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The Post-Information Society


ISSUE:  Winter 1994
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the invention in the United States, in 1906, of a simple three-electrode device for amplifying weak electric currents (known as the “thermionic triode valve”) was a seminal event. From this little seed grew, first, the electronics age and the information society of the late 20th century and, later, our own postinformation society.
From The Roots of Central Class Extremism, a multimedia presentation produced in the year 2080.

Very strong technological currents are now running through the developed world. I wonder if within the next 86 years—that is, by the year 2080—they may not carry us onto the reefs and shoals of a new social order which is much less diverse than our own and which has a built-in tendency toward extremism—toward xenophobia, religious intolerance, excessive nationalism, racism, or some other new “ism” now beyond our ken.

Why “86 years” and “2080?” The answer requires a little imagination. Eighty-six years ago, in 1906, Lee De Forest, an American inventor, patented the thermionic triode valve (a vacuum tube which acts as an electronic switch). This invention is said to mark the beginning of our modern electronics era. But De Forest could never have foreseen the stupendous advances which have taken place in this field between 1906 and 1994.Such enormous technical progress leads me to wonder what further advances may occur over the next 86 years—that is, between 1994 and 2080—and to speculate on what impact these may have on the developed world.

For societies do change, slowly but radically, over time. The Cro-Magnon hunter-gatherer of the Pleistocene becomes in turn the farmer, the factory worker and, in our own time, the electronics engineer. What sets our own society apart from all its predecessors is that today increasing numbers of people in the developed world no longer deal in physical objects—in wheat or steam engines. Instead, their stock in trade is intangible and ephemeral—it is information of one kind or another, usually transmitted by electronic signals. The clearest example of this metamorphosis is, it seems to me, the computer hacker of the 1990’s who is working on the cutting edge of the electronic frontier—in cyberspace, the realm of pure information.

Our own post-industrial world has thus become history’s first information society. But since the pace of technological change is accelerating more and more, we may well ask: what comes after the information society? I realize that logical straight-line projections from the present into the future are almost always wrong, but let us take the plunge and boldly assert that the answer may be: the post-information society. This essay is a highly speculative attempt to explore what the broad outlines of a post-information society might be—not so much in technological as in human terms.

II

First, let us look at state-of-the-art computers, consumer electronics, and telecommunications technology to see where we stand in 1994.My own background is in international relations, not science, but even as a generalist it is obvious to me that barring some unforeseen collapse of the First World this electronic wizardry is quickly becoming what the British Financial Times calls a “seamless operational web.” This web is rapidly reshaping the world economy and the patterns of Western culture. Even a casual perusal of American and British newspapers and magazines reveals that the developed world is now teetering on the brink of technological and social changes at least as profound as those ushered in earlier in the 20th century by the telephone, the radio, the automobile, the airplane and television. Here are some snippets of information which give us an idea of how far we have come since 1906:

  • The Clinton Administration wants to invest in “information superhighways”—advanced communications networks linking research laboratories, universities, hospitals, schools and eventually homes as well.
  • Thanks to satellite technology, an Indian engineer can now press a computer key in Bangalore and be instantly connected with a computer center in the United States, 12,000 miles away.
  • Computer hardware, database tools, and software have created a never-sleeping global money market. Using this technology, financial managers can juggle derivatives (futures, options, and swaps used to hedge risks and balance portfolios) on an international basis. Electronic trading in stock exchanges can bring buyers and sellers together and even fix the price of trades themselves.
  • IBM has developed a computer desktop work station which can accept some spoken commands and has a vocabulary of 20, 000 words. Voice-activated computers eventually will be able to digest and respond accurately to human speech, providing simultaneous interpreting and overcoming such problems as the perhaps apocryphal translation made by a computer in Moscow: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” allegedly came out in Russian as “The vodka is good, but the meat is rotten.”
  • Computers have already replaced mechanical typesetting, design, and printing. New technology that can correct text is automating the editing of newspapers, books, and magazines.”Libraries without walls” are now possible, thanks to computers, electronic text and optical storage systems, and superior database search programs. In late 1993 users of IBM compatibles gained instant access to the titles of the 15 million items in the British Library Catalogue.
  • AT&T’s Bell Labs have achieved the electronic equivalent of storing two copies of War and Peace on the head of a pin. Hewlett-Packard has produced the world’s smallest hard disk drive—the size of a matchbox, weighing about an ounce and capable of storing the equivalent of 5, 000 pages of typed text. A British-Japanese team has made a breakthrough which will let portable computers store sound and moving video images: a new electronic memory smaller than an American silver dollar will be able to hold the same amount of data as a tennis court’s worth of today’s microchips.
  • Fiber optics can, in theory, transmit in less than 1/10th of a second all of the information contained in the world’s books, drawings, and musical scores. Multimedia (a package of video, voice, and audio in one format) will soon let consumers interact with the programs they choose by changing images and moving sound tracks around.
  • In the future, virtual reality mechanisms will evolve beyond the present helmet-and-control-glove stage. NASA already uses virtual reality to simulate the conditions of outer space—training astronauts how to handle free-floating satellites and use robotic arms. Within 10 years, virtual reality equipment which now costs hundred of thousands of dollars may be available for desktop computers. When it is, the already fuzzy boundary between fact and electronic fiction will be nebulous indeed. Cyberspace—conceived of as a global computer information network, a parallel universe created by computers and telecommunications and consisting of pure information (i.e., electronic data)—is still chiefly in the realm of science fiction. But thanks to the very rapid advances in technology, it is beginning to take on an embryonic form. Hackers tell us that cyberspace is “now under construction.”
  • Nanotechnology (from nanos, the Greek word for dwarf) may eventually let us build—or even grow—powerful computers and tiny machines which are smaller than a living cell. University of California scientists have already built a working motor smaller in diameter than a human hair.
  • Digital cellular phone systems based on a pan-European standard are now being launched and will offer a worldwide standard for mobile data. When equipped with small screens, such hand-portable phones will also be able to receive written messages, making it possible to have a mobile office in a fast-moving car.

