How to Think about Information

Overview

It’s common wisdom that the U.S. economy has continued to thrive despite the loss of industry because of the booming information sector, with high-paying jobs for everything from wireless networks to video games. We are told we live in the Information Age, in which communications networks, and media and information services drive the larger economy. While the Information Age may have looked sunny in the beginning, as it has developed it looks increasingly ominous: its economy and benefits grow more and more ...

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Overview

It’s common wisdom that the U.S. economy has continued to thrive despite the loss of industry because of the booming information sector, with high-paying jobs for everything from wireless networks to video games. We are told we live in the Information Age, in which communications networks, and media and information services drive the larger economy. While the Information Age may have looked sunny in the beginning, as it has developed it looks increasingly ominous: its economy and benefits grow more and more centralized-and in the United States, it has become less and less subject to democratic oversight.

Companies around the world have identified the value of information, and are now seeking to control its production, transmission, and consumption. In How to Think about Information, Dan Schiller explores the ways information has been increasingly commodified as a result, and how it both resembles and differs from other commodities. Through a linked series of theoretical, historical, and contemporary studies, Schiller reveals this commodification as both dynamic and expansionary, but also deeply conflicted and uncertain. He examines the transformative political and economic changes occurring throughout the informational realm, and analyzes key dimensions of the process, including the build-up of new technological platforms, the growth of a transnationalizing culture industry, and the role played by China as it reinserts itself into an informationalized capitalism. 

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"How to Think About Information is a critically important book. . . . Schiller provides fundamentally important insights into the infrastructural and superstructural demands of commodification."—Global Media and Communication

"Dan Schiller's oeuvre is clear and one that scholars must acknowledge if they deem themselves fit to reflect on the character of the information age."—European Journal of Comunication

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252077555
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 7/21/2010
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Dan Schiller is a professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Digital Capitalism: Networking the Global Market System and other books.

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Read an Excerpt

How to Think about Information


By DAN SCHILLER

UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS

Copyright © 2007 Dan Schiller
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-252-03132-6


Chapter One

How to Think about Information

In 1982, the American Express company heralded its elevation into the select group of thirty corporations that comprise the Dow Jones Industrial Index as follows:

Our product is information-information that charges airline tickets, hotel rooms, dining out, the newest fashions, and even figures mailing costs for a travel magazine; information that grows money funds, buys and sells equities, and manages mergers; information that pays life insurance annuities, figures pricing for collision coverage, and creates and pays mortgages; information that schedules entertainment on cable television and electronically guards houses; information that changes kroners into guilders, figures tax rates in Bermuda, and helps put financing together for the ebb and flow of world trade.

American Express was not unique. Companies engaged in making and selling entertainment, banking, communications, data processing, engineering, advertising, law, and other information-intensive services have played an increasingly critical role in overall U.S. investment, employment, and international trade. Major manufacturers such as General Motors, McDonnell Douglas, and General Electric were diversifying into information either through in-house activities, commercial provision,or both. An administrative discipline known as "information resource management" was finding broad application across the business world. This discipline treats information "as a resource like other resources such as money, personnel, and property, which have values and costs and are used in achieving program goals." In short, as one authority declared, we "can no longer deny that information is becoming a commodity."

Not just any commodity, either, but a fundamental source of growth for the market system as a whole: information, many proclaimed, had become the essential site of market growth. Yet the source and true character of this general shift in the social definition of information remain obscure. Where is the common ground shared by a college course in anthropology and computerized credit data, or between a newspaper account of a city council meeting and genetically coded messages? How, when, and why does information become economically valuable?

Throughout the postwar era, many writers have grappled with such questions. At least three broad, often overlapping conceptual approaches to the subject have emerged. In spite of serious flaws, each tradition may be utilized critically as a means to explore how to think about information.

Informational Theories

As late as 1933, the Oxford English Dictionary gave no hint of the profound shifts beginning to occur in the conceptualization of information. The dictionary revealed only that "information" had been in currency in English since Chaucer, when it denoted an item of training or an instruction, and that the word then accrued several additional meanings: an idea, the communication of news, or a complaint against a person presented in court. By the end of the 19 0s, however, mathematicians and engineers had forced a radical break with these past usages. Their development of statistical formulae for measuring the amount of "information" within a system proved of immediate utility to communication engineers trying to design cost-efficient transmission channels of appropriate bandwidth, or information-carrying capacity. Yet the "mathematical theory of communication" depended upon a dramatic redefinition that formalized the ongoing transformation of "information" into an encompassing category of apparently sweeping relevance and explanatory potential. Information, these theorists asserted, is a measure of organization, pattern, structure, or-in Klaus Krippendorff's more recent treatment-of a potential for organizational work. "[T]here is a widespread feeling," wrote one scientist receptive to information theory's universalistic ambition, "that information theory is basic to a thoroughgoing consideration of all organized systems."

