Information Policy for an Information Society

Mairéad Browne


The title for my paper might suggest that my task is a pretty straightforward one of commentary on information policy in the context of the "Information Society". That it is not a straightforward task is largely a function of the fact that the idea of an Information Society has captured the collective imagination and been seen by politicians and bureaucrats as a way of justifying many of the changes in our daily lives, especially in the workplace. The trouble is, that like so many popular phrases, the term Information Society is fraught with ambiguity. Effectively, we have little by way of a shared notion of what it is and consequently even less of a clue when we talk about information policy for an Information Society context. Or more fairly, perhaps, I should say we mean very different things by Information Society when we use the terms, depending on the situation in which we speak or write. And by 'we' I mean not only people in general, but also writers and commentators on the Information Society and information policy whom, it might be thought, should know better.

My goal in this paper is to look at some of the confusions and multiple meanings of these and associated terms which occur in the literature around the Information Society, confusions which are also found in general usage in the media and everyday conversations. To come to terms with the ideas of Information Society and information policy I will explore two fundamental questions (1) What is the Information Society and (2) What is Information. I will look at these from the perspectives of the theoretical literature and the practice of policy making for the Information Society in a number of countries especially in the European Union which has developed an unusually coherent set of policy documents in the past few years. The main theme of my paper is that the ambiguity of the basic concepts of Information and the Information Society has led policy makers in the area of information and information technology to a situation where policy goals are inconsistent and inadequate as a foundation for information provision activities.

What is the Information Society?

The term Information Society has been around for a long time now and, indeed, has become something of a cliché. The notion of the coming Information Society reminds me of the way the idea of the Sydney 2000 Olympics and the way it shimmers in the distance. We look towards the Olympics and resolve to prepare hard for it. We must rapidly transform ourselves, our city, our demeanour to be ready and worthy. Time is of the essence in making ourselves ready for the challenge. There is certain breathlessness in all of this rhetoric.

The same can be said of much of the documents and writings on the Information Society. The recent Department of Industry, Science and Tourism's Goldsworthy report on the Global Information Economy urges "...time is short, and the need for action is urgent. Government must grasp the challenge now." (Department of Industry, Science and Tourism, 1997:7). But when you push past the rhetoric and the sense of urgency being conveyed , what is the reality of the Information Society? What, in particular, do policy makers think it is?

In the European Union, the concept of the Information Society has been evolving strongly over the past few years building on the philosophy originally spelled out by Commissioner Martin Bangemann in 1994. Bangemann argued that the Information Society represents a "revolution based on information ... [which] adds huge new capacities to human intelligence and constitutes a resource which changes the way we work together and the way we live together..." (European Commission, 1994:4). One of the main implications of this "revolution" for Bangemann is that the Information Society can secure badly needed jobs (Europe and the Global Information Society, 1994:3). In other words, a driving motivation for the Information Society is the creation of employment for depressed economies.

Closer to home it is instructive to look at just a few policy (or would-be policy) documents to see the views of the Information Society dominant here. The Goldsworthy report sees the Information Society as a "societal revolution based around information and communication technologies and about the role of these in developing global competitiveness and managing the transition to a globalised free trade world" (Department of Industry, Science and Tourism, 1997). In short, Goldsworthy's idea of the Information Society is entirely an economic one. At a broader level Barry Jones, the author of the House of Representatives Standing Committee's 1991 report 'Australia as a Information Society' sets out a definition of the Information Society which sees it as simply "a period when use of time, family life, employment, education and social interaction are increasingly influenced by access to Information Technology" (Australia as an Information Society: Grasping New Paradigms, 1991).

These are just a few examples of ideas underpinning information policy drives in the developed world where the concept is accepted almost without challenge, and there is an inherent belief that like the Olympics, the Information Society is real - or will be very soon if only we can get ourselves organised properly. Some claim, of course, that the Information Society is here already and not just on its way. But one way or the other "it" exists and is a "good thing". By and large, national and regional Information Society documents do not question the belief that the Information Society will bring prosperity and happiness if a few basic safeguards are put in place. Some of the very few notes of serious caution in the practice of information policy have come through the influence of the Scandinavian countries which joined the European Union when the EU was already in full flight with implementing the actions flowing from the Bangemann report. Interestingly, in recent travels in India I noticed an extraordinary level of hope and trust in that developing country in the potential of information technology to transform India into a modern fully developed economy. The push to develop information and technological infrastructure initiated by Rajiv Gandhi is seen as positive and a necessary step for the goal of a universally prosperous society in India. Effectively there is the same acceptance of the goodness of an Information Society and the absolute necessity to be one, that is found in the West.

