Frank Webster, Information, and Meaning

In his densely critical piece, Information Society, the British sociologist Frank Webster raises objection after objection to the postulation that we are living in an information society or an Information Age. An “age” – or one might say an “epoch” – is a period in historical time that highlights the defining characteristics of a society. Society, in turn, is a social dynamic or an amalgam made up of the combined work efforts, as well as the cultural and artistic achievements of a given population, whether that population be global or domestic. For instance, we speak of the Industrial Age, when mechanization flourished, aided by technological innovations like the steam engine or the cotton gin. Another age that is often highly touted is the Space Age of the 50s, even though that Age arguably precipitated the Cold War. Indeed, ages are unarguably created by paradigm shifts that dramatically change the context and existential means of a society. So what about the Information Age? Has information changed our society? Without question it has. But I don’t think the explosion of information has necessarily changed our society for the better.

Webster writes that “when we delve a little, it becomes apparent that the concept is actually vague and imprecise, even of dubious value” (Webster 2605). A key criteria that Webster goes by is that an Age should be a period during which a society advances. Human history has, of course, had decidedly bad ages – the Dark Ages? – but in considering the question regarding information, Webster would have us keep societal advancement in mind. He goes on to suggest that those who say we are in an Information Age are subscribed to a forward-thinking, progress oriented viewpoint. Webster admits that this viewpoint seems intuitive and almost unmistakable when thinking about the advancements in Information Technology. But he cautions that information and computer technology may not be advancing society on a scale analogous to the Industrial Revolution. In fact, he argues that social commentators who champion the Information Age have made rather apocryphal statements and predictions about the future (past predictions concerning the present and our current future), claiming that we have reached a fever pitch in technological innovation and that we are also reaching a moment in time which other prognosticators refer to as Singularity.

But to call our age an Information Age is a bit of a misnomer, I think. In principle, I agree with Webster. New technologies are released almost every day, creating new abstractions and new ways of dividing our attention. Webster says, “…new technologies are announced and it is unproblematically presumed that this announcement in and of itself heralds the information society” (Webster, 2607). I also agree that technology is an asocial phenomenon; an outside influence (and a rather disruptive one at that). By definition, then, technology does not, ipso facto, define the social world. It is people that define our social world. My question is… could it be that a truly information-driven society is more dependent on its organic networks – its constituents of people – and less on the technology itself? I think so.

Although I am mainly responding to Webster’s technological argument, his other sections also informed my thoughts. I couldn’t decide whether to address Webster’s technology argument, or his cultural argument. In his cultural argument, Webster mentioned Jean Baudrillard and the “death of the sign.” I appreciate the discussion on signification and the collapse of meaning. I consider an information society to be a society that can distinguish between good (factual) and bad (falsified) information, using mature information literacy skills, critical thinking, and cognition. If these elements were at work presently in our society, I think we would be seeing far less fear, racism, and disrespect. What we have now, instead of an information-based or enlightened society, is more akin to collective hysteria… a highly reactive and accusatory society (or Age, but you can hardly say we’re advancing…), where everyone thinks they have a monopoly on the truth. I think the overabundance of information from media sources is a hindrance to deep information gathering and signification of meaning. Now, in the search for meaning, things become more meaning-less. That’s Baudrillard. That’s Derrida. And more familiarly to the library profession, that’s Information Overload. This is why I think Information Professionals are crucial to tempering the madness.

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