William F. Birdsall
Dalhousie University, Canada
Until recently, much of the interest in the Internet has focused on its impressive technological development and expansion. More recently, there is great interest in its commercial potential. This interest in the economics of the Internet raises in turn various political issues surrounding the Internet. Indeed, it is my contention that the Internet will become enmeshed in the political and economic dynamics of what I call the Ideology of Information Technology.
Developments in information technology are claimed to be revolutionary innovations that will propel societies and nations toward renewed economic growth, new modes of political participation, and a rejuvenated sense of community. Countless reports from all levels of government, think tanks, futurists, management gurus, and the popular press extol the need to promote the exploitation of information technology to increase productivity and to ensure economic, political, and cultural development. It is asserted by many that the primary commodity to be processed by this steam engine of the new economy is information itself.
It is my argument that these assertions arise out of a coherent political ideology: the Ideology of Information Technology. This ideology promulgates a set of economic values that are permeating the political and cultural spheres of society. The area I will focus on in particular is the implications of the Ideology of Information Technology on how information should be generated, packaged, and distributed.
I do not accept that it is the Internet that is transforming society. Fundamental changes in the provision of information and knowledge are not driven by innovations in information technology. Rather, I argue that such changes are due to economics. I maintain that the Ideology of Information Technology is a set of values and propositions that represents an inherent extension of capitalism's drive to commodify all spheres of economic and cultural life. This ideology links the adoption of information technology with free-market values and the commodification of information.
Let me elaborate more specifically on what I mean by the links between information technology, economics, politics, and culture as they coalesce into an Ideology of Information Technology.
The Canadian cultural critic, Robert Fulford, has expressed the concern that information technology "will change the economics of reading and the place of knowledge in society." He sees this development as a significant challenge to what he calls the Ideology of the Book. The central principle of the Ideology of the Book is a commitment to the universal availability of knowledge. According to this ideology, knowledge is a public good and its widespread accessibility is critical to the cultural, economic, and political development of the citizens of an open, democratic society.
The consequences of this commitment to the Ideology of the Book are evident in many ways: universal public education; reduced postal rates for the distribution of published material; tax- supported public libraries; widespread distribution of government information through library depository programs; copyright policies that balance the rights of users and creators.
During the first half of the 20th century, the Ideology of the Book was largely unchallenged in North America. However, for at least the past two decades, it has been increasingly challenged by a set of values that has evolved into an Ideology of Information Technology. This alternative ideology is a conjoining of free-market economics, neo-conservative politics, and technological determinism.
The roots of the Internet go back to research and development activities in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States. The roots of the Ideology of Information Technology can be traced to the same soil. It was at that time when federal government science and technology policy changed. It gave a higher priority to supporting research and development that would contribute directly to economic productivity. This policy, supported by the business community and successive federal governments:
This strategy supported high-tech research and development, including information technology, among the private sector, university researchers, and the military establishment. It was reinforced by the writings and exhortations of those who asserted that technology was driving us from a Second Wave industrial society into a high-tech, post-industrial, Third Wave, Information Society.
Recently the fervor for information technology as an economic tool for increased productivity has focused on creating national and global information infrastructures. The creation of a National Information Infrastructure (NII) is a priority of the Clinton administration under the guidance of Vice President Gore. When still a senator, Gore pushed for this initiative primarily as a means to promote economic development. The arguments supporting the NII initiative reflect the heavy burden being placed upon information technology as a means of revitalizing the free-market economy. A U.S. Department of Commerce document exclaims that "America's destiny is linked to our information infrastructure." It boldly claims that:
"The potential benefits for the nation are immense. The NII will enable U.S. firms to compete and win in the global economy, generating good jobs for the American people and economic growth for the nation. As importantly, the NII promises to transform the lives of the American people. It can ameliorate the constraints of geography and economic status, and give all Americans a fair opportunity to go as far as their talents and ambitions will take them."
