Fri, 26 Sep 1997 16:15:53 +1000
As my last post on the information economy seemed to strike a chord with
Linkers I thought I would seize the opportunity to expand a little.
The proposition that "information is power" is familiar to us all. It
comes directly from the literature of the information economy. The problem
with this proposition is that it is pretty meaningless in a public policy
context. Like knowledge, power is multifaceted. It's slippery to grasp,
and even harder to regulate. Economic wealth is an important indicator of
social power, but it is not necessarily an indicator of informational
wealth or poverty. In order to deliver on a social goal of information
equity we need empirical indicators of informational wealth. Unfortunately
the idea of the information economy has so far not improved on the dollar
as a measure of this. This is probably one reason why there has been so
little action on information policy.
The fact that the information economy thesis has not been as helpful as a
guide to public policy making as many had hoped, is one of many criticisms
which can be levelled against it. This and other weakness has led critics
to an alternative and hopefully more productive proposition (at least in
terms of public policy), which is probably also familiar to you: the idea
that communication is control.
The most recent significant work that I am aware of here has been
undertaken by Geoff Mulgan, who I also understand is now advising the Blair
Government in the UK on information and communications policy. He also
heads up Demos, a London-based think tank. (I tried, unsuccessfully, to
find the URL for Demos. If anyone comes across it I would appreciate
hearing from you. I know it exists because I have visited the site but it
seems I forgot to bookmark it.)
Mulgan's book "Communication and Control. Networks and the New Economies
of Communication" (Polity Press, UK 1991) is excellent, but very dense.
However many of his key ideas are drawn from an earlier work by James
Beniger, "The Control Revolution. Technological and Economic Origins of
the Information Society" (Harvard University Press 1986). There are many
problems with Beniger's approach, but the main thing it has going in its
favour is that it is extremely readable. I commend both books to Linkers.
Like social power, control is also a slippery concept. But like power
there are dimmensions to it that can be made meaningful in bureaucratic
systems. Patterns of cybernetic control of our communications systems
for example (analogue and digital) can be mapped. (Not only are aspects
of Marshall McLuhan being rehabilitated in critical work in this field, but
to a lesser extent so is Norbert Weiner.) These have the potential to be
made meaningful in a public policy context. In some respects this is what
the Networking the Nation initiative seems to be on about.
I guess this leads me to my major concern about the creation of an
Information Economy portfolio. The main object of this initiative is the
national economy. We have indicators which tell us whether the economy is
going or stalling. But do we have any registers of the distribution of
informational wealth in Australia which are meaningful in public policy
terms? The idea that communication is control could be really helpful
here. I certainly hope that some of our economists in the mega
department of Communications, Information Economy and the Arts, get to have
a real go at this one.
School of Humanities Media and Asian Studies
Southern Cross University
phone 02 6620 3608