Duff, A. (2008). The Normative Crisis of the Information Society. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 2(1), Article 3. Retrieved from https://cyberpsychology.eu/article/view/4207/3248
The Normative Crisis of the Information Society

The Normative Crisis of the Information Society

Alistair Duff
Centre for Social Informatics, School of Computing, Napier University, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
& School of Creative Industries, Napier University, Edinburgh, United Kingdom


The information society thesis, as a set of sociological propositions pertaining to a range of advanced nations, is now widely accepted. Attention, therefore, should increasingly be focused upon the normative dimensions of that thesis. The article claims that the information society is subject to multiplied, acute modes of confusion amounting to nothing less than a normative crisis. Symptoms of the crisis can be observed in such areas as: copyright, whose foundations are breaking down; privacy, under unprecedented threat in cyberspace; and the woefully-misunderstood phenomenon of the digital divide. The article argues that what is required is a new normativity to orientate the social and political framework of the information society. What should be its content? A good answer would be an updated theory of distributive justice anchored in progressive thought. While difficult to prove philosophically, such a normative theory of the information society seems more attractive than its chief rivals, critical theory and neo-liberalism. Normative thinking at any rate provides an antidote to the pervasive influence of technological determinism.

Key words: information age, cyberspace, normativity, crisis, realistic utopianism

Introduction: Information Society Studies

The existential crisis of the information age is past. Information society is here; for few still deny that there has been an informatisation of contemporary society, what the Japanese call ‘johoka’ (Ito, 2000). The whole information environment, or ‘info sphere’ (Floridi, 2007), is understood to be of growing importance. Even at the level of untutored experience, there is widespread awareness that information in some way is effecting a transformation of the social world, especially its economically advanced segments. The virtual x—classroom, library, newsroom, whatever—replaces traditional forms of life. The daily grind for many is increasingly, as a latter-day techno-prophet foresaw, a game not against nature, nor even against fabricated nature, but against, or, hopefully, with, other persons (Bell, 1999). And not just persons, since cyborgs are already appearing on the horizon. In short, all three realms of society—the polity, the economy and the culture—are, if not revolutionised, then at least subject to major principles of innovation. Moreover, we can now speak with confidence of a global information society. That does not mean that every nation enjoys a similar level of johoka—absolutely not—but it does mean that the information apparatus is one of the indisputably transnational systems. The information society, as a global socio-technical formation of radically uneven shape, has arrived.

These popular intuitions are at least to some extent underpinned by scholarship. The case for the information society, what became known as the information society thesis, was launched in Fritz Machlup’s Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States (1962), which for the first time brought to the fore the large and increasing role of the ‘knowledge industries’ in an advanced economy. Subsequently, Marc Porat developed the concept of the information economy (Porat, 1977), demonstrating that information production then accounted for about half of the US economy. Daniel Bell (1999), discerning the significance of such data, made the sociological case for post-industrialism, the doctrine that industrial societies were metamorphosing into post-industrial ones founded on services and information. These were the pioneering authors in the English language, although there were contemporaneous movements elsewhere. In Information Society Studies (2000), I brought together the various schools of thought—the versions of the information society thesis—synthesised them—and felt able to conclude that that thesis is now proven, albeit in its more modest, evolutionary guise. While it would be wrong to imply that the information society thesis, even in that less dogmatic form, has silenced all of its methodological critics in the academy, the present article is not the place to revisit the fundamentals of the debate. My premise here, therefore, is that there is substantial credibility in the new paradigm, the information turn, the ‘informatisation of the world view’ (De Mul, 1999). If that still seems too epistemologically assured, perhaps I can at least trust that most readers will agree that the information society concept represents an interesting and potentially fruitful way of understanding certain unfolding trends.

Building, then, upon such empirical foundations, this article asks the question of how we should respond politically, or, rather, normatively. Neo-Luddite sympathisers apart, many people seem to see informatisation as just a fact of life, merely part of the march of progress, and certainly no great cause for alarm. If anything, the argument runs, it is to be welcomed—in so far as one might want to make a value judgement at all. To be against the information society is to be against technology, against the economic development of one’s nation and the growth of that venerable Kantian ideal, a world society. The basis for this view is the perception that the information society is a mainly technical conception, and the information society thesis as value-free as any body of sociological propositions can be. I think, however, that such a view is badly mistaken. On the contrary, I wish to go as far as to suggest that despite all the technological advances there is major confusion about the values shaping the new social form and also about the very basis of such values, confusion that could have harmful implications for the twenty-first century. The article, then, is concerned with establishing the need for a normative theory of the information society.

