In the 1960s and 70s it was a commonplace notion that society was moving into a phase defined by the new information technology. This new “information society” would be one in which information flows enabled a more cohesive and fairer world, where problems were identified and solved rationally. As the new millennium begins, however, we find a world as fragmented as ever, with the most important problems ignored and a new spirit of irrationalism abroad. What has gone wrong to wreck the promise so clear only a few decades ago?
The most important issues facing humankind are: the continuing disparity in wealth; environmental change; health; and ongoing international tensions, potentially involving devastating weapons of mass destruction. Currently, none of these problems are being dealt with in any substantive way.
In regard to wealth distribution we have seen a decline in efforts to even up living standards around the world, assuming they will somehow disappear one day thanks to unfettered market forces. As for the environment, we have seen even the weak Kyoto agreement - designed to begin working on just one of the emergent environmental issues: global warming - able to make little headway, thanks in great part to the reluctance of the current American leadership to even recognise the problem.
In terms of health, AIDS and other diseases old and new continue to rage, due largely to gross poverty and rapidly growing populations. International tensions remain. After the false dawn as the Cold War ended, we have seen the accelerating spread of highly destructive chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in the context of an open-ended “global war on terror” and an increasingly interventionist US military posture. In many ways, things seem to be going backwards.
The growing integration of the post-war world into a global village, thanks to new information and communications technologies like television, computers and satellites, was only part of a fundamental transformation of society that centred on the explosion of information. This information was supposed to allow greater control over just about everything, from how we lived and worked to international relations. The ready availability of information would at last banish ignorance - humankind’s great enemy - and allow open debate and rational decision making. All peoples would see their common interests and a new egalitarian and democratic global order would arise.
But this was not how things turned out. First, the flood of information now available was only useful if it could be understood in a meaningful way. In reality, this further entrenched the role of information specialists and the ultimate meaning of all this information remained opaque to the average person.
Furthermore, only the organisations with the relevant resources could exploit the new information flows effectively, in effect increasing their advantage. Of course these organisations were mostly the big ones with resources available to expend on managing the information flows. They were organisations such as the governments of the developed nations, large corporations and the increasingly global finance markets. After all, generating, processing and communicating information is increasingly what large organisations like governments and corporations do, and finance markets are essentially information processing systems, dealing mostly with that particular kind of information: money.
And so democracy became increasingly circumscribed, not the opposite, as information became more central to life. It also became more concentrated. The average person and alternative organisations were increasingly excluded from power. As a result, people stopped trying to keep up with things. Instead they concentrated on their own home life and job and otherwise became politically apathetic. In response, political managers focused more and more on the mechanics of politics, such as polling and elections, their rank opportunism reinforcing the defensive apathy of voters.
An even more pernicious trend resulted from the tidal wave of information. Losing faith in the idea that they could be well informed and act rationally in their lives, people began to turn to simplistic ideologies to give them direction. One aspect of this was the rise of the racist far right and religious fundamentalist movements around the world. These movements exacerbated socioeconomic tensions in both the less developed and developed world, at times reaching into the highest levels of government. Such interests do not generally value the tedious but necessary processes of negotiating fair and effective global solutions to complex problems.
The tragic war in Iraq is symptomatic of what can go wrong when leaders are not accountable to informed electorates. Despite conducting this illegal war on the basis of a falsehood, the leaders of the main belligerents, Bush and Blair, have not faced the ultimate censure from their electorates because these electorates are either too apathetic or misinformed. This sort of thing was not supposed to happen anymore in the global information society.
In the 1990s a new technology arose that promised to rectify some of the unequal flows of information: the Internet. Relatively cheap and widely distributed, it seemed to be inherently democratic and promised a rebirth of informed debate on a global scale. Of course some countries still do not even have functional telephone systems, but the growth of the Internet has been phenomenal. Unfortunately, the potential of the Internet for reconstructing global debate to include the excluded and focus on global solutions has not been realised. The big hierarchies, public and private, are apparently not ready to share power just yet.
It is a huge irony that the flood of information has led to an even greater divide within and between nations, which has enabled some of the most reactionary forces to regroup. Their broad intent is to push back the beneficial changes that occurred after World War II, which were designed to build a more inclusive, democratic and ultimately rational world order.
Perhaps the resurgence of irrationalism and narrow interests is just a prelude to a new phase of open debate and negotiation on a global level, with the democratic potential of the new information technologies at last realised. Given the problems facing humankind, it is to be fervently hoped that such changes happen soon.