own agenda). In many places, changes in work time and form result in rapid rise of unemployment (also seen in Estonia, e.g. in the former industrial regions).

According to Handy, labour-based jobs were replaced by skill-based ones at the advent of industrial age. Nowadays, the skill-based ones will in turn be replaced with knowledge-based ones. In accordance with that, also the way of working will change. Earlier, people "went to work", spent a fixed time, did certain things and returned home. Today, an increasing number of jobs do not demand full-day presence or even full-day work - new solutions allow tasks to be completed faster and without being on site. Working at home allows saving the costs on transport as well.

As a side issue - Pekka Himanen has used an interesting metaphor here. According to him, the traditional work model and work ethic originates from monasteries. Strict regime and order, punishments for misbehaviour, work is valuable as such; there is the One Right Way to think, a fixed thinking frame and hope for a compensation in future (all this can be seen in today's companies!). On the contrary, the hacker ethic of Himanen has its roots in academy - seen as freedom of word and thought, unorthodox thinking, and putting essence ahead of the form. This is the kind of work ethic that Himanen predicts to be prevalent in the future.

The new work model will give great freedom but demands a much greater personal responsibility. Even if this kind of work is shorter in time, it may be more intensive and stressful. Especially in working from home, a major danger is to lose the line between work and leisure which results in rapid burnout.

Another interesting thought in Handy's "Future of Work" is the perceived return of guilds and smaller workshops (but on the qualitatively new level, being equipped with the latest technology - in the early 21st century, we know those as startups). According to him, these small units will more successfully avoid bureaucracy and rigidity seen in large enterprises. He also predicted the rise of service industry - but not in mass services but rather more personal form (today, we have Facebook, personalized Google search, Big Data and other things!).

Thus what Handy predicted in 1978 has largely become true - interestingly, both the flexible small units and service-oriented business models are also the core principles of the 'free culture' of recent years (free and open-source software, Creative Commons etc).

The society in networks vs the networked society

On the one hand, the Internet is just another logical step in the long chain of communication technologies used by mankind - from the smoke signals to printing press to telephone. In this view, all the e-Commerce, network media and chatrooms are old things in cool new hi-tech robes. For some, the cyberspace does not exist and the society inside the Net is the same as outside.

On the other hand, the earlier technologies changed social life too, sometimes quite radically. The Atlantic telegraph cable in 1858/1866 changed a lot in business and media of its time (earlier, the freshest news from the other side were at least two weeks old!). But a much more recent example - how did our communication change when we got our first mobile phone?

Internet has created a new kind of communities where physical location of people did not have any meaning - what counted was the common thinking, interests and views. Vint Cerf, one of the pioneers of the Net, puts it on the variety in Internet technology - it combines the aspects of nearly all previous communication technologies.

Is it the Cure-All?

Maybe we should all invest in building network connections to all of the poor developing countries of the world and thus help them out of their situation? Probably not - we can look at various network statistics and see that while the network density and overall living standard correlate quite a lot, the latter is not the result of the former - entering the information society is probably not realistic without elementary economic base. Examples of places where connectivity goes ahead of both standard of living and democratic society are quite easy to find.

It is quite interesting to look at Estonia in this context. The former Soviet-occupied country and subsequent dwarf state from the former Eastern Bloc got up and launched a number of cool-sounding initiatives to build information society (which probably looked like a VW Bug trying to compete in F1 for many at first). And they really managed to avoid overheating (Note: this was initially written before the global economic setback and various later disruptions - however, even these have not been worse in Estonia than elsewhere), getting quite adequate results even in the overall European scale. Yet the development is only possible to the point where the rest of the social infrastructure starts to fall behind. A poor old farmer somewhere near the southeastern border does not value the news about a new cool portal or even mobile parking - but will still appreciate the e-taxes and online shopping (especially in the cases like COVID-19). Especially recently, serious warning signs have been visible (e.g. the substantial emigration rate (e.g. see a related stories from 2011[8] and 2019[9]).

