The 1997 edition of The Information Age: An Anthology on Its Impact and Consequences, edited by David S. Alberts and Daniel S. Papp, was made available in pdf format and downloadable for free online. Click here to attain a copy. Updated editions (for 2004 and 2012) are available, however I wanted to check this copy out first and compare it to more recent editions later. As it turns out, I think that the information and predictions in the 1997 edition are still relevant and do a great job of explaining the Information Age’s impact on the way we work and live, job market trends, and how societal institutions will be shaped. This anthology is jam-packed full of interesting information, but I’ve elected to focus on the interesting forecasts made in the first part of this book.
The Information and Communication Revolution
In Chapter 1, Thomas A. Stewart provides an overview of the Information Age and describes the challenges it poses to individuals’ and organizations’ ability to learn and adapt. Essentially, the Information Age is characterized by an economy in which knowledge and communication are emphasized over natural resources and physical labor as the predominant sources of wealth. Note some of the advantages of trading in knowledge compared to trading in traditional goods and services: low entry barriers in terms of start-up capital as well as the ability to distribute products and services electronically. Stewart also addresses the possible magnitude of impact this latest period of technological advancement will have on our way of life. George Bennett, chairman of the Symmetrix consulting firm poses a what-if scenario, “If two percent of the population can grow all the food we eat, what if another two percent can manufacture all the refrigerators and other things we need?” (p. 5). Although a more definitive estimate of impact is not available, analysts agree that this most recent technological revolution is set to “dwarf” preceding revolutions in information and communication technology (e.g., telegraph, telephone, radio, television, etc.).
For those who are interested in how an information age is defined, Frank Webster poses interesting questions in Chapter 4. He covers technological, economic, occupational, spatial, and cultural definitions, and it is the last one that interests me the most. Indeed the cultural marker for an information age seems predicated on quantitative rather than qualitative measures of the supply of information in society. Those interested in a further discussion about the implications of the rise in bad information can turn to Chapter 6 where Joel Achenbach covers the possible how’s and why’s of its increasing prevalence with consideration of its sources.
It is important to keep in mind that this information technology comes with pluses and minuses that come to bear on our work-lives. In Chapter 5, Andrew Kupfer provides a thorough analysis of what this means for the future of work. The magnitude of the impact is expressed in the passage on pages 72-73:
Now information technology is poised to alter the scope of human intercourse, and the familiar combination of promise and dread makes itself felt once again — with an urgency seldom seen in the two centuries since the Industrial Revolution. The new technology holds the potential to change human settlement patterns, change the way people interact with each other, change our ideas of what it means to be human.
Information technology will have the power to reverse what may have been an aberration in human history: the industrial model of society.
… wired technology will obliterate the significance of two of the great symbols of the Industrial Revolution, the train and the clock, and along with them the idea that society can organize everything to run on set schedules. The temporal shift this technology permits — even demands — is likely to be its most profound and enduring effect.
Essentially, information technology, through its facilitation of 24-hour business spanning multiple time zones, has set the stage for the decoupling of work from a singular location (the office) and time-shift for a substantial contingent of white-collar workers. Many of us occasionally engage in this practice or know someone who does: travel to work and back home again for the regular 8-to-5 or 9-to-5 shift, then staying up to some ungodly hour in order to collaborate with colleagues via Skype on the other side of the world. It was when I first heard of someone having to stretch her work schedule this way that I realized that the one-size-fits-all method of setting work schedules does not make sense anymore. As described by Kupfer, the rise of a just-in-time workforce that comes together virtually and collaborates on projects of varying lengths is also likely. Finally, a great proportion of knowledge workers will be able to live wherever their tastes and preferences dictate. However, Kupfer states that it is difficult at this point to speculate on the nature of future settlement trends.