Given this blind faith in the existence and the desirability of an Information Society among diverse nations, it is instructive to look at the theoretical literature which has spawned the idea to see what it claims for the Information Society. The term Information Society has many synonyms: Information Age, Information Revolution, Information Explosion and so on and it is found across a wide spectrum of disciplines. Fortunately the task of unravelling many of these ideas has been accomplished in a masterly way by Frank Webster. He has categorised the variety of concepts of the Information Society, Information Revolution, or whatever, and provided an analysis of five common conceptions of the Information Society (Webster, 1995).

1. Technological

This notion of the Information Society focuses on the gee-whiz technology as epitomised by the 'Towards 2000' TV series. In recent times, the emphasis is on the convergence of computers and telecommunications and the capacity for storage, manipulation and transmission of vast amounts of data. The Goldsworthy Report sits squarely in this category, following earlier Australian reports such as the Broadband Services Expert Group's document (Broadband Services Expert Group, 1994).

The problem is, however, that drawing a direct line between the presence of information technology with some sort of new society is hard to justify. Will the presence of say, a computer in every home, make us an Information Society? Or should that be two computers? At what point will we know we've arrived? What changes in our fundamental institutions, ways of living and working characterises an Information Society, as opposed to a non- Information Society? A further weakness of this concept is highlighted by the many commentators who point out the dangers of technological determinism in thinking about the Information Society and reject the view that technology impacts on society and is the prime agent of change, defining the social world (Webster, 1995:10)

2. Economic

This concept of the Information Society has been built on Fritz Machlup's seminal study of the size and effect of the US information industries in the 1960s. Machlup demonstrated that education, the media, computing, information services (including insurance, law and other information based professions), R+D and so on accounted for some 30% of GNP. (Machlup, 1962) . Marc Porat continued this line of enquiry and demonstrated the rising proportion of information-related activities in the US economy (Porat, 1977) . Barry Jones replicated this work for Australia in his highly-cited Sleepers Wake! (Jones, 1983). More recently an ABC "Background Briefing" programme on the Information Economy highlighted the significance of the value of logical structures, the expression of cognitive processes, within computer software. This was referred to as the "weightless economy".

Entrancing as it is to have numbers to quote in support of the importance of information in the economy, it is difficult to argue that the existence of lots of information activities in society actually impacts on social life, without moving to an analysis of the substance or quality of that information. In any event, what matters, surely, is not the amount but the meaning and value of information. Some econometric studies suggest that the early experimental exponential growth of information activities as a proportion of economic activities has actually slowed down with little change from 1958 to 1980. This hardly supports the idea that information is growing steadily in its dominance (Rubin and Huber, 1986). And there is the added difficulty of applying economic concepts to the creation, processing. flow and use of information. Sandra Braman's analysis shows the pitfalls of thinking of information as a commodity as this fails to accommodate the fact that many forms of activity around information are not driven by market forces, for example, culturally transmitted information. Nor does an economic approach acknowledge the inappropriateness of many basic economic assumptions given that form and substance of information are not the same thing. Finally, there is the difficulty that economic approaches require information to be measured in terms of discrete pieces for economic valuation. (Braman, 1996).

3. Occupational

This idea of the Information Society rests on the idea that in an Information Society the dominant category of worker is engaged as an "information worker". Many commentators have produced data to demonstrate growth patterns in the need for more workers who will use their brain rather than their brawn. Daniel Bell's influential 'Coming of the Post-Industrial Society' argued that the professional and technical classes would dominate in the new era with work organised around theoretically based knowledge for the purpose of social control and directing of innovation and change (Bell 1974: 15-20).

Analyses of census data support the view that there are vast armies working in information (Porat, 1977; Jones, 1983). Jonscher's analysis of the role of information resources in productivity increases in the US economy demonstrated the scale and categorised workers as belonging to either the 'Information Sector' where creating, processing and handling information dominates or a 'Production Sector' which is concerned with production and handling of physical goods (Jonscher, 1983).

As the former head of a school of Information Studies, I have real doubts about the usefulness of the figures in these analyses. Conscientious attempts by myself and colleagues to analyse market demand for graduates in Information Studies led to immense frustration as we grappled with the poor descriptive powers of job titles, and advertisements in general, in relation to the information activities in a given position. Some were fairly obvious - Data Base Designer, Librarian, Information Manager, Research Officer, but we quickly found that lurking beneath just about every position described in the Saturday advertisements was some component of information handling and processing. The challenge was to find a way of saying definitively whether a job was predominantly an information professional's job or not.

