Do we live in an era of change or in a changing era? How can one characterize the deep transformations that come with the accelerated insertion of artificial intelligence and new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in our present society? Is it a question of a new stage in the industrial society or are we entering into a new era? “Global village”, “technotronic era”, “post-industrial society”, “information society” or “information age”, and “knowledge society” are just a few of the terms that have been coined in an attempt to identify and understand the extent of these changes. But while the debate proceeds in the theoretical sphere, reality races ahead and communication media select the terms that we are to use.
The bottom line is: whichever term we use, it will be a shortcut that allows us to reference a phenomenon – be that present or future -, without having to repeatedly describe it; however, the selected term in itself does not define content. Content emerges from usage within a specific social context, which in turn influences perceptions and expectations, since each term brings with it a past and a meaning (or meanings), with its respective ideological baggage.
It was therefore to be expected that any term used to designate the society in which we live, or to which we aspire, be the focal point of a dispute over meanings, backed by the varied opposing projects of society.
Within the benchmark of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) there are two terms that have occupied the scenario: information society and knowledge society, with their respective variants. But, although the benchmark imposed usage of the former, from the beginning it caused disagreement and no single term has achieved a consensus.
History of the terms
In this past decade, the expression “information society” has without a doubt been confirmed as the hegemonic term, not because it necessarily expresses a theoretical clarity, but rather due to its “baptism” by the official policies of the more developed countries and the “crowning” that meant having a World Summit dedicated in its honor.
The term’s antecedents, however, date back from previous decades. In 1973, United States sociologist Daniel Bell introduced the notion “information society” in his book The Coming of Post-Industrial Society , where he formulates that the main axis of this society will be theoretical knowledge and warns that knowledge-based services will be transformed into the central structure of the new economy and of an information-led society, where ideologies will end up being superfluous.
This expression reappears strongly in the 90s, within the context of the development of the World Wide Web and ICTs. As of 1995, it was included in the agenda of the G7 meetings (followed by G8, which joins heads of State and governments from the most powerful nations on the planet). It has been addressed in forums of the European Community and the OECD – Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the thirty most developed countries in the World), and has been adopted by the United States government, as well as various UN agencies and the World Bank Group. All with great repercussions in the communication media. As of 1998, the term was first selected by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and then by the UN, as the name for the World Summit to be held in 2003 and 2005.
Within this context, the concept “information society” as a political and ideological construct has developed under the direction of neo-liberal globalization, whose main goal has been to accelerate the establishment of an open and “self-regulated” world market. This policy has counted on the close collaboration of multilateral organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank, in order for the weak countries to abandon national regulations or protectionist measures that “would discourage” the inversion; all with the known result of a scandalous widening of the gaps between the rich and the poor in the World.
In fact, at the end of the century, when the majority of the developed countries had already adopted ICT infrastructure development policies, there is a spectacular peak in the share market of the communications industry. But the markets in the North begin to become saturated. Then, increased pressure is placed on the developing countries to leave the way free for investments by telecommunications and informatics companies, in search of new markets to maintain growth of earnings. It is within this context that the WSIS is convoked; a panorama that changes, however, when the stock bubble burst as of the year 2000. Regardless of this reality and the key role that communication technologies have played in the acceleration of economic globalization, information society’s public image is more associated with the “friendlier” aspects of globalization, such as the World Wide Web, mobile and international phoning, TV via satellite, etc. Thus, the information society has assumed the role of the “good will ambassador” for globalization, whose “benefits” could be within the reach of all, if only the “digital divide” could be bridged.