In Hugh Lofting's Dr Dolittle stories, there is a tale of an African king Koko, who saw postage stamps, understood them as 'a new kind of magic' and was later quite shocked when the letters did not move by magic and he learned that things like post offices, postmen etc were also needed[10]. Likewise, the new solutions need to be properly introduced - even if access to a broadband net connection can help a long-time unemployed person find a job, s/he has first to learn to use it.

So in today's world of technology, we are increasingly faced with the social dimension. Therefore, we should conclude with some more Himanen's hacker ethic which may well be the way to go:

  1. The work should also be a hobby - a real hacker cannot be persuaded with a pile of money if the job is unpleasant or boring
  2. Life is not totally serious - a moment of play can radically raise the effectiveness
  3. Greed is a Bad Thing - hackers don't understand people who need One More Million to be happy. When one has secured the situation for him/herself and his/her children, something may well be left to others. The folklore speaks of an old Indian who asked: "The white man has only one pair of feet. Why then five pairs of boots?".
  4. Is our life a Friday or a Sunday? In European tradition, Friday has a stain on it - it was the day of crucifixion of Jesus Christ, some also say that the Fall of Mankind happened on Friday. But it is also the last day of the work week - the boredom and weekend-yearning of Friday mornings is probably known to all working people. Sunday is radically different - as the day of Christ's resurrection, it has been the day of rest and reflection almost for two millennnia. Someone having toiled the whole week can finally do whatever s/he pleases. So the question is whether we live on Friday - tired and yearning for weekend - or have we made our life a Sunday?
  5. Passionate life - it does not mean blind following of instincts, but rather doing everything in full. A Confucian saying goes: "Walk when walking, sit when sitting, just don't drag". Or we can use a modern counterpart: "Do, or do not. There is no try" (Yoda in Star Wars)...

And for the last, a simple question: do we live to work, or work to live?


  1. THEOBALD, Robert. The Rapids of Change: Social Entrepreneurship in Turbulent Times, p. 82
  2. LEVY, Steven. Hackers: The Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Basic Books 2003, ISBN: 0141000511
  3. HIMANEN, Pekka. The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age. Vintage Books 2001, ISBN: 0099426927
  4. https://theweek.com/articles/555371/why-religion-dominate-21st-century
  5. http://pages.ca.inter.net/~jhwalsh/enpara.html
  6. https://web.archive.org/web/20060614074100/http://www.tidec.org/geovisions/Castells.html
  7. GOMBERG, William. Problems of Economic Growth and Automation. California Management Review, Volume 3 Issue 4, July 1961
  8. https://web.archive.org/web/20130511084643/https://www.presseurop.eu/en/content/article/612051-expats-reluctant-return
  9. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/can-return-migration-revitalize-baltics-estonia-latvia-and-lithuania-engage-their-diasporas
  10. https://www.gutenberg.ca/ebooks/lofting-post/lofting-post-00-h-dir/lofting-post-00-h.html

Additional reading

  • BENKLER, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006, ISBN: 0300110561 http://www.benkler.org/Benkler_Wealth_Of_Networks.pdf
  • CASTELLS, Manuel, CARDOSO, Gustavo (eds). The Network Society: From Knowledge to Policy. Johns Hopkins Center for Transatlantic Relations 2006, ISBN:09756643456
  • HANDY, Charles. Gods of Management: The Changing Work of Organizations. Souvenir Press 1978
  • HIMANEN, Pekka. Challenges of the Global Information Society. Report to the Parliament of Finland, 2004
  • LEVY, Steven. Hackers: The Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Basic Books 2003, ISBN: 0141000511
  • THEOBALD, Robert. The Rapids of Change: Social Entrepreneurship in Turbulent Times. Knowledge Systems, Inc. 1987. ISBN: 0941705013
  • THEOBALD, Robert. Reworking Success: New Communities at the Millennium. New Society Publishers 1997, ISBN: 0865713677

Study & Write

Read the 2004 Information Society Report to the Parliament of Finland by Pekka Himanen (available from the Internet Archive) and write a short review about it. NB! It is a vision of future from some time ago, and written from the angle of a certain worldview - see what has come true, and what hasn't.

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