The Information Society


Letter from the Editor-in-Chief Rob Kling
17(1) 2001

This issue of The Information Society, 17(1) contains five articles. The first two articles examine information technology (IT)  development within conflicting professional cultures. The third article examines the nature of  the pornography industry as a specialized segment of electronic commerce, the fourth examines the consequences of liberalized telecommunications regulations on income inequality and spatial inequality, and the last article examines the embryonic roots of Britain’s information society  in late Victorian era librarianship and libraries.

In “Information Technology And Social Transformation: GIS For Forestry Management In India,” Barrett, Sahay and Walsham examine the ways that geographic information systems (GIS) could support modernized forestry management in India, and the cultural barriers to such information systems. The potential transformative power of GIS is mediated by the organizational practices and  culture of the forest managers who are supposed to routinely use them. The authors  use a rich set of  ethnographic data to examine the development and deployment of 10 GIS projects in India. They report that 8 of these actually developed deployable prototypes, but that only two showed even a modest amount of use. 

They report how the GIS were developed by map-savvy university-based scientific teams. But they were to be used by forest managers who were neither educated nor working in a map-savvy culture. It would be easy to attribute the limited acceptance of these GIS to "low user involvement" in the development and rollout of the GIS.  But Barrett, Sahay and Walsham go further by identifying the nature of the cultural changes towards map use that forest managers would be required to make in using GIS. India is not a country where travelers can readily find Michelin-like maps for every region and district. Map use is not part of the mainstream Indiana cultures, and it is not part of the routine working practices of forest managers. More deeply, they draw upon Anthony Giddens conception of globalizations  to examine how GIS implementations like these are carried out though different kinds of social structures -- ones where participants usually work at a distance from each other and where social trust takes complex work to develop and stabilize.  They note that GIS are not simply artifacts; their routine use brings professionals into new national and international social networks. Barrett, Sahay and Walsham carefully analyze the individual level and institutional level social processes of globalization in ways that highlight the complexities of systematic information system deployments. 

In “Professional Cultures And Collaborative Efforts: A Case Study Of Technologists And Educators Working For Change” Davidson, Schofield and Stocks examine some of the practical complexities of  "connecting schools to the Internet."  They report an ethnographic case study of an effort to provide some urban U.S. public schools with Internet access. Teachers and the technical support staff held conflicting assumptions about desirable IT configurations and practices in using them. There were routine conflicts about such matters as the extent to which “easy to use” systems were desirable,  the importance of teachers  being able to print their email, and the likely stability of Internet services is a rapidly changing technological milieu. 

This issue’s first article identified important cultural conflicts between map-savvy university-based scientists and  practicing forest managers who worked for public agencies. This article examines the importance of world view differences between university-based IT development and support staff  and their clients who were practicing teachers in an urban public school system. ” Davidson, Schofield and Stocks report much higher levels of IT use among their practitioners that do Barrett, Sahay and Walsham. However,  the deeper issues that  these articles analyze is the way that commonplace conceptions of “deploying IT applications to practitioners” are complicated by the cultural differences and social/organizational distance between them. 

In “E-rogenous Zones: Positioning Pornography in the Digital Economy” Blaise Cronin and Elisabeth Davenport examine the character and size of the porn industry in the digital economy. Information  society theorists generally ignore the entertainment industries, even though they are of pivotal importance in  some countries. In the U.S., the entertainment industries’ exports are specially important for helping the U.S. to offset its international trade deficits. These industries play an important role in reformulating information policy: they have recently played central roles in proposing copyright restrictions that are generally harmful to scientific research and education. Sociologist Daniel Bell set a tone in his theorizing about information societies by emphasizing the importance of scientific and technical knowledge, and ignoring the importance of entertainment industries. In his characterizations of  important theoretical knowledge he emphasized the scientific and technical fields, and ignored the growing importance of marketing theories, financial analyses and legal knowledge in contemporary business.  Even Manuel Castells shares this technical-scientific emphasis in  his Rise of the Network Society. When analysts talk about a "knowledge society" or knowledge networks, they are rarely suggesting that carnal knowledge is a relevant concern! 