Normative inquiries are never absent from any venture in social forecasting. Around the beginning of the last century, Arthur J. Penty, unsung inventor of the post-industrial brand, was complaining that ‘society plunged light-heartedly into the perils of industrialization, with little thought as to the future’ (Penty, 1917: 161-2). He advocated a handicraft economy rather than the high technology scenario championed by modern post-industrialists, and of course his solution was a non-starter. However, the point of the quotation is that, even in the industrial heyday, the nature of post-industrial society, for a few thoughtful individuals, was already a matter of normative speculation. The early information society theorists proper, those who wrote the definitive books on the information society, had an empirical burden, yet they also recognised that the issues would shortly be normative. The ‘coming’ of post-industrial society, Bell noted, ‘poses new problems of social management’, new questions for the polity and the culture (Bell, 1999: 487). Porat, who introduced the frame of ‘information policy’, set out a range of options with which changes in information technology and telecommunications were now confronting policy-makers:

Interpreting the implications of an information economy is a riddle with many solutions. Our purpose is served if the basic statistical foundation for the idea is sound. Once the “soapbox” is built and can support the weight, we gladly invite others to Hyde Park for the inevitable debates. (Porat, 1977 Vol. 1: 12)

Such questions are now unavoidably and acutely upon us. In short, the information society problematic is no longer a scientific one. It is ethico-political; it is normative.

The Information Society in Normative Crisis

We have recently witnessed the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), a remarkable experiment in international discussion which demonstrated just how topical information policy has become. Yet the WSIS is a good place at which to acknowledge that the information society concept, in its normative aspects, is anything but uncontroversial. In terms of concrete policy outcomes, the summit was disappointing. Indeed, some feel that the WSIS achieved nothing for the developing world, that its attempt to, as it were, moralise the international information order failed as badly as the NWICO (New World Information and Communication Order) initiative of the previous generation, despite the WSIS’s lower expectations and its studious eschewal of leftish rhetoric. However, the inclusion of civil society actors in the WSIS conferences, rather than just politicians and businessmen, and the fair representation of the world’s nations, ensured that, as with NWICO, philosophical differences prevented consensus about both the diagnosis of the sickness of the information society in its current condition and the way forward for information policy in the remainder of the twenty-first century. This worthy initiative has run into problems not merely because of geopolitical rivalries and wrangling over technical standards, but also because of fundamental disagreement about the values that should guide the future. These differences did not suddenly emerge in Geneva or Tunis, of course. While the world’s press might regard such arguments as news, they have in fact been around for a considerable time. In cyberspace and every other dimension of the information society, there has been a huge, long-lasting debate about the direction in which societies of the future should travel.

I wish to suggest here that the failure of the WSIS is a symptom of a generalised condition: a multidimensional normative crisis of the information society. In order to establish this proposition, some basic terminological moves are essential. By norms are meant, in the first instance, the ethical and legal principles which inform human behaviour and by which social action is regulated. Following communication theorists Lapinksi and Rimal (2005: 129), I refer to norms at a collective level, as those ‘prevailing codes of conduct that either prescribe or proscribe behaviors that members of a group can enact’. Such norms ‘operate at the level of the social system, which could be a social network or the entire society. They represent a collective social entity’s code of conduct’ (Lapinski & Rimal, 2005: 129). But they are ‘seldom formally codified or explicitly stated’ (Lapinski & Rimal, 2005: 129). Norms are not the same thing as laws. They can be opposed by law, or else developed by law. They are internalised, shared rules of action. Now some authors characterise norms as little more than rules to be followed, really just a function of majority opinion. This is the view of Scott Lash in his important Critique of Information. According to Lash, ‘norms are procedural’, in contrast to ‘values’; they are ‘rules’, organisational, institutional and sometimes constitutional, but not ‘substantive’, nor close to ‘virtues’ (Lash, 2002: 41). Norms, Lash argues, precisely because they are not values, but rules to be followed, typically enjoy a much shorter duration than values (2002: 210).

