Book Review: Joining Up the Dots
Challenge and Change in the Information Society edited by Susan Hornby and Zoë Clarke. Facet Publishing, London, 2003, xvi + 239 pages, hardback ISBN 1 85604 453 X, £ 39.95.
Any work on the information society attracts that ambivalent reaction that it might be trite and it could be seminal. But, with the logic that nothing that becomes cliché can be other than centrally relevant, above all when published by a professional body, (which should know these things), Challenge and change promises well. It aims for professional practice and academic study and will stand side-by-side with works like Feather's Information society (2000) and Dearnley and Feather's The wired world (2001) as particularly relevant to students on information/library courses, and new and prospective trainees and practitioners. Beyond them are more theoretical works such as Lyons and Webster. So how does it stack up in its own terms?
I think we can all go along with Peter Brophy's remark (last chapter, on the information society and the information professional) that 'information professionals need to engage in a much higher level of debate about these issues [of the information society and their role in it] than has been apparent to date .. The dilemma over value neutrality and societal engagement can only become more marked as our society becomes more dominated by ICTs.' It is reasonable, by this token, to expect a coherent and hard-hitting dialogue about the information society making it clear that, whether it is information or knowledge or social capital, information folk are there in the middle, thinking and acting it through. After all, with all this talk of the information society, is it really there?
It is certainly there theoretically. Economists like Machlup and Porat and sociologists like Castells and Bell remind us that there are now off-the-peg approaches to the information society, (John Feather in the first of three essays on the fact-or-fiction of the information society). Alistair Black argues that it is merely another phase of industrial capitalism, while Dave Muddiman that it simply restructures society in postmodern terms, with a facile welfarism leaving many excluded from it, and the rest of us objects of social surveillance and useful workplace knowledge. Plenty of stuff here (plus bibliographies) for the seminar group. But how does it feed through to later arguments in the book?
Putting your money where your mouth is a challenge for professionals and for policy-makers. There are numerous voices. Chris Batt offers an optimistic view of information and library services as being key drivers for social transformation - standard fare and rather chatty. J Stephen Town applies his know-how from the SCONUL Information Skills Task Force to argue for more clearly defined measures of information literacy - the 'Seven Pillars' approach to good practice - and to critique documents like LIC's Keystones for being vague. Ian Rowlands explores a normative process model of policy-making, hinting (tantalisingly) at elements (like information infrastructure and markets and protectionism) which could and should form a central part of information policy in the information society. Ian Beeson provides a case study of an online community where, following Certeau and Lash, participants used narrative to affirm identity and 'strategically engaged' with the hypertext technology.
Perhaps part of the problem is that the term 'information society' has so many meanings - Derrida would approve ('There is nothing outside the text'). In consequence, these essays provide fragments of an ongoing commentary on something that resists definition. Stakeholders move in and out of view - Batt is a library manager looking at the community, Town seeking to persuade bureaucrats, Rowlands meditating on Platonically ideal policy, and Beeson providing a gloss on cyberspace communities where, arguably, formal information policy does not apply or has broken down. If, then, we are looking for the information society, it has to be inferred from these accounts, oscillating between abstract theory and practical casework, with policy-making (presumably, and hopefully, including decision-making by information and library managers) in between.
The information society is also the knowledge society. As Abell and Oxbrow say in their Competing with Knowledge (2001), the information professional operates in the knowledge management age. The editors are right to try to build KM into the picture, although it would be asking a lot for a study of the public sector to account for KM which is at least, and probably far more, evident in the private sector. Now how is that part of the information society paradigm predicated by the book? As I said, whether a case study of KM in the UK National Health Service is the best way to do it is another story. As such it opens up KM strategy (for practitioners and consumers) quite well, and anyone wanting a quick update will find it useful. Yet it is asked to do a large job and worries about e-government and e-democracy, hoping that, part for whole, the case for the wider theme of the information society can be made. All of which leads me to wonder about joining up the dots.
This goes beyond the thought that the information society is a pluralistic concept, and takes us into the more delicate territory of how coherent this actual collection of essays is. Rounding up the strays, Graham Cornish provides (as always) a clear résumé of copyright (caught between protection and freedom), J Eric Davies a very law-centred summary of data protection, and Claire Warwick updates us on electronic publishing (not as successful as some people say). At this stage, if not before, the reader is asking where and how it all holds together, where the links are - between the privacy discussed by Davies and the surveillance covered by Muddiman, between the technological determinism examined by Black and the KM in the NHS and in Beeson's cyber-community, and between Batt's optimism and Warwick's scepticism.
And between the library, information, and knowledge strands of the information society, and between the academic's, the manager's, and the politician's perspective on information policy. This is, I suppose, where the reader looks to the editors, Susan Hornby (of Manchester Metropolitan University) and Zoë Clarke (of CERLIM at the same place). Informed readers can construct a picture for themselves, but, given the intended readership, of readers who will probably need much more help, the lack of a editorial overview is a lost opportunity. Turning back to Peter Brophy, that 'higher level of debate' is still needed : the present collection reveals that the whole is not necessarily greater than the sum of the parts. That said, it reveals where such debate can and should go - towards a fuller integration of theory and practice, management and policy : the ingredients are there. Very much a signpost of a book.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss
Aberdeen Business School
Article Title: "Book Review: Joining Up the Dots"
Author: Dr Stuart Hannabuss
Publication Date: 30-October-2003
Publication: Ariadne Issue 37
Originating URL: http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue37/hannabuss-rvw/