This difficulty may not be enough on its own to say that occupational trends cannot be reliably tapped and used as an indicator of broad developments over time but it suggests the basis of the Bell, Porat and Jones studies are probably more than a bit wobbly. A quick consideration of Jonscher's two categories of worker applied to publishers and booksellers points up the same difficulty at a more general level. If workers deal with tangible products such as books - are they production workers or are they information workers? The dilemma comes from the reality that just about everyone's job has some information activities embedded in it so that deciding when information handling dominates to the point where the worker is an "information worker" rather than a "production worker" is simply too hard. It has to be concluded then that attempts to define an Information Society according to the number of people in the business of information is problematic. Consequently, measurement of trends in employment in information work or comparison between societies to decide which, if any, is an Information Society seems destined to be highly unreliable.

Webster has identified two more concepts of the Information Society which I will mention only briefly here, namely, spatial and cultural. Firstly, there is the spatial idea of the Information Society as a networked society, a global village where people of like minds and purposes are linked together through electronic networks. This idea is now coming through in some EU Information Society policy documents in the idea of the Information Society as a mechanism for developing cultural cohesion, empowerment and integration of communities across the Union (European Union, 1996a). I think it would be fair to say also that Australian information policy documents also incorporate both cultural and spatial concepts of Information Society. The Broadband Services Expert Group final report dealt with the question of equity of access (regardless of geography) and called for communication and information infrastructure developments to build on community and individual user need rather than technological capacity. (Broadband Services Expert Group, 1994:5). The Jones report mentioned earlier while focusing on economic and occupational aspects, acknowledges the Information Society as a period in which use of time, and family life will be influenced by access to information technology.

Looking to the implications of these varied ideas of the Information Society for public policy making it is clear there was a time when policy was clearly the business of the public sector and was essentially about "what governments choose to do and what not to do" (Dye 1995). The trouble now is that the edges of the public and private spheres are becoming more difficult to distinguish as has been amply demonstrated by papers in this strand of the Conference. It is interesting that the field of information studies has in some ways anticipated this development as it has accepted the place of private sector organisational policy on information matters to be recognised as "information policy" even though, at least traditionally, these policies were turned inwards to the support of organisational roles.

With the general global drive to interweave public and private sector activities within market-led, neo-liberal frameworks the burgeoning information and IT infrastructure within governments cannot be considered adequately without looking the interaction of public and private sectors. The private sector can have monumental effects on what governments can do with information for their own use or in the context of making information available to the community at large. Take, for example, the decision to concentrate Microsoft and Apple interests. This cannot but impact on government through the extension of control of the IT and software industries. This effect is even more pointed when governments operate along strictly market philosophies and for-profit activities are incorporated in the government sector.

Some understanding of how the fusion of public and private impacts on information policy can be gained from Nick Moore's analysis of Western and East Asian information policy implementation strategies (Moore, 1997). Moore argues that there are two broad approaches to information policy formation. One, the neo-liberal, puts its trust in the market to move society along towards the Information Society. The European Union policies illustrate this particularly well as there the basic tenet of information policy is the belief that the achievement of the Information Society "is a task for the private sector" with the role of government confined to ensuring a supportive regulatory climate and a refocussing of current public expenditure patterns. Bangemann is adamant that additional public money, subsidies or protectionism will not be available and talks about the need to "strike down entrenched positions which put Europe at a competitive disadvantage". The role of government is strictly limited to providing a regulatory framework for a partnership of private and public sectors (European Commission, 1994:3).

It seems ironic in one sense, but also understandable, that a number of countries which might at first glance seem likely to adopt market-driven strategies actually drive their information policy with strong interventions of government, with Singapore being an obvious example. (Moore, 1997). Many Australian reports and information policy documents also fall into this more interventionist or dirigiste category, with the Goldsworthy report the most recent of a long line of reports calling for direct government assistance to the private sector (Department of Industry, Science and Tourism, 1997).

In conclusion, it can be said that there is a generally optimistic response to the idea of the Information Society and it is mostly enthusiastically endorsed as desirable. Many go further and say that it is absolutely essential for nations and regions to become an Information Society. There are, however, many conceptions of the Information Society which means that there is an ambiguous foundation for policy makers. Added to this is the complexity of different political philosophies which impact on implementation of information policy. This complexity is further compounded when we start to look a the informational component of the Information Society.

What is Information?

As I have discussed the nature of "policy" in the context of "Information Policy" in some depth elsewhere (Browne, 1997a; Browne, 1997b) I will confine myself here to looking at notions of "information" as they appear in information policy.