Norms will be portrayed below in a much more positive light. This article interprets norms as being closely related to morality and virtue, as being rooted in the cultural realm of morality, religion and ultimate ends. At their best, norms crystallise cherished values and give us a viable social morality. Thus, I am speaking of norms as partly criteria: they can express unchanging values, not merely majority opinion. It is in this sense that we can and do speak of equality or toleration as norms of civilised nations. And while there is a plurality of cultures across the world, that does not mean that norms cannot be transcultural, since certain values might be shared by all cultures, at least partially or potentially. Thus we can speak of universal norms; this may indeed be required by the normative theory of a social formation that is in some respects an emergent global entity. However, while norms arise out of the cultural realm of values, they, unlike some personal values, are expressed also in the social structure and the polity. In becoming norms of conduct, they take on certain conditions such that they are fit to have a regulative role in society. Norms are under-determined by personal values. To borrow a Habermasian term, they are a ‘category of social mediation’ (Habermas, 1996) between subjective morality and positive law. So while they may originate in personal theories of the good, in teleology, they must comply with the theory of right. The aim of politics is a society regulated by the principles of right, not one attempting to embody the good, for that is the first maxim of limited government. Thus the pursuit of correct norms is entirely appropriate to any liberal theory of the information society.

It is being suggested, then, that there is now a crisis in the sense of a breakdown of the framework for value judgments specifically with respect to the social principles and policy bases of the information society. The widespread disorientation, the sense of being in uncharted waters, of not knowing in which direction to sail other than with the prevailing global winds: such is the stuff of a normative crisis. I leave open here the question of whether there is an even wider normative crisis—though I personally believe that there is—and, if so, whether the normative crisis of the information society is an aspect or reflection of that wider crisis, or sui generis. I am referring here to a crisis of social morality only in so far as this impinges on the informational aspects of modern societies.

The normative crisis of the information society is somewhat analogous to the normative crisis provoked by the industrial revolution. Just as, according to Eriksonian psychology (e.g. Erikson, 1959), adolescents sooner or later undergo a normative crisis, perhaps rejecting their parents’ values, or half-rejecting them, but at any rate reviewing at various levels the moral meaning of their existence, so we should not be surprised that the ‘coming of post-industrial society’ is attended by a normative crisis. Like an adolescent, one might say, the information society is struggling at profound levels of being to achieve an authentic, viable identity. The challenge is that while, under industrialism, clear normative traditions were quickly forged, notably liberalism and socialism of several varieties, it is not at all clear that a normative tradition is anywhere in sight for the information era. So the logic of my claim is simple enough: if there is any validity in the information society thesis, then there is a corresponding need for a normative theory. The information society, long a subject of methodological and technical interrogations, needs to be problematised axiologically, and then political steps taken to have those problems solved or ameliorated.

Cyberspace as a Crisis-Ridden Domain of the Information Society

However, are not claims of crisis generally little more than a crude rhetorical strategy that seeks to mask self-interest, and should not such claims, including my own, be discounted? The WSIS is no different from most other world summits, and if its disagreements are being cited as sole proof of a normative crisis of the information society, then perhaps my crisis-claim is no more robust or useful than many another? What are the other evidences? My response is that more or less wherever one looks, whether on the international level or locally, one sees signs of a normative crisis with regard to information. That is how I read Castells, in fact. Manuel Castells, of course, is the author of what is currently the most influential theory of the information society. His work is essentially empirical and social-theoretical, but it is not entirely non-normative. It would seem that Castells too has crisis in mind, if not, indeed, apocalypse. Phrases culled from the beginning pages of his trilogy The Information Age include ‘fundamental redefinition of relationships’, ‘structural crisis of legitimacy’, ‘fading away of major social movements’, ‘schizophrenia’, ‘social fragmentation’, and ‘streams of destruction’ (Castells, 1996: 2-4). Although the terminology is different, Castells paints, on an impressively broad canvas, an alarming picture of an information age marked by a normative crisis.

