The Information Society Is in Crisis and What To Do About It

Posted on July 17, 2014


(These are notes for an address to be given as part of a Plenary Panel on Governing Digital Spaces: Issues of Access, Privacy and Freedom–International Association of Mass Communications Research (IAMCR)–Hyderabad, India, July 18, 2014)

Many of us started out on this particular journey at the World Summit on the Information Society… those were days of hope and splendour but now…

The Information Society is in Crisis–not the Internet Society, nor the Networked Society, nor the Digital Society but quite specifically the Information Society.

And why the Information Society and not the others… because the Information Society is the terminology that focuses on the Information, the flow through, the digitized, the content and it is here in the place where the technology, the information and its uses/users come together that we find that the crisis is occurring.

This crisis to some extent was long foretold and yet came up so suddenly that we are still in the midst of the aftershocks (or perhaps the precursor shocks for earthquakes yet to come… This crisis of the Information Society can be understood best by drawing pathways between the various and recent local eruptions.

First there was uneasiness from some quarters concerning the directions of Internet Governance–controversies (and name calling) at the ITU/WCIT and the subsequent campaigns and reactions and critiques concerning “Internet Freedom” and whether that extended to “freedom from having to pay taxes”, “freedom to manipulate the world’s knowledge to support various of Google’s commercial interests” and even including their allies in the US State Department’s “freedom to enshrine and ennoble a unipolar global Internet Governance sphere which privileges some structures of control and influence and renders impossible the development of alternatives that might support alternative interests”.

Then it was Mr. Snowden telling us how the NSA and its co-conspirators in various other parts of the world were tapping into, collecting and ultimately intervening and massaging the data flows and communications activities for all the world.

Then it was Amazon, attempting to use its market domination to control what books we read so that they can capture a few more percentage points of profit from our acts of information seeking.

Most recently it has been Facebook, revealing, if inadvertently how it is ready, willing and able to undertake mood control and who knows what else as some merge their personal information flows with Facebook’s information stream and thus allow their very individual consciousness to become a bauble to be manipulated by who knows who for who knows what end.

And so the Information Society is in crisis… The Information Society which was to ensure that all of human knowledge would be available to everyone at all times and in and from all places has to a considerable degree come to pass. But what has also come to pass and which wasn’t expected in those early euphoric days was that the foundation elements, the platforms, the frameworks, the integral algorithms that would provide such a cornucopia and an informational utopia would not be operated in a beneficent way in support of the broad public interest but would in fact be ultimately controlled by machines and hidden forces of commerce and surveillance–forces well beyond the capacity of individuals or groups, of civil society or even the ordinary political forces of nation states to control.

What we have built (or have allowed to be built in our name and with our information — with the very essence of who we are as sentient knowledgeable human beings) are vast, uncontrolled and very likely uncontrollable mechanisms which not only undermine and subvert human freedom and civil liberties but are even in a position to frame and structure the basis of the discussion concerning these and if or how we might be able to respond.

We become dependent on email to inform us and keep in touch with our colleagues, our friends, our comrades and yet we know that the NSA is capable and most likely reading all of those mails and equally having the capacity to redirect, or delete or even false flag e-mails as and when they choose.

We turn to Google to give us the knowledge base for acting in the world–for helping us to reduce the complexity of choice in a world over overwhelming with options and choices and too too much information. And yet we know that how Google presents that information to us, how it supports those choices–what it provides and perhaps most important what it doesn’t provide — what it allows to disappear is unknown to us and as unapproachable as the deepest of deep secrets hidden both by the choices of the corporation and by the intricacies of the technology which it chooses to use as its filter and framework.

We cozy up to Facebook to provide us with our human contacts and the semi-intimate knowledge of the to-ing and fro-ing of our distant friends and relatives. Even on occasion we rely on FB to inform us of those closest to us even though we suspected and now know that this device is not a neutral platform but equally an algorithm choosing and selecting what to present and what to hide and again for reasons and with patterns to which we have no access. And of course, where FB’s ultimate concern is clearly to maximize ourselves and our information as products being delivered and sold to advertisers.

