A concept that responds to the expansion and ubiquity of information. The term has been in use since the 1970s, but has gained in popularity and is now widely used in social and political policy. Sustained and accelerated growth of media, of education provision and participation, as well as computer communications technologies has led many to posit that the attendant information explosion distinguishes a new epoch. The information society is one in which information is the defining feature, unlike the industrial society where steam power and fossil fuels were distinguishing elements.
While the term is used frequently, it is imprecise on inspection. There are six analytically separate definitional criteria used by commentators on the information society.1. Technological. The most common definition is to highlight an increase in information and communications technologies (ICTs) as signalling the emergence of an information society. It is suggested, often implicitly, that ICTs both define and create the information society. Technological measures appear robust, but on examination they are vague (e.g. they range from photocopiers to PCs, the Internet to video games, to digitalization in general).2. Economic. This suggests that the information society is one in which the contribution of information businesses and trades (e.g. publishing, entertainment, consultancies) has expanded over time to now outweigh manufacture and agriculture in terms of contribution to Gross National Product. Generally such analysts adopt the term information economy to describe a situation in which information industries command the major proportion of GNP.3. Occupational. This approach is most closely associated with Daniel Bell's theory of post-industrialism. Bell's book The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973) delineates an information society as one in which most jobs are informational. Thus occupations such as researchers, lawyers, counsellors, and teachers are information intensive, involving information production, analysis, and communication, and the outcome is a changed condition rather than an object. This is in contrast with industrial society jobs such as machine operation and mining where the product is a physical good and the labour is largely manual.4. Spatial. Here the stress is on networks along which information flows. Information networks have profound effects on the organization of time and space, as well as on other relations, allowing real-time communication on a planetary scale. Manuel Castells's (1942– ) trilogy The Information Age (1996–8) is the major statement of this position. It is synonymous with what he terms a network society. The metaphor of mobilities along scapes (e.g. roads, rail, telecommunications systems which enable movements) may be thought central to information societies (see John Urry, Sociology Beyond Societies, 2000).5. Cultural. This approach is one which stresses the growth of symbols and signs over recent decades, an information society being one in which there is pervasive television, advertising, a plethora of lifetyles, multiple ethnicities, many hybridized musical expressions, the world wide web, and so on. It is associated closely with Cultural Studies and interest in post-modernism.6. Theory. This suggests that an information society is one in which theoretical information/knowledge (that which is abstract, generalizable, and codified in texts) takes precedence over the practical and is constitutive of virtually everything that is done. This is contrasted with previous societies in which practical exigencies, know-how, and custom predominated. See also cybersociety; Internet..