Book Review: The Information Society - A Study of Continuity and Change
The Information Society: A Study of Continuity and Change. By John P. Feather, London: Facet Publishing, 2013, 218 pages, paperback, ISBN 978-1-85604-818-7, 6th edition.
The Information Society offers a detailed discussion on the concept and dynamics of the information society from a historical perspective to the present era of information societies. The book offers in-depth discussion and analysis of how information has been accumulated, analysed and disseminated in the past, and focuses on great shifts in the paradigm of human communications that have taken place in the history of mankind. It offers a detailed account of the development of human communication, mass media, Internet, Web 2.0 as well as the economic and political dimensions of information, and the role of the information profession in the context of the information society. The author considers that human society has been witnessing a technological and information revolution especially over the last two decades. The computer is the symbol and leader of this revolution that has affected every domain of human society. The book is divided in to 4 main sections:
- The historical dimension
- The economic dimension
- The political dimension
- The information profession
The Historical Dimension
This section contains two chapters namely: From script to print and Mass media and technology. Prof. J. Feather narrates the origins of writing and alphabets, use of images, sounds and numbers in the early communication of human beings. Natural substances, such as rocks, bone or wood were the earliest media to communicate information that was greatly revolutionised with the development of the book as a physical entity. The development of the book grew from the development of paper. The author considers the development of paper as the first revolution and discusses the influence of the book as a medium of information communication and as well as the emerging trade in books in the first chapter. The second chapter Mass media and technology gives a detailed account of the popularity of the pictorial image in the 19th century followed by the recording and transmission of sound in societies. Furthermore, this chapter focuses on mass media, ie radio, cinema and television along with computer and mobile phone which have transformed everything in the context of information communication. Nevertheless, those mass media themselves were changed and greatly influenced by digitisation, the emergence of multifunctional devices as well as the vast range of applications developed for their use. These developments have altered the fundamental concepts of society including friendship, meetings, shopping, banking, etc. Blogs, tweets, and social networking are now commonplace in modern life especially among the ‘Google generations’. These interactive media have so changed the norms of mass media in terms of the voice of ordinary people and the individual, that blogs and tweets now have considerable reach and are becoming a significant part of mass media. However, the author sees such technological development as a paradox and writes, ‘Technology has made more information more available to more people than any time in tens of thousands of years of human history. But the same technology has made access to it more difficult’. The author also expresses his fears about the threat of exclusion of the people who have no access to or cannot use these new forms of media.
The Economic Dimension
The second part of this work consists of chapters 3 and 4, ie The information market-place and Access to information. Chapter 3 discusses authors’ and publishers’ perceptions, their roles and relationships from a historical perspective and up to the present era of commercialisation. This chapter also covers the publishing industry, its diversity, new directions, the evolution of the ebook, interdependent media, the concept of the market and market fragmentation, and competition. The chapter provides a discourse on editors and the editorial role in a comprehensive manner. The discussion on the evolution of the ebook and the interdependent media is very thought-provoking and enlightens us on the evolution and convergence of news media, radio and television in a scholarly fashion with the latest statistics and a discussion of the causes and trends that have affected the development and convergence of such media. The discussion of the economic dimensions includes consideration of the market in terms of print, electronic books and serials. Feather writes:
It now contains a multitude of competing and complementary sectors. Although print continues to predominate in some of these, in others it is supplemented and in some it has been replaced. Others again are completely new; they are sectors into which printed word never went and indeed could never go. Competition has introduced a sharper edge to the commercial element which has always been intrinsic in the process of information transfer… (Page 72)
Chapter 4, Access to information, explains the different areas related to information access. It extends the debate into the context of the price of books and the cost of broadcasts; the cost of libraries; public good or private profit; electronic communications: access and costs; the World Wide Web; networks: an electronic democracy?; electronic publishing: towards a new paradigm?; and the cost of access: issues and problems. The world has emerged as a global village and the new concepts of being information-rich and information-poor, coined because of the increasing gap between people in terms of access to information. Feather points out that, ‘Information has never been “free”, but now it can be realistically costed’. Publishers were well aware of the cost of information and exploited it commercially. However, technological developments, especially the Internet and the World Wide Web, have ‘made more information more available to more people than at any other time in human history’. Nevertheless, the cost of these technologies is high, and ‘… the cost of gaining access to information through them, made it often difficult and sometimes impossible for information to be obtained by its potential beneficiaries’. This infrastructure is usually supported by public funds, for example in the form of public libraries. However, there is a change in the relationship between information providers and information consumers. Large parts of the public sector have been transferred into private hands. We have seen an exponential growth in electronic communications which has transformed the means of access to information. Electronic networks, and most importantly, the World Wide Web, have changed the paradigm of information access. These developments have offered unparalleled advantages over the traditional methods of information storage and retrieval. Nevertheless, ‘the cost of network [information] access is high; this is not altered by the fact that, for many users, it is hidden and may indeed generate savings elsewhere in such diverse areas as secretarial services and library provisions’.