The crisis of course, is that we now know all of this.. It is writ large and public and it is inescapable. And most importantly the making of the links between each of these eruptions, the beginning to see a discernible pattern underneath all of these is equally inescapable if only by recognizing the connections at the individual, corporate, financial, political and governmental levels. A corporate executive here becomes a government advisor there and a senior government official leaves to take up a senior corporate policy post with responsibility for funding sympathetic academic researchers and civil society organizations and of course there is the to-ing and fro-ing at conferences and workshops and various special events which regularly mark the progress towards the fully integrated Networked Surveillance and Digital Control Society.

And since all of this streams forward on a torrent, even a tsunami of wealth as labour value becomes translated into and incorporated and displaced by digital value–as repetitive tasks become software and an economy of goods becomes translated into an economy of the virtual, the digital, the informational–the capacity and temptation to use this wealth to smooth the pathway forward towards the corporate and Surveillance State goals is overwhelming.

It absorbs the media almost fully, both by first undermining its revenues, making obsolete its delivery systems and its conceptual frameworks and then by replacing it with — well almost nothing, really.

Then it enraptures and ultimately captures most of academe through its glitter, the promise of its largesse as an alternative to those less captured sources of research funding which are slipping away along with the collapse of other state institutions as a result of the neo-liberal subversion and the Reaganesque erosion of the tax bases on which this support for independent intellectual production has rested.

And finally, it buys or otherwise captures huge swathes of civil society which in the great scheme of things comes cheap and is only too happy to find a friendly shelter under the seemingly benign funding umbrellas with corporate and governmental co-religionists in the great temple of belief supporting “Internet Freedom” on the Internet.

Rather than one crisis, in fact there are multiple interconnecting crises with the Information Society. First there is the crisis of expectations… The Information Society was not supposed to be this way….rather it was to have been a place of free wheeling anarchism and free expression, of openness and creativity. The requirement, nay the absolute necessity to adjust those expectations to the new reality of total surveillance and sub-structural control are just now beginning to be felt among those for whom these things matter the most and the first–the artists, the intellectuals, the critics, the dissidents. But these are simply the canaries in the mines and this crisis in expectations/anticipations of what a “Total” Information (errr Surveillance) Society might look like is coming into more general consciousness at Internet speed.

There is also the crisis of trust. One of the founding and necessary elements of a world and set of activities built on the virtual and the ephemeral is “trust”–that is that one is what one says one is, that what we see as a representation is in fact a representation and not a distortion, that even if we can’t otherwise verify it what our limited capacity to sense via the digital is in fact accurate in what is being provided. That trust of course, is now gone, perhaps forever.

An element of this crisis of course, is the breakdown of trust as between countries who increasingly see the Internet not as a means of interconnection and communication but of interpenetration and potential subversion by state actors and non-state actors.  The very real threat to the end to end capabilities of the Internet from fracturing along national lines is a further consequence and the overall failure to find ways of integrating China into the global communications space represents a significant gap and loss to the possibilities that the Information Society presents.

We can no longer trust those who supply us with the infrastructure for the digital world as they willingly or no have been turned into conduits for the illicit gathering of information. We can no longer trust our service providers as they too have become sources of information to the authorized and the unauthorized–for purposes of commercial gain equally to purposes of political control. And finally we cannot trust the flow of information through these digital streams whether manipulated to deliver a more passive and willing product to advertisers or even more insidiously to provide a passive and manipulable public to politicians and those shadowy figures in the background whose pulling of strings for their murky purposes are only slowly being brought to some sort of visibility.

There are the multiple financial crises which information as other areas are subject to… the stemming and direct reduction of funding for research and other forms of information creation again for purposes of manipulation and control, the overall reduction in financial support for disinterested information with the fiscal crises of states in part resulting from the unwillingness of the Internet giants to pay their fair share of taxes and the willing compliance of suborned politicians in enabling this theft from the public good.

And of course, there is the crisis of the increasing economic inequality within developed countries accompanied by the increasing precariatization of work particularly for the young, all associated with the uncontrolled unregulated rise of the digital economy and its impacts on the entire range of productive activities and particularly and increasingly on knowledge intensive goods and services.

