What Society?

Knowledge society, information society, post-industrial society, control society, network society, service society… each term has been used to describe the shift from industrial societies based on the manufacture of tangible goods toward a social system dominated by the production and exchange of information. Daniel Bell summed it up neatly in his bestseller from 1973, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: “A post-industrial society is based on services….What counts is not raw muscle power, or energy, but information.” While most people understand the shift from industrial to post-industrial “information society” in historical terms, we can see from a global perspective that information societies rely on industrial societies for the manufacture of their tools. After all, where would Apple be without Foxconn?

For that reason, James Beniger’s term “control society” helps clarify how both exist together. If “innovations in matter and energy processing create the need for further innovation in information-processing and communication technologies,” as Beniger argues in The Control Revolution, we can see how a knowledge society emerged in the immediate wake of an industrial society. Industrial manufacturing produced more goods than ever before, which in turn produced a need to track and manage those goods using information technologies. Predigital technologies like the telephones and telegraphs made industrial society also a knowledge society. We could understand the difference between knowledge and information societies, then, as one of scale rather than absolute difference. Digital technologies allow us to produce more information and process it faster, accelerating practices that industrial society established in the nineteenth century.


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