Information is one of those terms we use a dozen times a day with probably a dozen different meanings. This is not surprising as our language has not yet provided us with ways of distinguishing the variety of meanings we wish to impart when we use the word. We may not need the equivalent of the 45 Descriptions for snow which the Eskimos are said to have, but we certainly need more labels than we currently have at our disposal. Of course, many attempts have been made to distinguish the nuances. Leibenau and Backhouse are typical in the way they established a hierarchy which has "data" at the lower end and "wisdom" at the top. (Liebenau and Backhouse, 1990.) Others simply use "information", "data" and "knowledge" as synonyms while others follow fashions in their usages. For example, at the moment there is a movement driven from the corporate sector which talks of what used to be called "Information Management" as 'Knowledge Management' as if to invest some mystique in the processes of incorporating information into the intellectual capital of an organisation. (A conference scheduled for Sydney next January will give you the opportunity to learn, for $2,500, how to gain competitive advantage though Knowledge Management strategies).

The confusion which abounds in everyday and practice-based usage of the term 'information' mirrors the immense conceptual confusion in academic literatures. Machlup identified some 40 disciplines purporting to study information in one form or another, thus highlighting enormous cultural diversity in approaches to information as a phenomenon (Machlup and Mansfield, 1983). Not surprisingly a central pre-occupation in the field of Information Science in which I operate, is the question of the nature of information. Although Goffman and others have argued that the definition of information is a fruitless task (Goffman, 1970) the quest for understanding continues. In broad terms the debates about the nature of information focus on two broad ideas. Firstly there are those who see information as a tangible entity which can be processed, moved, changed and so on (Otten, 1974, Buckland, 1991). Others, generally speaking, see information as existing only in the human brain, the result of absorption of symbols and signs. In this approach information is seen as subjective and ambiguous with no "reality" so that it can be understood only in terms of process and how it changes people, or through its use or impact on individual action. (Browne, 1993). It is interesting that recently the discussion of information as a tangible is making something of a comeback, taking the debate away from what has been the dominant theoretical view for about 10 years. The current issue of the Journal of the American Society for Information Science , for example, includes an article which argues that we need to move away from current subjective and relativistic ideas of information and from the idea that information is the manifestation in the real world of human cognitive processes, to considering information as being specifically about our world or what our world is like. Frické cites examples of a Tide Chart or Table of Times of Sunset and Sunrise and argues that this information has nothing to do with human cognitive processes. His goal seems to be to infuse the theorising of information with some everyday ideas of information and to explain how information helps action through use of verisimilitude measures from philosophy ( Frické, 1997)

Apart from the countless efforts in the discipline of Information Science to define information it is possible to derive some definitions also from writings about the Information Society. In the context of occupational and economic ideas of the Information Society as epitomised by Bell, Porat, Jones and others the general pattern is to regard information as facts, or data, or at least something tangible. The focus is on the gross amounts of information that exist and can be processed or moved at speed from one location to another through the use of information technology. The question of the meaning of information or the use of information and its impact is not relevant - the sheer volume of information is what is of interest here although it is by no means clear that the existence and movement of large amounts of information in and of itself makes any difference (Roszak, 1986 ). Technological notions of the Information Society also have limitations in the way they deal conceptually with information. Like the occupational and economic models they consider information as facts and data but have the added problem of often conflating "information" with the related concept of "information technology". In this case information and information technology are taken to be the same thing so that the goal of the Information Society is to make IT available across communities and business. The Singapore information technology policy is a good example of how the installation of information technology infrastructure can be taken to be synonymous with increasing the intelligence of the island state. (National Computer Board, 1996)

How then, might policy makers find their way through this maze? If academics and commentators are unclear on what information is, what hope for the policy makers charged with responsibilities for moving a community towards the anticipated nirvana of the Information Society?. One might argue that policy makers should leave it alone in fact, and let nature - or the private sector - take its course. But even if the private sector is to take a lead with governments providing only the regulatory environment, an understanding of the scope and substance of information in a policy context is essential if information policy is to be effective. Fortunately, there has been some useful work which has linked some of the many conceptions of information in a framework which can guide the policy maker. Sandra Braman has outlined four main categories of information to be considered in policy making (Braman, 1989).

  1. Information as a resource: This is the idea which historically has dominated thinking about the Information Society. Information consists of "pieces of information" unrelated to bodies of knowledge. Information and its creators, processors and users are regarded as discrete and isolated entities.
  2. Information as a commodity: Neo-liberal approaches to establishing an Information Society build strongly on the idea that information gains value as it passes through various information production processes such as indexing and abstracting. Notwithstanding the considerable difficulties of applying economic concepts generally to information it is accepted that information can be bought and sold for profit.
  3. Information as Perception: In moving up the hierarchy of definitions established by Braman, context is added when information is treated as perception of pattern. At this level the effects of information (such as its capacity to reduce uncertainty) are treated. This idea of information sits comfortably with the idea of information as an intangible and subjective phenomenon. It acknowledges that patterns and context differ between individuals and that information is relativistic.
  4. Information as a constitutive force in society: In this framework information is seen as having power in its own right and a capacity to shape context. Its capacity to change individuals and societies comes into play with the idea that "information is power" falling squarely into this set of beliefs.

