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Have the architects of the Information Society forgotten the essential: society?

The idea of the so-called Information Society is that, in massively adopting electronic information tools, society will manage to solve a number of its problems, not the least of which being chronic unemployment. The advocates of the Information Society recognise that massive introduction of such tools will have a profound effect on society, modifying the way we do many things. At the same time, it is assumed that the tools in themselves will create the conditions necessary to solve the problems. Underlying structures of society are generally left unquestioned. Such an attitude on the part of the various powers-that-be is understandable.

My conviction is that we can only satisfactorily consider the Information Society jointly in terms of both tools and the structures and workings of society. The Internet and its tools, for example, potentially enable increased democratic exchange of ideas, but what is the use of having sophisticated e-mail systems and wide-spread publishing possibilities if you can't express yourself satisfactorily in writing? Another example: steps are being taken to provide extremely diversified possibilities for on-line commerce, but is that of any use to you if their very existence means that you are left without a job? Or how about those people who can't read or write, or who don't have the means or the knowledge to benefit from the marvels of the Information Society?

It is perhaps a truism to say that the Information Society can be no better that the social structures on which it is built. Yet, in giving excessive importance to technical issues, advocates of the Information Society tend to forget the failings of current Western society, which, rather than being alleviated by the introduction of these new tools, are likely to be aggravated.

In fact, in Western Society, we find ourselves at an extremely critical moment, when many of the basic structures on which our society is built are in the throws of a serious crisis. Probably the most critical of these is the grave illness that has struck a growing number of large companies, especially multinationals. They are becoming increasingly anti-social. Their sole concern - beyond survival in the face of cut throat competition which they themselves are responsible for - is rewarding capital to the detriment of those who sell their work and time, forgetting that, as companies, they are part of society and depend completely on society for their survival. A medical metaphor might help understand. What happens when an essential part of the body sees itself as an end in itself and starts multiplying furiously and invading all other parts of the body? This condition is called cancer. The body has no defence against it. In society, such primitive behaviour on the part of commercial interests was kept at bay by the State, by Trade Unions and possibly by commonly held social values. All these forces have been worn away, in great part due to the action of commercial interests, as have other building blocks of society like the family and the local community.

If we do not address the underlying problems of society - in particular the role of commercial interests but also that of the education system, the health and care system, the role of the lay person, the role of the family and the local community,... -, no matter how marvellous the tools are, the Information Society will perpetuate and reinforce the problems it is hoped to solve.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise.

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Created: October 31st, 1996 - Last up-dated: October 31st, 1996