Rather than argue from authority, however, let us focus on cyberspace. It has long been evident that cyberspace poses new regulative and legal issues, and some sound preliminary theoretical work has been done (e.g. Kahin & Nesson, 1997). However, cyberspace remains an area where normative settlements are almost completely absent. Indeed, one might describe cyberspace as the prime site of the normative crisis of the information society. For example, nobody seems to know how to proceed with regard to Internet content regulation. This is obvious at a quite familiar level. A Glaswegian student was recently sent to prison for doing little more than access jihadist web-sites, surely a draconian development for any liberal society. Otherwise normal people are being criminalised because their curiosity leads them to press a wrong button on their computers. One has to ask whether we should not rather blame the authorities for presiding ineptly and negligently over such materials. A simple question, but no straight answer yet. Yet this is just one surface manifestation of the normativity issue—of the socio-legal and ethico-political problematic confronting the information age. The problem is that the Internet is a culmination of diverse technologies of print, telecommunications and broadcasting: how do we converge the sui generis normative traditions underpinning these formerly separate media? No remotely consensual answer has been achieved. The law of retributive justice with respect to the Internet, in short, is an ass, and it is an ass not because the media regulation authorities are unprecedentedly dumb, but because they, like the rest of us, are the subjects of a pervasive normative crisis. Is not Thomas Hausmanninger therefore correct when he writes of the need to bring the Internet under ‘normative control’ (Hausmanninger, 2004: 20)?

Copyright is another area of cyberspace where there have long been symptoms of crisis. The old issues of property, plagiarism and piracy have returned in the new context of cyberspace. This is no longer an esoteric matter of library science or even jurisprudence, but an acute policy problematic. File-sharing controversies are a vivid illustration of a fundamental clash of norms, about as close to a symptom of a normative crisis as can be imagined. In more official contexts, information is hailed as a public good in the same breath that the rights of copyright are extended. Again, there used to be clear normative traditions surrounding paper-based media, traditions of the limits of legitimate ownership and the complementary rights of the public. Information came to be viewed by democratic policy-makers as a public good, something to be careful about protecting from pollution by commercial interests; now it is being seen as little more than a commodity. Yet a countervailing movement, predating the commercial colonisation of cyberspace, is wedded to the belief that information wants to be free. Christopher May (2003a) agrees that the normative foundations of copyright have ‘crumbled’; he too speaks of a ‘normative crisis’ that can only be resolved ‘politically’. Elsewhere, he concludes a wide-ranging analysis of information society claims with a call to take seriously our responsibility not to leave the future only to ‘technicists’ or ‘policy-makers’ (May, 2002: 161). Such a plea is implicit a fortiori in my own claim that there is an acute, endemic crisis of normativity afflicting multiple domains of the information society.

Is not the growing controversy surrounding privacy in cyberspace another clear manifestation? The right of personal privacy, of private space, has long been established as one of the defining features of modern civilisation, yet under post-industrial conditions the ogre of the surveillance state has become all too real. Yet no one seems to be doing very much about it. Technological determinism seems regnant; many people accept the new intrusions with a resigned sigh. Perhaps privacy is not such a cherished right, after all? Perhaps security is more important, as the politicians tell us? Nicholas Garnham notes that ‘contemporary societies and policies are increasingly riven by a shifting range of border disputes between the private and the public and by deep normative confusion about them’ (Garnham, 2000: 43). And Sandra Braman (2006) has interestingly thematised this whole issue of borders from an information policy perspective. She points out that the borders of the informational state reach far beyond physical lines, for example in the US government’s demand for passenger information before flights depart from European airports, notwithstanding the European Union’s historic commitment to privacy rights. Shifting, elastic, fuzzy borders have developed between the private and the public, as well as between other social categories, such as commodity and resource; news and entertainment; the nation and the world system. But it is more than just deep normative confusion or major normative shift; it is normative crisis.

