Global Information Society
The term Global Information Society is often used as a loose “umbrella term” to encapsulate the consolidation and universal expansion of the so-called Information Society in the last two decades. According to this first definition, the Global Information Society represents the more recent stage of a social and economic process that started after World War II and that builds on the growing and transformative role of information and communication technologies (Mattelart 2001; Webster 2002). This form of society first gained academic attention in the 1960s of the twentieth century. The early works focused on the increasing role of information-related activities in the economy of the United States, and they frequently restricted the Information Society to an Information Economy (Crawford 1983). Among these works – which include those of Fritz Machlup (1962), Peter F. Drucker (1969) or Marc Porat (1977) – the book of Daniel Bell (1973) was probably the most influential one. Depicting this international society as a postindustrial society, Bell put emphasis on the centrality of theoretical knowledge in informing decisions and promoting change. A few years later, the growing importance of information and communication technologies in the economies and economic strategies of a significant number of developed States in the 1980s and early 1990s gave rise to new debates and resulted in a number of academic publications such as those of Raul L. Katz (1987), David Lyon (1988), or William J. Martin (1988). However, academic and political interest in the Information Society gained momentum by the mid-1990s with the emergence of Internet and the gradual advance of a “creative society that is based on interaction” that involves new technology but whose key component is a new way of doings things (Currie 1999; Himanen 2004; Martin 1995). The deep impact of Internet not only altered business practices, capital markets, and the role of work and flexible employment in the business-net model, but it also made innovation the key variable of productivity growth and placed it at the center of the new e-economy (Castells 2002). It is this more recent version of the Information Society that has been qualified as a Global Information Society.
The material basis of this new form of society is the paradigm of information technology. This consists of five main features. First, information is a primary resource and technologies act over information. This contrasts with previous moments in history when information was used to act over technology, but not the other way around. Second, new technologies have a profound influence on every human process, either individual or collective. Third, all systems or groups that use technology are deeply interconnected. Fourth, this new paradigm is also characterized by a high degree of flexibility: processes can be reversed and an alteration of the components of a particular organization or institution may result in their fundamental transformation. Constant change and organizational fluidity are thus two defining elements of this society. Finally, specific technologies tend to converge in a system that is highly integrated. This makes distinguishing traditional technologies in their practical operation a difficult task (Castells 2010). In parallel, in the new Global Information Society, information is unbundled from its original physical carriers; it does not follow a linear flow and can be distributed at a very low cost; and it allows for a more interactive and simultaneous way of communication. This society is highly interconnected through the use of information and communication technologies whose impact transcends material barriers. This form of organization helps a new model of economic growth based on innovations that are closely connected to human capital. Manuel Castells refers to this new society as a Network Society where social morphology takes precedence over social action and where domination and change are highly dependent on two variables: presence or absence in the network and the dynamics of each network vis-à-vis other networks (Castells 2000). The influence of this network form of social organization does not stop here and extends to issues as diverse as the development agenda (Castells and Himanen 2014), international mobility (Wilson et al. 2013), the ethical foundations of democracy (Berleur and Whitehouse 1997; Britz 2008), or the promotion and protection of Human Rights (Jørgensen 2006).
Partially following this definition, Johannes J. Britz, Peter J. Lor, I.E.M. Coetzee, and Ben C. Bester have identified four main criteria for the Global Information Society (Britz et al. 2006). The first one refers to the existence of a well-developed, well-maintained, and affordable infrastructure of information and communication technologies that allows for the development of global socioeconomic activities and political participation. The second makes reference to the capacity of individuals and actors to access relevant information required to fully engage in socioeconomic activities and political participation. This entails that the relevant information is not only affordable, but also available in a timely manner and in different languages and contexts. The third criterion consists of a robust and periodically updated physical infrastructure that ensures a continued and successful interconnection between immaterial information and material needs. Finally, the fourth refers to human capacity. The Global Information Society requires a diverse range of educational, research, and development facilities that foster the capacity of individuals and collectives to be creative and use information in order to produce knowledge and innovation (Britz 2008). The latter are essential to promote the economic growth and development needed for the viability and sustainability of this society (Himanen 2004).
