The Information Society, the New Economy, and the Hype

The Information Society, the New Economy, and the Hype

We live in bubble times. The stock market orbits at record highs, apparently bound only by the untested dynamics of the “new economy.” Novel industries sprout like mushrooms, purveying goods and services that most people could hardly imagine a few years ago. Fortunes are made buying and selling companies whose profitability remains speculative. And it’s not just money, it’s also the texture of life that’s changing around us. Most of us have grown accustomed to pursuing complex relationships—from paying our taxes to seeking medical advice—through the mediation of machines rather than living human beings. We often expect expert systems—that is, sophisticated computer applications—to know better than flesh-and-blood experts about such everyday matters as what flights to book, what medicines to take, what terms to accept for a loan. At the root of all these developments, we are authoritatively told, lies the “computer revolution.” We stand warned. Having experienced such drastic change thus far, we don’t want to underestimate what may come next.

The resulting frame of mind bears striking resemblance to that of the late 1960s. Then, as now, all sorts of old constraints and certainties were falling away—to be replaced by something that no one could quite identify, but which everyone was convinced would be vastly more exhilarating. Today, similar anything-goes perceptions have generated their own momentum of credulity. Instead of hippies and counterculture pundits, of course, we have twenty-something software magnates and gurus of the “information age.” But the pervasive mindset echoes that of a generation back: if we’ve gone this far, who can say what familiar reality will next be upended?

Many of the prophecies that cluster under the “information age” umbrella are clearly ideological. By this I don’t mean that they are inaccurate, but that they are put forward by people and groups with deep interests in their realization.

Some elements of some of the ideologies are not unattractive. Much of the original enthusiasm of information-society boosters, for example, focuses on visions of radical disintermediation of relations between ordinary citizens and their social worlds—vastly streamlined access to information essential to one’s well-being. In this heady view, sophisticated uses of computing will ensure that one no longer need depend on local doctors or clinics for advice on how to take care of one’s self; nor on local, state, or national officialdom for information on how government institutions are doing (or failing to do) their jobs; nor on companies with the largest advertising budgets for information on products and services. In its overtly libertarian versions, this thinking often comes with a tinge of disdain for all sorts of civic institutions. But the underlying notion of endlessly broadened choice, of information technology as a social equalizer, commands sympathetic at...

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