The Political Dimension
The third part of the book covers chapters 5 and 6. Chapter 5, Information rich and information poor, covers a wide range of topics including the value of information, information in developing countries, wealth and poverty in terms of information and economic development, information delivery systems, the world publishing industry, Eastern Europe, and the limits of wealth: information poverty in the West. The ‘value of information is not intrinsic to the information itself… We have largely dealt with the financial aspects of the supply of information rather than the value of information’. The author provides a detailed discussion on information in developing countries and very vivid contrasts among different information systems including CD-ROMs and recorded taped material as used in developing countries such as Pakistan. In terms of the world publishing industry, British and American publishers continue to enjoy the advantages accorded them by their pre-eminence in a truly global market. ‘The continued dominance of English-language publishing by the British and American publishers and distributors, able to exploit huge domestic markets and global sales organizations… The southern countries are forced to compete in an arena dominated by northern countries whose inherent economic strength rests on an infrastructure which the South cannot replicate’. A different sort of information poverty exists in Eastern Europe as their telecommunication infrastructure was quite intentionally not developed, especially in the totalitarian regimes which persisted until the end of 1980s and where television, radio, etc. were used only for propaganda. In other words, such heterogeneity, dominance, and deprivations in different parts of the world are all very much part of the debate in an information society. The author wrote:
The installation of a fully developed communications and information infrastructure will, however, take time, and the cost means that their availability will still be limited. It is not difficult to envisage a situation in which a country appears to be information rich, but contains large pockets of information poverty, which might even encompass the majority of the population.
Chapter 6, Information, the state and the citizen, provides an account of the role of the state in terms of the protection of intellectual property, data protection, personal privacy, censorship, freedom of information, and other contemporary dilemmas related to the role of state. The role of the state is fundamental in the development of the information society. Policy making and policy implementation lie at the heart of the development of an information society. The chapter provides an exhaustive discussion of the issues, current practices and the role of state in this context.
The Information Profession
Last but not the least, the fourth part of the book presents a detailed account of the role of information professionals related to information society. It covers the role, work, and transition of their role from archivist to record managers. The position of information professionals, Feather contends, is very much an evolving one which is proving not only challenging but sometimes daunting. The work of information professionals has been diversifying while information technology has changed everything from practice and processes to the basic paradigm of beliefs.
This book is recommended for policy makers, theorists, writers, teachers and students in the domains of information society, publishing industry, communication, mass communication, and library and information science professionals. It will essentially help them to understand the phenomena of the information society and its related philosophies. The book presents a detailed landscape from North to South, East to West, and may be designated as a reference work as much as a mandatory text book on the topic.
Dr. Muhammad Rafiq is Assistant Professor at the Deptment of Library and Information Science, University of Sargodha, Pakistan. He has over 14 years of experience of teaching and managing university libraries and information services of national and international organisations including the Punjab University, Lahore; GC University Lahore; National Textile University, Faisalabad; International Islamic University Islamabad; Development Alternative Inc. USA; and International Relief & Development Inc. USA. He is an HEC-approved PhD Supervisor.
Dr. Rafiq also has international awards to his credit including the Jay Jordan IFLA-OCLC Early Career Development Fellowship 2004, OH, USA; Winner of 2009 International Research Paper Contest of American Society of Information Science & Technology (ASIS&T); and Associate to Mortenson Center for International Library Programs, IL USA. Dr. Rafiq has professional alignment with the ALA, the SLA, ASIS&T, the PLA, and the PULISAA.