The characterization of the Global Information Society as a new form of society has been challenged by some authors who have stressed that the underlying pillars of the contemporary socioeconomic system have only experienced minimal transformations (May 2002; Feather 2013). In contrast, the claim that a number of trends have a deep impact on the gradual spread and consolidation of this society has gained wider acceptance. Ten of them seem particularly relevant. First, the rise in the level of international tax competition among States resulting from the need to attract strategic investments and skilled workers. Second, a global division of labor that pushes developed States to embark on strategies aimed at enhancing creative and productivity-led work. Third, an aging population – particularly in Europe – that gradually reduces the work force. Fourth, a growing pressure on the welfare State to maintain its capacity to deliver public goods to the entire population that reinforces the need for new, creative solutions. Fifth, a transition from an economic model based on technological development to a model that focuses on changing the ways in which things are made and their impact on social development. Sixth, the growth of cultural industries and their increasing influence in global interactions. Seventh, the rise of bio-industries in fields such as genetic engineering or biotechnology. Eight, the gradual concentration of expertise and innovation in a limited number of regional and urban hubs. Ninth, the aggravation of the global divide between the rich and the poor and, as a result, the aggravation of inequality and marginalization. Tenth, the generalization of a “culture of emergency” that puts emphasis on the instability of the job market and the complex sustainability of the Global Information Society both in environmental and human terms (Himanen 2004).
A second, less frequent definition of the Global Information Society characterizes it as a political project to materialize an ideal that does not exist yet and that builds on an Information Society that is neither universal nor symmetrical. This definition is partially built on the difficulties to fully implement the society described in the previous paragraphs, as well as on the uncertainties surrounding the several policies, regulatory and governance choices it allows (Castells and Cardoso 2005). The articulation of political projects linked to the construction of a Global Information Society began in the mid- and late 1990s (Marsden 2000). Some examples of this trend can be found in several policy statements by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 1997) and the 1998–1999 annual report of the World Bank (1999). However, the more developed political projects are those led by the United Nations at the global level and the European Union at the regional one.
With regards to the former, the first step of the organization was the report elaborated by the Commission on Science and Technology for Development in the late 1990s (Mansell and Wehn 1998). The turning point arrived 3 years later with the approval of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 56/183 in 2001. This decision endorsed the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), an initiative that developed in two consecutive phases. The first one focused on the need to build a strong political will to build a truly Global Information Society and the importance to acknowledge differences between States in designing ulterior strategies. The meetings brought together more than 11,000 participants in December 2003 and ended up with the adoption of the Geneva Declaration on Principles and the Geneva Plan of Action. The second phase paid special attention to Internet governance and financial mechanisms. With more than 19,000 participants, the meetings celebrated in November of 2005 led to the approval of the Tunis Commitment and the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society. The implementation and follow-up of these agreements is carried out by a plethora of different fora and mechanisms such as the United Nations Group on the Information Society, the Internet Governance Forum or the WSIS annual forum.
The political project launched by the European Union in the mid-1990s is the most elaborated one to date. Following some previous works of the European Commission and several initiatives adopted by the United States and some Member States at the domestic level, the European Council asked a group of experts to reflect on the Information Society in 1993. The result of this process was the publication of the so-called Bangemann report in 1994 (EC Commission 1994). This paved the road for the creation of the Information Society Project Office and the Information Society Forum in 1995. One year later the European Commission approved a green book emphasizing the need to place citizens first in the construction of the Global Information Society. In line with this initiative, the European Council adopted the Information Society program in 1998 with three main goals: to improve the level of social awareness and understanding of the potential implications of the Information Society, as well as its new applications across Europe; to optimize the socioeconomic benefits of this society at the European level; and to emphasize both the role and visibility of Europe as one of the main promoters of the Information Society at the global level. This document informed the eEurope initiative launched by the European Commission in 2000, the basis for the several action plans and strategic framework elaborated since then. These include the action plan eEurope 2005 and the strategic framework i2010. The former emphasizes the need to build an inclusive information society. Building on this idea, the latter seeks to maximize three main goals: the construction of a Single European Space capable of offering safe and affordable connections, digital services, and diverse quality contents; the promotion of innovation and investment efforts in information and communication technologies; and the gradual advance of a European Information Society aimed at fostering inclusion, good public services, and high living standards.
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