The convergence of free-market values and information technology was further accelerated by the success of the new right in advancing a political agenda advocating less government through the privatization of traditional public services. Symbolic of this fusion of information technology, economics, and politics is the well-known relationship between Newt Gingrich and Alvin Toffler.
This relationship, which goes back to the early 1970s, became widely known when Gingrich was elected to the office of Speaker of the House in 1994. His increased prominence led to greater public awareness of Alvin and Heidi Toffler's book, Creating a New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave.
Creating a New Civilization, initially published by the Progress and Freedom Foundation, which has connections with Gingrich, is meant to serve, as the title of Gingrich's foreword suggests, as "A Citizen's Guide to the Twenty-First Century." The Tofflers urge the "highbrow" knowledge elites to develop their own Third Wave political ideology appropriate to a global, free-market, information society to counter the "lowbrow" ideologies of the Second Wave mass industrial society. More of this type of rhetoric is found in a manifesto prepared by Toffler and others entitled "Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age." This manifesto is provided by the Progress and Freedom Foundation on the Net.
This bonding of information technology with free-market values is by no means confined to the United States. Reports in Canada and elsewhere advocate that the shift from an industrial manufacturing economy to a technologically driven information processing economy is a global phenomenon. It is widely asserted that this technological imperative will revitalize capitalism in the developed countries. As well, developing nations are encouraged to adopt a free-market economy and information technology to catapult themselves into a new era of worldwide prosperity.
Not surprisingly, the concept of the National Information Infrastructure has been enlarged to that of the Global Information Infrastructure with the G-7 industrialized countries making a commitment to the rapid development of the Global Information Infrastructure.
To develop Canada's information capabilities, the Honorable John Manley, Minister of Industry, formed an Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC) to advise government on a national strategy for developing the information highway. The Ideology of Information Technology infuses the Final Report of the IHAC. The IHAC, whose membership was dominated by senior executives from the information technology private sector, asserts that in the new information economy success will be determined by the marketplace with government relegated to setting minimal ground rules. The IHAC claims that developments in information technology will ensure an increase in productivity.
The Ideology of Information Technology maintains, then, that the increasing use of information, the application of sophisticated technologies for manipulating and distributing it, and the privatization of its production and distribution are crucial to increasing productivity in a global information economy. And all of this is inevitable under the triumphant combination of information technology and free-market economics.
Does this conjunction of politics, free-market capitalism, and information technology represent an historical turning point, as Gingrich, Toffler, and others committed to the Ideology of Information Technology claim? I think not. Instead, it is an example of a recurring characteristic of capitalism. Capitalism has always generated, indeed, required bursts of technological innovation. Well-known examples are the steam engine, the railway, electrification, and the automobile. While these technological developments had major impacts on the social and cultural life of those countries embracing a free-market economy, it is not technological innovation that is the fundamental force for change. The change arises out of the need to generate and accumulate capital through a free-market economy. The free market requires technological innovation to perpetuate a thriving economy.
Rather than being a totally unique force for fundamental change, information technology is only the latest in a long series of waves of technological developments required of a free-market economy. Certainly the building of an information infrastructure, the demand for sophisticated software, and the potential new consumer markets for information services and technology represent vast opportunities for investment and profits involving billions of dollars. But they are not the total break from the past as is so often claimed.
Meanwhile, important social, cultural, and political issues are in danger of being suppressed or ignored by the onslaught of the Ideology of Information Technology. For example, a document advancing the virtues of the information highway in Nova Scotia, my own province, includes a section of short vignettes to illustrate the potential benefits of the information highway. Here is one: "A child shops for an appropriate Father's Day gift at an electronic shopping mall, safe at home in front of the TV." What is wrong with this? Well, we might ask why is it assumed it would be unsafe for the child to go to the mall. And if it is unsafe, why? Instead, we are presented the image of a child lodged in front of the TV, embalmed in an enclosed world of virtual reality.