Many discussion of pornographic materials on the Internet stigmatize  porn. Pornography -- materials and services that are designed to stimulate sexual desire -- is arguably a form of entertainment.  Regulating pornography is often difficult, since the can be controversy about whether some a works that their producers classify as art (health) education, advertising, or entertainment are primarily pornographic. But there is little controversy about "hard core" pornography.   In the US, the production of hard core pornographic materials and services  is a relatively large branch of the entertainment industry. By some estimates, it is larger than the domestic revenues from Hollywood films. Cronin and Davenport note that the  US sales of porn materials, such as magazines and videos,  and services (including strip clubs) generates revenues comparable to the multi-billion dollar prerecorded music industry and is a bit larger than the domestic box office receipts of the film industry. In the mid-1990s, major upscale hotel chains, such as Hyatt, Sheraton and  Hilton were earning well over $150 million annually in revenue from pay-per-view porno films. Since these upscale hotel chains cater to groups who disproportionately use the Internet,  it would be remarkable if there were no significant efforts to sell pornographic materials and experiences on Internet. 

Cronin and Davenport indicate that the online porn industry is also relatively large. They locate their analysis within a “social shaping of technologies” approach, and their study is a terrific illustration of the ways that IT can be used in ways that are well outside the  intentions of original designers.
The authors identify the character of online pornographic services, their social and technical organization, and their business models. They “normalize” online pornography by  examining it as another interesting segment of the emerging digital economy. Their article identifies the importance of carnal knowledge in discussions of information societies and knowledge societies.

In “Telecommunications and Transnationalism: The Polarization of Social Space” Francesco Stolfi and Gerald Sussman examine the social consequences of  telecommunications policies in the United States within a international political-economic framework. They pay particular attention to the shift in policy discourse from concerns of equity and inclusion in the late 1960's to a focus on efficiencies, convenience and market choice in the 1990s. Further,  telecommunications deregulation  was a hallmark of this period. Stolfi and Sussman use a wide variety of economic data to examine the ways that the recent trends towards liberalization in the US may be amplifying social inequalities. They emphasize income inequalities between classes and spatial inequalities between the people who live in major economic centers (such as global cities) and those who live elsewhere (especially rural regions).  

Some of these  portraits are indeed mixed. For example, U.S. poverty rates have declined in the last five years along with unemployment rates; and the income of black and Hispanic households has grown faster than white households between 1993 and 1999. But the poor pay relatively more for telecommunications services and, according to Stolfi and Sussman, may accrue less benefit from their  expenses. Income inequality has been dramatically rising, when one compares the relatively steady and large growth of the household income of the upper 5% of U.S. families  since the early 1980's with that of the relatively flat household   incomes of  the poorest 20% or even middle 20%   (  To the extent that telecommunications (and the Internet) increasingly serve as critical resources for business, civic life, and recreation, Stolfi and Sussman expect continued liberalization to increase these inequalities. Their analyses raise significant questions for those analysts, such as pundit George Gilder,  who had argued that telecommunications liberalization would readily benefit all and that Internet use would support  a set of socially progressive practices.

This issue closes with Alistair Black's provocative article, "The Victorian Information Society" which examines the embryonic  formation of  organizations and professions of the information society with a focus on British libraries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.   Information society theorists such as  Daniel Bell have indexed information societies by the extent to which theoretical knowledge is a central element in economic development. The centrality of theoretical knowledge in a society does not blossom instantly; it develops over many decades (or even centuries) through the development of  sciences and professions, institutions for educating scientists and professionals,  shifts in the character of professional practice to value new forms of knowledge, and through  organizations (libraries) that serve to organize and disseminate knowledge.   

Black explains how librarianship developed as a profession in the late 19th century, and how it was centered on a project of "disciplining the disciplines" -- classifying and cataloguing the mushrooming forms of recorded knowledge. Libraries did not simply collect, store, and circulate books and magazines. Librarians made the study of how other disciplines create knowledge and record it in documentary form central to their  expertise. Library science research emerged with a focus on strategies for effectively classifying, indexing, and cataloguing recorded knowledge, as well as constructing meaningful bibliographies.

Black extends his examination of librarians efforts to surveil and organize knowledge into their efforts to surveil and control specific aspects of their patron's behavior. These included a range of practices from the development of  information systems that recorded which patrons accessed which books to the organization of libraries' physical space to enable direct observation of patron's behavior. While libraries were also important spaces in Britain's public sphere, they played multivalent roles in serving to enlighten their patrons and to control both knowledge and their patrons.  Black argues that bureaucratization through impersonal procedures, information systems, and a strong division of labor was integral to the development of librarianship as a profession. He draws upon Foucault's analysis of knowledge/power to examine this tension  --  one that characterized Britain’s embryonic information institutions and – by –extension -- informational institutions today.

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