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Some writers have started to trace the origins of the information age back to at least the nineteenth century if not before. Or looking further back, we can recognize that in many ways the informational chaos of the Internet is strikingly similar to the problems encountered by readers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who were frequently unable to establish the veracity of printed texts, because of problems of piracy and unauthorized (amended and edited) editions.
By widening our perception of what information and communication technologies are, which is to say avoiding the contemporary fixation with computers and the Internet, we can easily recognize a much longer process at work. By taking the longer view of the development of the information society therefore, we can reject the claims for contemporary transformation, without suggesting that nothing has changed. In the 1980s James Beniger noted, that the so-called communications revolution is, in reality, a succession of three overlapping technological stages that have taken place during the past one hundred and fifty years.
The first of these was the Wire Age (1844-1900), the second was the Wireless Age (1900-1970), and the third is the one we are now entering - the Integrated Grid Age, in which wire and wireless technology are brought together in powerful combinations which will form the structure of the future global information utility. This longer time line is strongly supported by James Beniger, who suggested that the emergence of an information society was predicated on the control revolution, itself a response to the forces unleashed by the industrial revolution (Beniger 1986). At the centre of the control revolution was the ability of instantaneous feedback to allow continuous adjustment and the enhancement of material usage. Beniger makes explicit the links between mechanical control systems and the rise of the information society while stressing the roots of such developments in the nineteenth century and earlier.
Recognizing the importance of the manipulation of information for the management of industrial organization and production, and focusing on the increasing ability of technology to allow the control of processes, does not involve a claim that this is only a contemporary phenomenon. Furthermore, the celebration of the possibilities of the Internet as part of the new information age is hardly original. The Web pioneers moved from the design and launch of distinct websites to the management of entire ad networks. Such networks provided scale benefits that were impossible to reach with distinct web pages. In the process, these first movers moved bargaining power from individual websites toward ad network management.
Initially, the top sites, especially those launched by media, sought to make content the basis of the revenue model. Advertiser needs, however, upped the ante for content sites, which soon proved to be only one form of sites. As the Internet meant even greater audience fragmentation than the cable in the 1980s, ad practitioners soon began to aggregate disaggregated sites with similarities. To fulfill its promise, the Internet needed ad networks. According to Forrester, single sites, even large ones, did not hold the key to Web advertising, for several reasons.
Given that cyberspace is transforming socio-spatial relations it has, in recent years, attracted significant academic and non-academic analyses by researchers and commentators seeking to explain its appeal and its impact. One of such researchers of the cyberspace culture is Arnold Pacey (2003). It is clear that this attention has been accompanied by theories to understand the appropriation and implications of cyberspace. In this section, we briefly detail the various approaches analysts have used in formulating their theories of cyberspace and to frame their discussions. Social constructivists posit that technology is a social construct and technology and society cannot be separated because they are intimately entwined with each other and with nature.
As such, technology is mediated by culture, and vice versa. As Pacey (2003) reveals technologies are not repressively imposed onto passive populations. They are developed at any one time and place in accord with a complex set of existing rules or rational procedures, institutional histories, technical possibilities, and popular desires. Technologies thus do not give rise to themselves but are recognized as the product of our imagination and endeavors, bound in historical systems and dependent on structured relations between people. It is argued that not only is the development of technologies socially constructed but so also are their uses. For example, contemporary technology is embraced, diverted and re-appropriated by everyday life. Cyberspace is mediated and understood through culture as a social process (Pacey 2003), where humans are recognized as being reflexive in nature, with the capacity to choose between alternatives.
Cyberspace, therefore, is a social artifact as it mediates a series of social interactions and is itself a product of social mediation. Political economic approaches also contend that technologies are not separated from society. In contrast to social constructivism, however, they suggest that the relationship between technology and society is bound up with capitalist modes of production and the associated political, economic and social relations which underlie capitalism. The political economist maintains that cyberspace’s relation to everyday life cannot be understood without considering these broader relations and the capitalist dynamics of advanced industrial society (Pacey 2003).
Here it is posited that technologies are rarely neutral, but are developed in the interests of industrial and corporate profits. Analysis thus centers on seeking to identify and explain the relationship between cyberspace and capital, and to chart the social, political and economic manifestations of such a relationship. Cyberspace thus causes changes in our everyday lives in fairly linear, simple cause and effect relationships; cyberspace may lead to the formation of new communities, it may lead to changes in business practice, it may change how we live our everyday lives.
For technological determinists, the questions concerning cyberspace centre on how society can adapt to, and learn to live with, the effects of cyberspace rather than focusing on how we can use, alter and reshape cyberspace to our benefit.
Arguably, privacy is a modern right sacrificed as part of the price of participation in postmodern information societies. Dataveilance, defined by privacy advocate Roger Clarke as “the systematic use of personal data systems in the investigation or monitoring of the actions or communications of one or more persons”, is now prevalent (1994, p. 83). Although many societies have privacy laws in place, these provide little protection to individuals who are as concerned about the legislated and legitimate bureaucratic uses of their private information as they are about possible breaches of the law. Some people are excluded by their circumstances from certain privacies that others take for granted.
For example, in Australia, a person on a sole parent’s pension can legitimately be watched to determine whether or not they are ‘cohabiting’. The presumption is that someone in a cohabiting relationship is part of a shared household, supported by their partner, and thus not entitled to support from the state in the form of sole parent’s benefits. The bureaucratic definition of cohabiting, however, may differ substantially from that of the individuals concerned, and a relationship that involves financial reciprocity is likely to take considerable time to establish.
Thus an individual might legitimately not be in the kind of cohabiting relationship which makes the sole parent’s pension unnecessary (and which makes claiming the pension a matter of fraud), but may nevertheless be identified as a ‘social security cheat’ because of a pattern of cohabitation, or even because of a short-term sexual relationship. Inquiries into highly personal matters are an integral part of many government welfare provisions for sole-parent families. Returning to our discussion, individuals are increasingly accessing information from systems— such as computer networks and data banks—which demand a level of technological competence over and above pressing a button and making sense of the content.
Here basic access to (leaving aside control of) information is related to education, to gender and to class, with young, highly educated, white, middle-class males (still) having the greatest advantage. These people are often characterized as the information rich, with older women of a working-class background, low levels of education and/or English as a second language at the other end of the continuum. The growing divide between the information rich and the information poor is one of the greatest challenges confronting the information society. There is increasing concern that people who most need relevant information have the fewest skills to access it, and the least training in interpreting it.
Roger Clarke (1994) suggests that ignorance based on misinformation will be the pollution of the information age. Overcoming it will be a formidable challenge. A technological determinist mindset helps to make social choices regarding the control of information invisible, thereby effectively removing them. Combined with the economic and administrative efficiency imperatives, it is as if the potential of bureaucratic technology to control individuals through their information—through dataveillance (Clarke 1994)—is necessarily realized. The use of a range of technological apparatus may obscure the human will implicit in the process, but techno-cultures which create, manipulate and communicate information about individuals both embody and express the priorities of the elite who employ the bureaucracies of clerks and keyboard operators.