But this is not all. Thanks to digital networks, data will be shared between different pieces of equipment and their functions merged: the television can become a telephone and vice versa. Personal communicators—portable, battery-run devices which can compute and send or receive written and eventually spoken messages around the clock and around the world—are already in the early stage of development. John Sculley, the chairman of Apple Computer, says that the process of developing such a device “isn’t about taking a computer and shrinking it down. It’s about starting with an entirely new set of principles built around intelligence, built around communications, built around complete intuitiveness.” The personal communicator, he predicts, will be “the mother of all industries” of the future.

So I wonder: if the technology of the developed world has come this far in the past 86 years, won’t equal or even more dramatic progress be made over the next 86 years? The seamless operational web is already being spun. In the future, advanced personal communicators may free people from the tyranny of telephones, fax machines, and unnecessary meetings. By storing messages these devices can reduce communication problems arising from different time zones. Telework (commuting electronically from the home) may at long last live up to its potential, possibly reducing traffic congestion, pollution, and the stress of having to get to work on time. People will be free to move out of dangerous cities and boring suburbs into bucolic rural areas which were previously out of the mainstream because of their physical or cultural isolation. The pace of technological/social change will pick up even faster in the 1990’s as the barriers between computers, consumer electronics, and telecommunications begin to go down. If this exponential growth continues, the world of 2080 will be very different from our own.

III

Let us now throw caution to the winds and cast our minds 86 years into the future. Let us imagine that by 2080 the web of computer/telecommunications technology has become so fine-spun, so subtle, so pervasive, and so international that for the developed world factual information has become ubiquitous and virtually free. I know this sounds impossible, but it is not beyond the scope of legitimate conjecture now. For example, if very highly advanced personal communicators shrink to the size of today’s wristwatches or bracelets (or perhaps are even woven into our clothes), we could, as it were, ask the very air:

“What’s the Dutch word for “peaches”?”

“If I want a post-tax rate of return of 5 percent this year, should I buy British pounds, Italian lira, or Indian rupees?”

“Send a message to my boss in Tokyo, in Japanese, and ask her if she can meet us in Beirut on March 12.”

I can imagine that in a post-information society we might be able to expect a response to such questions or directives in a matter of seconds and in whatever format we prefer—text, speech, video, music, or virtual reality. To make this possible, of course, incalculable amounts of data would have to be automatically encoded and transmitted by what a Dutch computer executive playfully refers to as “TIM”—the yet-to-be-invented Transcendental Immaterial Medium. TIM is what I mean by “the very air”—more precisely, the powerful, invisible, international, omnipresent information superhighways of the future.

What I’m asking us to imagine is that in the year 2080, at an insignificant cost (perhaps the price of a local telephone call today), any non-trivial factual question can be asked and answered almost instantaneously; simple messages can be sent in one world language and received in another; and being out of touch with the rest of the world will require a conscious decision (made by turning off your personal communicator), rather than the result of distance, different time zones, or being away from a telephone or a fax. Factual information, in short, will be ubiquitous and virtually free.

Fair enough. But what will happen when information loses its scarcity value? Will “information worker,” a term of high praise in 1993, be a contradiction in terms in 2080? Will there really be enough jobs for the descendants of all the knowledge workers of today? I think that technological advances may eliminate more jobs by 2080 than they create. If so, the Luddites—those bands of English workmen who destroyed industrial machinery in the early 19th century because they feared for their own jobs—may have the last laugh after all.

