The Information Age/The Information Society

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 The Information Age 

PrefaceIntroductionDigital and ICT RevolutionsInformation Knowledge and the New EconomyNew WorkThe Information SocietyGlobalizationThe Digital DivideThe Challenge AheadNotesFurther ReadingContributorsAcknowledgements

How will the Internet affect the individual?[edit]

The Internet and the ICT revolution have created “sovereign individuals”— individuals who are empowered because they have access to new learning opportunities; are able to sell their own ideas, services or products directly to others; and can access medical information to make their own choices about health care. These sovereign individuals also have reliable and up-to-date information about government policies and programs that allows them to become better citizens.

Moreover, the convenience and the anonymity provided by the Internet have led some people to turn to the Internet for emotional and psychological needs. The Net has become a means and method not only for doing business, but also for reaching people on a social and personal level. The latter has elicited some concern in the field of psychiatry. The Addiction Research Foundation in Toronto now accepts Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) as a real problem. Internet junkies, as those with IAD are called, interact more with their PCs than with real people. Psychiatrists consider this not just addiction but dependence, which is characterized by obsessiveness, a loss of control, and an inability to stop even if the person wants to and understands the dangers. [41]

Given its negative effects on individuals, shouldn’t the Internet simply be banned?[edit]

Technology is not sole the culprit. Robert Putnam has documented a decline in civic engagement and social participation in the US in the past 35 years, resulting in major consequences on both the societal and the individual level. This is a major concern. As Putnam writes,

the quality of governance [is] determined by longstanding traditions of civic engagement (or its absence). Voter turnout, newspaper readership, membership in choral societies and football clubs… [are] the hallmarks of a successful region. In fact, historical analysis suggested that these networks of organized reciprocity and civic solidarity, far from being an epiphenomenon of socioeconomic modernization, were a precondition for it.

Technology, particularly the Internet, is definitely helping change social relations, but not in ways that its critics suggest. Castells describes the impact of the Internet as people organize themselves into a social network. “Networked individualism,” as he describes it, “is a social pattern, not a collection of isolated individuals.” Individuals will build networks, both on-line and off-line, based on their interests, values, affinities, and projects. Because of the capabilities of the Internet for communication, people will build virtual communities that are different from physical communities. These communities, however, are not necessarily less intense or less effective in binding and mobilizing people. Furthermore, a communication hybrid is now developing in our societies, bringing together both the physical and the virtual space as the material support of networked individualism.

How will the Internet affect the family? Technology allows families living in different locations to stay in touch with each other. We are now able to send text messages to relatives all over the world. Those who are working overseas are able to keep in touch with their families back home via the Internet. Children are able to learn more about their parents’ home country via the Internet.

But it also cannot be denied that in recent years people have been spending less time with their families because of information and work overload. Work takes more and more time, and even when a family member is physically present, work is intrusive, preoccupying and unpredictable. Reich believes that the new family now requires a complex set of logistical arrangements for the various members to respond to the economy’s new demands. [44]

Changes in family structure and family attitudes are directly parallel to changes in the economic system that began in the 1970s. In the old system of large-scale production, most men had steady jobs and solid wages, while women had fewer job opportunities. However, in the new system of continuous innovation, we see less predictable earnings and wider disparities in earnings. This induces harder work in terms of time and emotional energy. [45]

Nevertheless, although the emerging economy is more stressful, it generates more opportunities to earn more money for talented men and women alike. Almost all women now have the option of having a job and need not be entirely dependent on a male breadwinner. [46] Gender and racial issues in employment may soon be a thing of the past. Talent is what matters most.

What is the impact of ICTs on communities?[edit]

ICTs make possible communities not bound by space. In these “communities of choice” proximity is not a factor for intimacy. Examples of communities of choice are Web forums, newsgroups and mailing lists, which are generally organized topically. Strangers who have similar interests are encouraged to read each other’s messages and communicate, giving each other advice, information and updates. Forums for all fields of interest or concerns and issues exist online, and a person can find others similarly situated with whom to form possible friendships based on common interests, or support groups if suffering from afflictions rare or otherwise.

For this reason, Castells tends to disagree that Internet use lowers social interaction and causes greater social isolation. He does agree that in certain circumstances, perhaps for individuals suffering from addiction or dependence, Internet use tends to become a substitute for other social activities. [47]

Box 10. Asháninka@the Peruvian Amazon (excerpts)

In an open grass hut on the edge of the Peruvian Andes and the Amazon jungle, an unlikely sight heralds a revolution: a computer on a rough plank table, displaying Internet web pages. The anachronistic beige box, owned by a village of indigenous Asháninka, called Marankiari Bajo, is connected to the Internet by high-powered radio. The tiny community, located more than 500 metres above sea level and 400 kilometres from Lima (a journey that includes many changes in elevation), is remote — yet in touch with the world. Perhaps more importantly to the villagers, it’s also networked with other Asháninka communities nearby. Until recently, they didn’t even have telephones.

The Asháninka do not see the Internet as the beachhead of a cultural invasion from the North. Rather, they have seized it as a tool to reinforce and perpetuate their own culture, to build a larger sense of community purpose among the 400-odd Asháninka villages scattered across South America, and to tell their own story to the world. In the process, they bypass outside news media and governments, which they think tend to marginalize them. … In the course of embracing the Internet, the Asháninka are moving from an oral to a written culture. Parents hope their children will be able to learn new things that the Asháninka have not known before. But the community also still believes that elders have something to teach their youth about succeeding on Asháninka terms, even while they prepare to enter a world larger than Marankiari Bajo. In the meantime, the Internet gives villagers the chance to set up strategic alliances, not just with other Asháninka communities nearby, but with First Nations around the world, says Castro.

“It’s difficult for me to synthesize the experience sometimes, but on the way we’ve found friends, we’ve learned to dialogue and to agree. This has permitted us to strengthen our local capacities,” he concludes. “This whole experience has shown us that we’re not alone — we have friends who are in the same circumstances as we are.”

Source: Keane Shore, “Asháninka@the Peruvian Amazon,” in Reports: Science from the Developing World, Interna-tional Development Research Centre [home page on-line]; available from http://www.idrc.ca/reports/ read_article_english.cfm?article_num=837; accessed 28 August 2002.

Do other communication technologies affect societies the way the Internet does?[edit]

A mode of communication that is more prevalent in the developing world than the computer-based Internet is the mobile phone. In most of Asia the mobile phone has become a familiar gadget. Interestingly, mobile phones are not used only for making voice calls but also for short messaging. It is believed that in the developing world more people will access the Internet via mobile phones than computers.

Castells observes that “cell-telephony” also fits a social pattern organized around communities of choice and individualized interaction based on the selection of time, place, and partners of the interaction. In addition, the development of wireless Internet increases the possibility of personalized networking to a broader range of social situations. This enhances the capacity of individuals to rebuild structures of sociability from the bottom up. [48]

Kraut and Lundmark of the Human Interaction Institute of the Carnegie Mellon University issue a cautionary note. Based on their studies, they conclude that the Internet is not a substitute for real human interaction as a means for emotional and social fulfillment. The use of the Internet can be both highly entertaining and useful, but if it causes too much disengagement from real life, it can also be harmful. Until the technology evolves to be more beneficial, people should moderate their use of the Internet and monitor the uses to which they put it. [49] While there are clear benefits to virtual communities formed around infocommunication networks, a balance should be maintained and social isolation minimized.