"Information theory" promised to unlock the inner workings of diverse systems-collections of related entities-"from steam engines to human societies," as one of the eminent participants in a conference underwritten by the Macy Foundation put it. In 1950, for example, an article in American Scientist declared that "consideration of the effects of information storage and information transfer on physical, chemical, biological, psychological, and sociological systems" might "help in understanding and predicting many of the aspects of our universe." Early confirmation of the value of this approach appeared evident in a contemporary breakthrough in biology: the discovery of the precise sequence of the DNA molecule, which forms "the code which carries the genetical information." A hitherto undetected but potentially vital informational component of physical, chemical, biological, and even social systems could be sought after and, it was believed, explicitly specified.

However, despite significant refinement and conceptual augmentation (such as Ludwig von Bertalanffy's "open systems" concept), information theory encountered difficulties when applied to social processes. These difficulties were due largely to a tendency, common then and still evident today, to operationalize the system concept. Systems, it was held, require rigorous codification of input and output "variables," their "values," and above all, their behavioral relationships. This process of operationalization tends to impose a formal, mechanistic order on the contingent, conditional, and often unclearly interrelated historical realm of human social agency.

Compared with telephone networks and even biological organisms, societies appeared to be "exceedingly complex systems," whole chunks of which had, of necessity, been relegated by theorists to "black boxes" whose internal workings "cannot be comprehended" but should be explained at some point further along. This point, however, never arrived. Even more damaging, any possible social determinants of information tended to drop out of the analysis. "[W]ithout materials there is nothing, and without energy nothing happens," one borrower from this tradition wrote. "But without information, nothing has meaning: materials are formless, motion is aimless." Are there really no irreducibly social agencies and historical relationships conditioning the organization and use of information, energy, and matter? Information theorists implicitly identified the essential structuring agency of all systems in information itself. They not only sought an informational component of organized systems but also hoped to develop a unique informational plane of analysis to explain its operative features. Therefore they sidestepped the possibility that information-at least in social "systems"-might be a product of social institutions. Though matters of indifference to information theorists, the following questions are critically relevant: What social forces structure information? How have they developed? Over what range of "systems" do they operate?

A quite different school of thought did attempt to elucidate a social framework for information. By the late 19 0s and early 1970s, theorists of an emerging "postindustrial" or, later, "information" society became prominent. Postindustrialists argued that new "intellectual technologies"-above all, the computer-were dramatically discontinuous with earlier systems of information processing and control. The new technologies would be as central to the emerging society as "machine technology" had been to its industrial predecessor. Postindustrialists often claimed to find a "new class" of office employees-"knowledge professionals" or "information workers"-constituting the preponderant segment of the employed workforce in the developed market economies. Finally, they argued that information itself had become the transforming resource of social organization. For Daniel Bell and those generally lesser thinkers who followed him, the postindustrial society broke with and transcended the elemental relations-including, most crucially, the opposition between capital and labor-that had shaped its antecedent. Knowledge was supplanting capital and labor as the decisive factor of production.

There were ideological advantages to declaring that postindustrial society constitutes a radical break with the past. By emphasizing discontinuity, however, it was the rather dismal visage of the present that was obscured. The selective silences in the writings of the postindustrialists and their successors are notable: about the crisis of empire occasioned by the devastating political and economic impacts of the U.S. war in Vietnam; about the economic slowdown-to which intensifying international competition contributed and responded-that threatened to undercut the brief "American century"; and about the unprecedented transnationalization of the entire market system. Rather than attempting to contextualize the important changes in the information sector that they did identify within these determining historical circumstances, the postindustrialists chose to abstract from them. Information society analysts such as Harlan Cleveland carried this tendency to even greater lengths. Ironically, Cleveland even criticized Daniel Bell for his coinage, the "postindustrial society," on the grounds that the term put too little distance between a promising future and a rusting past: "Can't we find a term for the future that goes beyond saying it comes after the past? Surely postindustrial is too reductionist a tag for so different and exciting a prospect, and too economic a name for a period in which the discoveries of science, the innovations of technology, and integrative thinking about politics, culture, and psychology will be at least as important as economic analysis to an understanding of what's going on."

Yet an even more basic conceptual flaw is evident throughout the writings of the postindustrialists. They commonly pinpoint the source of information's economic value in supposedly intrinsic attributes of information itself. "The information resource," claimed Cleveland, "in short, is different in kind from other resources"-as if, in finding that a shoe is not a table, he had somehow fixed at last on the former's essential economic nature. Not subject to the laws of thermodynamics, information is "expandable, compressible, substitutable, transportable, leaky, shareable." These "inherent characteristics," Cleveland declared, divulge the vital clue to information's mounting economic importance. Such claims grew wearisomely frequent within mainstream economic arguments, as did the warning that because information is a public good, "markets for information products may not operate in the same ways as markets for tangible commodities."