Essentially, Braman argues that effective information policy must consider information at all level of her hierarchy. Few information policies do this although the European drive to underpin its Information Society policy with a philosophy of "putting people in charge of information" and viewing the "Information Society as a "Learning Society" based on know-how and wisdom of people, not on information in machines" suggests a broader perspective than many information policy initiatives including our own (European Commission, 1996b)

In conclusion, let me summarise my main points. These are: (1) there is immense confusion in the myriad ways in which the Information Society is characterised and (2) we have not yet come to grips with the conceptual complexities of what information is, despite valiant efforts. This confusion inevitably impacts on what policy makers attend to in the development of policy and, in turn, explains many of the shortcomings of information policy and its vulnerability to dominance by private sector interests in a time when there are aggressive political and ideological drives to turn the responsibility for information provision out of the arena of government activities.


Australia as an Information Society: Grasping New Paradigms (1991). (Jones Report). Canberra, AGPS.

Belkin, N.J. ( 1978). Information concepts for information science. Journal of Documentation, 34, 55-58.

Bell, D. (1974). The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society. London, Heinemann.

Braman, S. (1989). Defining information: an approach for policymakers. Telecommunications Policy, 13,233-242.

Braman, S. (1996). Alternative conceptualisations of the information economy. Advances in Librarianship, 19, 99-116

Broadband Services Expert Group. (1994). Networking Australia's Future: The Final Report of the Broadband Services Expert Group. Canberra, AGPS.

Browne, M. (1993) Organizational Decision Making and Information. Norwood, NJ, Ablex.

Browne, M. (1997a). The field of information policy: 1. fundamental concepts. Journal of Information Science, 23, 261-275.

Browne, M. (1997b). The field of information policy: 2. redefining the boundaries and methodologies. Journal of Information Science, 23, 339-351.

Buckland, M.J. Information as thing (1991). Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42, 351-360.

Department of Industry, Science and Tourism (1997). The Global Information Economy: The Way Ahead. (Goldsworthy Report) Canberra, DIST.

Dye, T. R. (1995). Understanding Public Policy. 8th ed. Englewood Cliffs. NJ

European Commission (1994) Europe and the Global Information Society: Recommendations to the European Council (Bangemann Report). Brussels: European Commission.

European Commission (1996a). Building the European Society for All of Us. Brussels, European Commission.

European Commission (1996b). Living and Working in the Information Society: People First (Green Paper). Brussels, European Commission.

Frické, M. (1997). Information using likeness measures. Journal of the American Society for Information Society, 48, 882-892.

Goffman, W. (1970). Information science: discipline or disappearance ? Aslib Proceedings, 22, 589-595.

Jones, B. (1983) Sleepers Wake! : Technology and the Future of Work. Melbourne, OUP

Jonscher, C (1983). Information resources and economic productivity. Information Economics and Policy, 1, 13-35.

Liebenau, J. and Backhouse, J (1990). Understanding Information: an Introduction. London, Macmillan.

Machlup, F. (1962). The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.

Machlup, F. and U. Mansfield eds. (1983). The Study of Information: Interdisciplinary Messages New York: Wiley

Moore, N. (1997). Neo-liberal or dirigiste?: policies for an the information society. IN Rowlands, I. (ed.) Understanding Information Policy. London, Bowker-Saur.

National Computer Board (1996). IT 2000- A Vision Of An Intelligent Island. Singapore, National Computer Board.

Otten, K.W. (1974). Basis for a science of information. IN Debons, A. Information Science: Search for Identity. New York, Dekker.

Porat, M. (1977). The Information Economy: Definition and Measurement. Washington, DC. US Department of Commerce.

Roszak, T. (1986). The Cult of Information. Cambridge, Lutterworth Press.

Rubin, M.R. and Huber, M.T. (1986). The Knowledge Industry in the United States, 1960-1980. New Haven, Yale University Press.

Webster, F. (1995). Theories of the Information Society. London, Routledge.

Go to the Conference papers

Go to Cultural Crossroads Conference Home Page

Go to the Key Centre Home Page

First placed here December 1997; revised version placed here November 1998.