I wrote this paper for my Perspectives of Library Science class a couple of terms ago. As is typical, I was kind of an iconclast in that milieu because I wrote stuff like this instead of more Academic Papers. That is a way of telling you that you might actually enjoy reading this. Maybe you won’t, though.
n 2006, Frank Webster wrote an article entitled “The Information Society Revisited,” which discounted the notion that our culture is moving towards an “information society.” His definition of the term was tied to measures of technology, occupational change, economics, space and network issues and the like, but his main point seemed essentially to be this: just because there is increasingly more information in the world does not mean that our society is being shaped and guided strictly by it. There is no way to measure quantitatively the amount or impact of information on society, said Webster–definitely not to the extent where it could be considered a paradigm-shifting entity in itself.
The problem with this argument is that it was written in 2006. If academic publication schedules are taken into account, it was probably written much earlier, ie. just as the concept of “Web 2.0” was beginning to hit the mainstream. When Webster talks about “relevant technologies,” he is still essentially thinking in terms of hardware: networked systems, free-standing PCs, software packages, etc. He does make reference to “online information services” and the buzz-term “information superhighway,” and a few articles in the anthology from which this article is excerpted mention the concept of “social” as it pertains to new technology, but Webster’s thinking in this article seems firmly entrenched in the notion of “technology-as-object.” By extension the information housed within these objects could, in his view, never be influential or pervasive enough to produce new systems of thought or, further, new societies.
In the six years since this article’s publication, our society has undeniably been influenced by the developments that Webster puts down merely to “futurism’s enthusiasms” (p. 3). We live in the world of the Cloud, where we are constantly LinkedIn and updating, and where all content is accessible to us on multiple devices, anywhere, anytime. Of course, this scenario is a Western one that implies accessibility and affluence, but the broader tenets of the social Web and of ubiquitously-available media and digital content have arguably created a shift in thinking significant enough to be labelled a new society.
An explanation of this claim requires examples, and the music industry is a good place to find them. In 2006 peer-to-peer file sharing of music was already revolutionizing the way people listened to and acquired music. Napster had come and gone, but its impact remained. Everyone with access to a computer and an internet connection at this point could, if he knew where to look, have access to almost any music, any time, for absolutely no charge. The impact of this cannot be understated. The ability to stream and share–media, documents, news, personal content, anything else–has completely changed the way people view and handle information, enough to state with a fair amount of confidence that it has created a new information society.
Recently a couple of blog posts went viral in the music scene’s version of the Internet. Emily White, an intern at the US public radio station NPR, wrote a piece wherein she revealed that, although she is “an avid music listener, concertgoer, and college radio DJ [whose] world is music-centric,” with an iTunes library of 11,000 songs as its soundtrack, she has only bought 15 CDs in her lifetime. She is 21. Every other piece of music she “owns” she has acquired by essentially illegal means, and, although she expressed some small concern about the impact of this practice on the musicians whose creative output she enjoys, she had no intention of changing her behaviour to begin paying for this content. She would keep stealing music because it was “convenient.” Curmudgeonly backlash to this attitude ensued, most notably by the musician David Lowery, who set about proving to Emily that buying music could be just as convenient. David Lowery is 52, which may not bear mentioning, but he is certainly evincing the attitude of his generation, where Emily is thinking in a new way. For Emily, information (be it music, video, news or updates about her friends’ whereabouts) exists at the click of a mouse or a swipe on a phone, and it is available instantly, and with no (or very little) introspection on her part about the consequences to others. She may share that information just as instantly, and, indeed, she expects to. The sources of information have responded accordingly, because they have to. Emily’s ability to find music for free has completely changed the way music is distributed, and other forms of information are following suit.
This shift in thinking is enormous, and is a tangible example of what Webster suggests on page 12 of his article, when he discusses the work of social theorist Anthony Gibbons and his notion of “intensified reflexivity of ‘late modern’ existence.” The world that Emily and her peers inhabit is increasingly, as Gibbons envisioned, “not bounded by fixed and unchangeable limits, but is rather recognized as malleable and the outcome of human decisions…premised on openness to ideas, information and theories from very diverse realms, which are examined and incorporated as circumstances and people so decide.” This could almost be a partial (albeit idealized) definition of Web 2.0, at least as it pertains to file-sharing and streaming–themselves concepts that were created from the “ground-up” and essentially influenced by the decisions of its users. Information in this scenario is ubiquitous, shareable, portable, and adaptable, and its users expect these things of it. That last is the key point that makes this way of thinking part of a truly new information society, and it is a way of thinking that is, as per the music industry examples given, user-driven and influenced. The user now expects information to be integrated seamlessly into his daily life, creating, as Webster suggests, “a world of choices…reliant on the availability and generation of detailed and rich information” (p. 12). When information essentially is life, how can it not be the defining part of a new society?
And how do libraries fit into this? Well, they deal with information, of course, but if the information is in the air around us, it could be argued that a building full of it is redundant. The “notion” of libraries is as alive as ever in this new paradigm of the information society, however. People who view information as constantly available and current will probably seek it more often and integrate it into their daily lives, just because they can, and it behooves the library of this new society to be aware of these trends and be as flexible, mobile and shareable as possible. In this posited new information society, the user is not only expecting the information to be available anywhere and at any time, but he is also driving the development of this information, if not its content. Just as the desire to share music files among friends created a program like Napster, which in turn produced a music consumer like Emily, libraries need to be open and aware of trends in user behaviour and interaction, so that they can best provide services that will keep them viable in a society of information that is essentially dialogic.
Webster is reluctant to declare our present age an “information society” because he sees continuities between our present culture and previous ones, but all societies build on previous accomplishments and defeats. Where the new information society enters new territory is in its treatment of information as a two-way street–its methods of delivery driven and influenced by its users just as much as its content educates and informs them. If information is everywhere and always evolving, the library needs to be out there amongst it.