This reasoning resurrected a long-standing economic fallacy. As Rudolph Hilferding pointed out at the beginning of the twentieth century, such a theory of economic value invalidly relies upon categories that "are natural and eternal entities." It substitutes for the historical development of social relations among persons the purportedly immanent qualities of things. Why was the status of information not a major topic of economic theory in 1700, 1800, or 1900? Why was it only after World War II that the economic role and value of information took on palpable importance? The advocates of information's innately distinctive economic role were necessarily unconcerned with such questions. They found it difficult to explain the history of their subject without retreating into technological determinism: the "computer revolution" thus was charged with responsibility for the unprecedented visibility and economic significance of information. But this is not a satisfactory answer. Why was there a "computer revolution"? Why only in the postwar era? Why predominantly in the developed market economies? And what kind of an upheaval did this "revolution" actually portend?

We will not comprehend why and how information becomes economically valuable by beginning from its supposedly intrinsic attributes; we cannot uncover its real social framework in this fashion. What if, however, we suppose that information is not inherently valuable? What if only a profound social reorganization can permit information to become valuable? What sort of historical changes would be required for such a sweeping and dramatic revaluation?

To answer these questions we will introduce a key distinction between information as a resource and information as a commodity. Using this elemental distinction, we may begin to grasp the nature of information in contemporary society.

A resource is something of actual or potential use. That is all. The soil, the sea, and the spectrum are resources. But all resources are not commodities. Only under particular conditions can they be transformed into commodities. A resource is anything of use, anytime, anywhere, to anyone; but a commodity bears the stamp of society and of history in its very core.

Lacking this distinction, information-society theorists pursue an erroneous consideration of how information is innately different from other resources. Employing it, however, permits us to consider how information is socially identical to other commodities. When we begin to study the production and use of information resources within history, we find that they have experienced the same series of changes in social organization as other resources claimed by capitalism and transformed into commodities: all are produced increasingly by wage labor within and for a market. Oblivious to this social transformation, information-society analysts evince an implicit willingness to treat all resources, including information, as commodities. With the commodification of information in mind, however, we enter the domain of political economy, which seeks to comprehend the historical evolution of the market system itself.

It might have been assumed that political economy would be at the forefront of the social analysis of information. Yet the third major way of thinking about information, stemming from political economy, paradoxically dismisses an economic role for information altogether. This line of reasoning holds that activities such as advertising, market research, law, financial services, and other information-intensive pursuits are simply not productive. As with the two previous schools of thought, this theoretical tradition yields useful insights upon investigation.

Advocates of this view assert that informational functions such as advertising are unnecessary-even harmful-and that therefore they should not be treated in the same fashion as such clearly beneficial pursuits as farming, bauxite mining, steel smelting, and automobile assembly. Prominent exponents of this position are Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, who, after arguing trenchantly that advertising "constitutes as much an integral part of the system as the giant corporation itself," go on to claim that, nonetheless, advertising expenses "are manifestly unrelated to necessary costs of production and distribution-however broadly defined."

Baran and Sweezy justify their argument on moral and theoretical grounds. They echo a long-standing concern with differentiating and supporting "useful" against "unuseful" social labor. Such a distinction was essential for nineteenth-century journeyman artisans who contrasted their own productive crafts with the connivings of "monopolists" and "speculators." The latter, personified by bankers and lawyers, were hastening the expansion and rigidification of wage relationships. But the distinction between producers and nonproducers has persisted down to the present as a widespread mistrust of "parasitic" paper-pushers and other members of information-intensive occupations.

A theoretical argument seems to lend this suspicion credibility. When reduced to essentials, the argument runs as follows: no matter how important to the functioning of the market economy, virtually all information-intensive employments fall within the sphere of circulation of capital and not of production. Once assembled, a car must be advertised, marketed, and financed, but these functions are ancillary to the production of the automobile itself. They add no new value in their own right. To the older strata of "surplus eaters"-unproductive participants in the economy-are added a host of new ones: "corporate and government bureaucrats, bankers and lawyers, advertising copy writers and public relations experts, stockbrokers and insurance agents, realtors and morticians, and so on and on seemingly without limit." All are part of a vast social wastage created by the need to dispose of a mushrooming economic surplus under conditions of monopoly capital.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from How to Think about Information by DAN SCHILLER Copyright © 2007 by Dan Schiller. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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