Here is another vignette in the document: "A single mother with a small child can't afford child care but desperately wants to continue her training in computer programming. Right from her home PC she attends lectures, researches subjects at the library, submits assignments and even takes exams. Nearing completion of her degree she electronically searches the federal government's job bank and submits her resume to several potential employers." Here we might ask, why isn't there affordable child care available? And if she can't afford child care, how can she afford the course fees, a PC, a modem, the monthly communications charges, a printer, and the software necessary to do the tasks attributed to her?
The message of these vignettes is clear: Don't spend money on public safety, child care, and other social services; rather, channel it into information technology, the solution to all our social and economic woes. The Ideology of Information Technology masks real political and social issues behind the glamour of the electronic impulse.
I have no quarrel with capitalism or its need for technological innovation. However, I am concerned about its tendency to impart to all spheres of social and cultural life the values of the marketplace. The thrust of the Ideology of Information Technology is that all needs for information should be fulfilled through open market economic transactions. Consequently, distinctions between data, information, and knowledge are collapsed into a vague all-encompassing concept of "information," a commodity that can be packaged into electronic bits and marketed directly to consumers through electronic networks. The economic implications of the Ideology of Information Technology spill over into cultural issues. Examples of cultural issues being reduced to economic transactions include public library fees for service, increased charges for government publications and data, copyright legislation favoring creators over users, and the emerging battle over who will build, own, and provide access to the information highway.
Is information technology the next wave to economic renewal through increased productivity? Or is it being used as an ideological tool to bolster arguments for the reallocation of economic resources? The relationship between information technology and productivity is relevant. A measure of the economic importance of a technological innovation is its impact on productivity.
Except for a few services, such as telephony, numerous studies have had little success confirming that increased investment in information technology contributes to increased productivity; hence, the "information technology productivity paradox." This paradox is "the seeming contradiction between the perception that technological change has accelerated in the recent decade [the 1980s] and the observed fact that productivity growth has not recovered to its average post World War II levels." The initial introduction of automation in the 1950s and 1960s does provide examples of dramatic productivity gains. However, studies comparing more recent investment in information technology by countries, industries, firms, and various economic indicators have not established a strong correlation between such technological investment and growth in productivity.
Nevertheless, as recognized in an OECD report:
This is not to say that the mythical quality of high technology in general and of IT in particular has now been dispelled. That will not happen as long as high technology is regarded as an automatic and instant panacea for all manner of economic ills. The essence of a myth is that it can have value in the absence of analytical assessment, and high technology has had great value as political myth.
I am claiming that there is more here than a political myth of information technology; there is a coherent political ideology of information technology advancing a set of economic values permeating society's cultural sphere.
Information technology, although promoted as a revolutionary phenomenon, does not represent a radical break from the traditional industrial economic and political culture. In fact, the ideology uses information technology to preserve that culture's dominant characteristic: commodification of products and services in a free-market economy. Furthermore, the ideology seeks a change in the balance between economy and state by shifting the provision of public services to the private sector where ability to pay determines their availability.
The Tofflers and others call for the formulation of a Third Wave political ideology. It already exists. It is the Ideology of Information Technology. As efforts increase to tap into the economic exploitation of the Internet, the politics of the Internet will increase. And the Ideology of Information Technology will be brought to bear on the issues that will need to be addressed.
What are those issues? We are already familiar with them because they have been issues long central to debates relating to the Ideology of the Book. They are issues about:
Some may hope that the Internet can avoid these and other contentious political and cultural issues through technological solutions. The development of the V-chip is a recent example where it is hoped technology will solve what is a political and cultural issue. However, it is a mistake to assume there are technological solutions to political issues. They will have to be fought out in the political arena. Within that political arena, we can anticipate a clash between the values embodied in the Ideology of the Book and those in the Ideology of Information Technology. While the Ideology of the Book is identified with an older print technology, its commitment to the universal accessibility to information and knowledge is one that must apply to the use of the newer information technologies as well and the provision of information and knowledge by those technologies.
The real challenge in an era of rapid economic globalization is determining the appropriate political arena to address such issues. Perhaps it is in meeting this challenge that the Internet will be most critical in transforming our society.