IV

What would a post-information society look like from a human point of view? Here I will gingerly edge even further out onto the thin ice of prophecy. Let me suggest, to begin with, that in the developed countries there may be many women in senior, decision-making positions. As the British Sunday Times points out:

The power and habits of men were attuned to a strict division of labour, a rule-bound and heavily demarcated society. The new flexible society values different things: the single identity has given way to the mobile, multiidentity. But women have long been accustomed to such a state of affairs. . . . Modernity is about multi-identity. If men were made for an industrial society, then women look the more appropriate subject for a post-industrial [or, I would add, for a post-information] society.

Women are usually much better than men at keeping several balls in the air at the same time. They often have better intuitive skills and are more in touch with their own feelings. I suspect that such flexibility and sensitivity will be much in demand by the year 2080, especially in the upper ranks of the post-information society. For if we move beyond gender and look at this new society as a whole, we may discover it is shaped like a diamond, not a pyramid. At its apex we may find a comparatively small porous meritocracy, open to anyone with enough brains and ambition. Let me invent two new professions to describe the functions of this meritocracy: Intuitors—extremely bright, ambitious, hardworking men and women who are able to make intuitive judgments based on all the ubiquitous, virtually free data in the very air; and Lineals—equally bright, ambitious, and hard-working men and women who excel instead at designing, installing and maintaining electronic technology. Since Intuitors and Lineals know not only what to ask the very air but when to ask it, let us refer to them collectively as “what-when” workers. If we eavesdropped on their professional conversations, we might hear such tidbits as:

“I feel we should build the new factory in Mali, not Mexico.”

“The consensus of our medical team is that this patient may do better on a lower dose of Type B anti-HIV positive vaccine.”

“The international court upheld our argument that each developed country must provide an approved childcare system for working parents.”

“Some of the sonnets by the newly-discovered French poet Beaumains are not inferior to Shakespeare’s earliest work.”

“We should adjust Sector Victor Zulu of the Southeast Asian Information Network because it is 5 percent off at the highest TIM frequencies just before the monsoon.”

In many ways this new meritocracy is similar to the managerial, medical, legal, academic and technical elites of our own time. But what sets the what-when workers of 2080 apart from their less able fellow citizens is that, due to their high intelligence, specialized training, and desire to excel, they will have what many others in the post-information society may want but can never get: a full-time job. I will come back to this point in a minute.

There may be a second social group, too—a vast “idle but not poor” central class. Why will this exist? The answer is at our fingertips. This class will be vast because it contains the full bulge of the bell curve of intelligence and ability in the developed world. It will be idle because the iron rice bowl of our own white-collar army of knowledge workers will be broken: when information is no longer the coin of the realm no one will pay people to amass, store, manipulate, or sell it.

But the specter of mass white-collar unemployment should not surprise us. Thanks to technological advances, we have far fewer farmers, household servants, and manual laborers in 1993 than we did in 1906.By the same token, it is easy to believe that the post-information society of 2080 will have far fewer lower-level knowledge workers (secretaries, bank tellers, sales representatives, clerks, stock brokers, insurance agents, commodity traders, travel agents, real-estate agents) and possibly fewer higher level health, education, business services, manufacturing, engineering, and public-service executives as well. Even writers may not escape the axe. A friend of mine reports on food and restaurants for an upmarket magazine in London. Asked how he would fare in a post-information society, he quickly admitted that he would be out of a job.”All I could tell my readers,” he laughed, “would be to call up a recipe out of the very air and then. . . add a banana.”

High-tech workers may also be at risk. Some electronic equipment can already program itself. Today it takes progressively fewer people to design, assemble, and market sophisticated telecommunications equipment. If we make the assumption that by 2080 most of the hard, dangerous, and repetitive work—and even much of the personal service work—of the developed world will be done by robotics, artificial intelligence, illegal immigrants from the Third World, or cheap energy derived from some limitless source such as fusion, it is easy to imagine that the ultimate status symbol for some citizens in the post-information society will be. . .a full-time job.

So we can see why the central class is vast and idle. But why isn’t it also poor? Here I must introduce another not unreasonable assumption: thanks to its high level of prosperity, the developed world of 2080 is able to provide a generous and if necessary life-long social security network for the unemployed. As a result, even decades of involuntary unemployment do not push people into abject poverty. The unemployed may not be as well off as the what-when workers, but by the standards of 1993 they have a tolerable life—adequate food, housing, travel, education, medical care, and entertainment are all within their reach thanks to this network. Moreover, I will assume that by 2080 highly progressive taxes will have levelled the economic playing field and greatly narrowed the gap between rich and poor.(The beginnings of such a network and tax system are already in place in Holland and some other Western European countries today.)