Then there is the whole field of social injustice, of inequality in cyberspace. The issues of privacy, copyright and even to some extent content regulation can themselves be construed as issues of inequality, but there is also a separate problem with its own set of issues more or less continuous with traditional debates over the principles of social stratification. Discourse about a normatively-troubling information gap has existed for many years (e.g. Dupuy, 1980; Webster & Robins, 1986). More recently, the term ‘digital divide’ has been the all-conquering focus of such concerns. The quality of some of the evidence and logic marshalled by critics of the digital divide is very mixed. Some fine work has been done (e.g. Norris, 2001; Van Dijk, 2005). Other commentary has been extremely poor, provoking a reactionary school of thought which questions the very validity of the concept (Compaine, 2001). Yet the empirical evidence for a digital divide is robust, not only internationally but even within relatively well-off nations (e.g. Galacz & Smahel, 2007; Oxford Internet Institute, 2005). Such evidence demands new normatively-loaded negotiations of the entire capitalism-socialism debate.

In the language of contemporary analytical political philosophy, cyberspace represents a new ‘site of distributive justice’ (Baynes, 2006). Moreover, the digital divide, whether or not it fully qualifies as a new principle of stratification in the sense predicted by Bell as a sign of the coming of post-industrial society, unlocks other venerable issues of social structure. For example, it invites profound questions about new forms of alienation, between persons, between humanity and the transcendental realm, between individuals and their own bodies. Who can deny that cyberspace has not witnessed, if not caused, a resurgence of alienation, anomie and excommunication, of the instrumentalisation of persons, of commodity-fetishism, of the violation of the kingdom of ends, of disenchantment, of spiritual bankruptcy? And even among policy actors who genuinely believe in social justice, there is chaos about what justice in cyberspace might actually rule in, or even rule out—a virtually unprecedented prescriptive predicament. I make a small effort at such specificity in the concluding section.

Neo-Liberalism and the Need for a New Normativity

The principal beneficiary of the normative crisis of the information society is the established economic and political order. Paschal Preston describes information society rhetoric deliciously as ‘a heady cocktail of speculative “dreamware”, based on techno-centric analyses of clusters of technological innovations’—leading, as he correctly deduces, to ‘a conservative politics’ (Preston, 2002: 232, 237). The impact of right-wing political philosophy and economic science—misleadingly called ‘neo-liberalism’—has been felt across the globe, even by those nations which have tried to steer a different course. Free-market solutions are typically presented as normatively unfreighted, ‘natural’ ways of dealing with the conflicts of resources, but of course that is nonsense: markets are a human construction no less than are welfare states, and they embed a definite set of values and advance a particular constellation of interests. The great problem is that there has been a wholesale privatization of information policy under this flag. As Graham points out, there needs to be sharper awareness of the ‘neoliberal axiology that underpins most (if not all) of contemporary technology policy’ (Graham, 2006: 129). Even dispassionate observers acknowledge that ‘the trend is to strengthen intellectual property rights, perhaps at the expense of public access to new knowledge’ (Marlin-Bennett, 2004: 64). No wonder then that there are some who regard all talk of the information society as a smokescreen for the reality that ‘a neo-liberal consensus has engulfed the world’ (Webster, 2004: 2).

Of course, the neo-liberal default has not lain unchallenged. Almost from the beginning of the information society thesis, in its origins as post-industrialism and automation, there have been schools of antithesis, often located in critical theory, broadly defined. ‘Essentially Bell’, sneered Trent Schroyer in a review of The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1974: 171), ‘at Harvard, has announced the arrival of the Socialist epoch!’. Post-industrial society was dismissed as simply ‘a phase in the history of capitalism coping with its contradictions’ (Dupuy, 1980: 4); now it is diagnosed as a pathology called ‘hypercapitalism’ (Graham, 2006). Much of this critical work may well be justified, but it has largely fallen on deaf ears, at least in the important policy-making chambers. And, in any case, critical theory on its own is of limited utility. There needs also to be sound constructive work. We need to move beyond ‘informationcritique’ (Lash, 2003). What is needed, in addition, is essays in reconstruction, efforts to engage normatively with the veridical aspects and implications of the information society thesis. In short, a systematic normative theory of the information society must be developed.