There is the crisis of control. The Information Society was to have been one which ceded control to the edges, to the users, to the people. Rather of course, now the control is so visibly with those at the centre, those with capital, those with influence, those who can buy their ways into the levers and pushbuttons that direct the mechanisms and algorithms of the Information Society either through their wealth, their political power or their technical expertise.

And finally there is the crisis of governance. The Information Society was to have been a place with no governance or at least a place where no governance was manifestly required. And so the memes and motivations of the most fervent exponents of the Information Society have all been anti-governance, Internet Freedom, the California Ideology. Thus there are no mechanisms or instrumentalities in place to rebuild, to retake the Information Society from those who have so unexpectedly and precipitately conquered it.

And even more troubling the very concepts of governance and democratic control have been polluted by the meme masters in Silicon Valley and K Street in Washington DC so we have the 1984ish scenario where Freedom is Control and Free Speech is another name for Facebook Group Think on one side; or finding a place on one or another NSA or corporate “watch list” on the other side.

I should also add in the context of the IAMCR that these crises are playing out most strongly in the Developed World but have great significance for the Developing World and for Communications and ICT for Development as well. Issues of surveillance, of trust, of control are all issues which ultimately impact on Developing Countries equally with Developed Countries if only after an ever-shortening time lag. The drives towards “Internet Freedom”, which on the one hand restricts governments in theory from controlling and censoring what is communicated on the Internet; on the other hand means that no global authorities are available to sanction companies which use their transfer pricing capacity to ensure that little or no Internet generated wealth finds its way much beyond the corporate corridors of the globalized Internet elite and that ever more wealth cascades upwards from the poor in the poor countries to the rich in the rich countries.

Equally a Facebook (or a GCHQ) which is massaging our information flows for advertising purposes may without our and including those in LDC’s, knowing or having any means of intervention, acting to control the flow and framing of information and communications to achieve the political objectives of one or another superpower or even local political forces.

So what to do?

Underlying our understanding and response to these multiple crises in the Information Society is the profound recognition that we cannot go back. Something has irrevocably changed in the way in which we manage, create, integrate, use information and that cannot be changed unless we suffer, as unfortunately is increasingly possible, a total and catastrophic breakdown in the infrastructure of developed societies. But barring that we are condemned to the Information Society and even as we once celebrated it unreservedly, so we must still recognize what profound and remarkable and even magical if two-sided gifts which it has accorded to us.

In previous eras and sadly only in highly selected jurisdictions one might have turned to democratic processes and the power of representative democratic institutions to respond and put order into the chaotic environment which is emerging. But now no single jurisdiction is capable even if willing to attempt to manage (regulate) the Internet even while individual countries such as Brazil, India, France, Germany are coming forward with their individual if deeply felt and diplomatic level grievances.

What is needed is a global agreement, a global compact which sets out the broad framework for an Internet in the public interest, an Internet evolving and operating in support of the public good understood in the broadest possible way. One which doesn’t restrict but rather enables the many but not allowing the continued dominance of the few; one which is based on true Internet Freedom that is the Freedom from Internet surveillance, from the domination of a single language or a single culture, Freedom for a balanced and widely distributed set of benefits from the outputs of the Information Society.

Such a global compact can in fact be a true democratically anchored multi-stakeholder initiative where national governments recognizing their needs for sovereignty and support of national interests, corporations looking for global level playing fields and stable environments for trade and markets and civil society concerned with human rights and economic and social justice can find common cause in building a new and global Information Society for the common good.

Of course, such a development is completely idealistic and yet the Internet is so important to all of us, to nation states, to the private sector in all of its various components and of course to civil society–and even to those who currently might resist such a development as undermining their current benefits and advantages–for surveillance, for control, for “excessive” profits.  If the alternative is a fragmented Internet, one which has no basis of trust, where this fundamental infrastructure develops with huge gaps and significantly weakened connections then, even those currently most opposed might recognize that an Internet that functions is better than one that doesn’t and if the price of this continued successful functioning is to have some taming of the wild west of digital space then better a solution of compromise and finding mutual interest and benefit rather than one of winner takes.