There remains to my mind a third and literally the last social group of the post-information society: a relatively small but permanent underclass. This might consist of petty criminals, drug abusers, dropouts, mentally ill people who refuse to be institutionalized, the technologically illiterate, illegal immigrants from Third World countries, and others who for one reason or another cannot move up into the lower reaches of the central class. Despite the best efforts of the broader society, most of them will lack the motivation necessary to take full advantage of the upward-mobile programs offered under the social security network. As a result, I can easily imagine that they will continue, permanently, to be at the very bottom of this diamond-shaped society.

V

I wonder if, figuratively speaking, the post-information society may not be heavily staffed with aristocrats and philosophers. Why is this? Simply because in 2080 most citizens may be able to live off the back of electronic technology as surely (but far more comfortably and securely) as the aristocrats of the past could live off the labor of their serfs. Perhaps Huey Long’s demagogic promise to Depression-era Americans—”Every man a king!”—will at last come true. There may be a surplus of philosophers, too: citizens may have at their disposal all the leisure time and educational opportunities they need to become fountains of wisdom and knowledge. But even if we assume that life will be so easy in 2080, I wonder whether this state of affairs will satisfy everybody. A good many people will, I suspect, feel the need to sink their teeth into something with much more emotional meat on it—something, shall we say, that is easy to understand and which gives meaning to their lives. What could this something be?

I believe the answer to this question would be different for each of the three social classes. At the risk of seeming heartless, however, I want at this point to ignore the whatwhen workers. Having the best brains and the high status that goes with having the only full-time jobs, they can be expected to take care of themselves. Nor will I worry about the marginal people of the permanent underclass. Their problems, by definition, defy easy solution and can be best addressed by social workers and the police. What interests me instead are the prospects for the vast idle but not poor central class. How will it fare in the brave new world of 2080?

This is my guess. A few of its members, motivated by their unusual ability and ambition, will move up to become whatwhen workers themselves; a few, driven down by circumstances or character flaws, will sink into the underclass. But most of them—the center of the idle but not poor central class—will, in a social sense, stay put. If the round of activities of retired people today is any guide, these citizens will fill their days with family matters, sports, shopping, mass entertainment, hobbies, handicrafts, adult education, volunteer projects, and travel. There is much to be said for all these activities, but a good part of their attractiveness, it seems to me, lies in the fact that for most men and for many women they are the reward at the end of the trail, after a lifetime of labor at one job or another. Just how satisfying they would be if people had to devote a lifetime to these activities alone is an open question.

For I suspect that a life without challenging full-time work will be, at least for some, a life of restlessness and boredom. Ultimately, it may also be for them a life without much meaning. In our own day, it is work which gives many people—especially young and middle-aged men, and not just workaholics—a sense of achievement and importance. Work structures time. It offers comradeship. By holding out the carrot of rewards (if you do well now, you’ll be promoted later), it gives us a basis for hope in the future. It, and not money alone, is a good yardstick of social status: a drug dealer may earn more than a university professor but ranks much lower in the social pecking order. We can see the importance of work by asking what happens to people who now suffer from long term or permanent unemployment: a British psychologist says this is like “the death of self.”

And what happens when our sense of self is dead? A straw in the wind here may be Germany today. I have read that in 1992 far-right youths there committed 2, 285 recorded acts of violence, most of them against foreign-asylum seekers. Capitalizing on what Le Monde Diplomatique calls “an atmosphere of psychological insecurity and general helplessness,” some musical groups in Germany now cater to and possibly encourage these young people by producing such extraordinarily violent lyrics as “Sharpen your knives on the sidewalks and stick them into the Jews!” What is striking is that all this is going on in a society which, despite the heavy financial burden imposed on it by the former German Democratic Republic and by growing numbers of refugees, is still so prosperous that as one German businessman joked, it has “the oldest students, the youngest pensioners, the shortest working hours and the longest holidays.”

But if these trends turn out to be linked—if idleness or underemployment is indeed a breeding ground for extremism—this will not be a joke. So let me ask: is it conceivable that neo-Nazism, xenophobia and the high but disappointed expectations of the skinheads in one of the most prosperous societies of 1993 are but the storm warnings of social gales which may sweep through the post-information society of 2080? In their search for meaning, will not some members of the idle but not poor central class inexorably drift into extremism—into virulent racism, blind allegiance to charismatic leaders, religious intolerance, aggressive nationalism, xenophobia?

Given the assumptions we have made about the postinformation society, I think such a drift into a politics of fear and resentment is possible and would spark local, regional or even international conflicts. But the danger of conflict is not my point here. My real concern is a broader one. The post-information society will depend on electronic technology for its very survival. Yet I think the most daunting task it will face may not be technical but social: not how to invent new ways of expanding the seamless operational web, but how—in the absence of full-time work—to inject meaning back into the lives of an idle but not poor central class.

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