The challenge of promoting any kind of normativism against the current cultural background should not be underestimated. Yet I am not alone in thinking that the need of the hour is to inject knowledge-based ideas into the policy discussions surrounding the development of the information society. ‘Only now,’ Marsden confirms, ‘with the growing ubiquity of the Internet for business and particularly consumers, are normative values—beyond a crude cyber-libertarianism—being taken more seriously’ (Marsden, 2000: 32). It has often been noted that there are many important issues for an information policy research agenda (e.g. Patterson & Wilson, 2000), but less often has there been a call for integrative normative theories of the information society, focusing not only on the salient issues but also on the underlying axiological springs. ‘What is required’, Preston concurs, ‘is a theory-building project that is empirically grounded’ (Preston, 2002: 237). He asks for ‘a robust vision of the “good society”’, noting that ‘there are rich veins of intellectual resources that provide alternatives to prevailing orthodoxies’ (Preston, 2002: 238). Now is exactly the time for such an effort. We need synoptic treatments that articulate in sufficient detail a conception of the information society we would like to see, contributions to information policy construed in the broadest sense, as the study of the ‘social, political, economic and technological decisions about the role of information in society’ (Maxwell, 2003: 2). Such an approach, premised on a faith in political agency, can serve as an antidote to technological determinism, ‘the attempt to present the information society as a teleology’ (May, 2003b: 10; cf. Loader, 1998).

Conclusion: the Field Ahead

What then should be the content of such a theory? The field lies open as far as the eye can see, and only a few tentative forays will be attempted here. As a first shot, it seems obvious to me that the required theory must be somehow about redeeming the original promise of the information society; that is, about defining the social conditions underpinning ‘the age of access’, the fine title assigned to the posthumous writings of telecommunications visionary Colin Cherry (1985). Universal access, perhaps a more familiar synonym, is a concept with strong roots in old-fashioned telecommunications policy, particularly in the US, where it has also been associated with the concept of universal service (Borgman, 2000: 53ff.). However, what is needed is a more extensive conception of public access, one that is not tied to telecommunications or indeed to any specific technological platform, medium or network. We need to find ways of promoting an ideal of access that can help to orient prescriptive thinking about the whole range of information flows within a society, as well as act as a basis for policy critiques.

Giving adequate width to the concept of access is only the beginning, however. The further need is for a suitably contextualised, i.e. post-industrial, theory of social justice. ‘Our goal’, as information ethicist Clifford Christians recognises, ‘ought to be normative thinking on distributive justice’ (Christians, 2002: 8). But distributive justice goes well beyond saying that we should help the information poor. Even the Croesus-like author of The Road Ahead (Gates, 1995) believes in such charity! Distributive justice involves being deadly serious about reducing the information divide, and that requires society to at least consider what might be the informational equivalent of an upper limit on material wealth. Moreover, as many of the best writers on the digital divide have realised, access is not just about the availability of access ‘points’, or even about ubiquitous information, whatever that might mean. It is also, indeed it is primarily, about the huge socio-economic hinterland behind the access points. There is a generic problem of social inequality, of which the information divide is just another species. The traditional goals of progressive telecommunications policy are a valuable starting-point, therefore, but it is the social structures upon which access is overlaid that policy must principally address.

At the end of Information Society Studies, I recommended migration from a de facto to a de jure information society thesis. Here it can be put another way: for information societies today the challenge is one of reloading utopia. Not all would agree. Ronald Day, for example, is of the opinion that ‘a communicational or informational utopia is both a practical and a regulative impossibility’ (Day, 2001: 58-9). While that may be true in one sense—and I did not waste any time above crafting a critique of technological utopianism—it by no means entails that a well-grounded idealism is futile. We can still use what John Rawls called ‘realistic utopianism’, a utopianism founded on a sensible appraisal of human nature and potential (Rawls, 2001: 4). To speak in a more contemporary idiom, we need to ensure that the correct value settings are in place so that the information society has a reasonable chance of running smoothly, of not crashing. The democratic mainstays of liberty, privacy and individual rights must remain ‘on’, certainly, but we should also switch back on the old left-wing values of justice and brotherhood. ‘In a just society’, Rawls wrote, ‘men agree to share one another’s fate’ (Rawls, 1973: 37). My personal belief is that to achieve such a society in the twenty-first century we should revive R. H. Tawney’s great struggle for more equality, for a social democracy anchored in human fellowship (Tawney, 1964; Terrill, 1973; Duff, 2004). An ideal of egalitarian communion, the flag of a viable informational utopia, needs to be hoisted high for a young and bewildered post-industrial world.


Research for this article was funded by the [UK] Arts and Humanities Research Council.


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