Workers' Liberty #59


Is this the "information age"?

Capitalism today is changing more quickly than ever. Vast flows of capital move round the globe in search of profit. New commodities spew out at an unprecedented rate, needing large expenditure on advertising and marketing to ensure they are purchased before the next new thing comes around. New areas of human thought and endeavour are colonised to become saleable.

By Bruce Robinson

Production is rapidly and continuously restructured. Technological innovation - particularly that based on information and communication technologies - is both an enabler and product of this change. Many changes to production, consumption, and leisure have followed the widespread implementation of the microprocessor from the late 1970s. The new technologies have been crucial both as capital goods and as constituents of consumer goods.

This marriage of changing information technology and the imperatives of capital can be seen in the e-commerce and Internet shares frenzies. Firms have rush into electronic commerce (buying and selling on the Net), hoping to find new markets and either keep up with or outstrip their competitors.

Stock exchange speculation in firms with Internet-related activities has boomed on a scale recalling the 'railway mania' of the 1840s or the South Sea Bubble. Many speculators realise the bubble will burst - but they are desperate to try and find the next Microsoft, even if they have no real idea who it might be.

Probably the dominant ideology of capitalism at the century's end is that we are living in "the information age", "information society" or the "knowledge economy". Frank Webster comments: "it is now quite orthodox to conjure, as a matter of unarguable fact, [the] 'information society' as the knowledge-based, high tech and service-centred world we allegedly inhabit".1

The politicians of the "Third Way" see this "information age", together with globalisation, as defining the parameters within which they act. The market and globalisation cannot be challenged. Manufacturing jobs have largely gone for good, enticed to Third World countries with low wages. Clinton's ex-Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, sees future wealth creation as the province of "symbolic analysts" who "solve, identify and broker problems by manipulating symbols." Entry to this elite, 20% of the workforce according to Reich, comes through acquiring and maintaining education and skills. So Clinton, Blair, and their like wave both carrots - the hope of life-long education and high-skill, high wage jobs - and sticks - the end of "jobs for life", and the threat of being cast into the low-skill, low-wage "McDonaldised" economy - to reshape their countries to compete in the new, turbulent times.

Blair said in 1995: "Education is the best economic policy there is for a modern economy... it is in the marriage of education and technology that the future lies... The knowledge race has begun. We will never compete on the basis of a low wage, sweat shop economy... We have just one asset. Our people. Their intelligence. Their potential... This is hard economics. The more you learn the more you earn. That is the way to do well out of life. The combination of technology and know how will transform the lives of all of us... Knowledge is power. Information and opportunity. And technology can make it happen."

More recently, he added: "We couldn't block this new industrial revolution even if we wanted. We would just be left behind. But we are ideally positioned to help shape it... Business will continue to lead this revolution but Government has a key role to play."

Beyond doubt there are purely ideological elements here. Beniger2 lists 75 theories of social transformation published before 1985, and as long back as 1950, all of which intended to show that society has passed from capitalism into some new historical stage. "Post-industrial" guru Daniel Bell was explicit about their purpose: "The distinction between the industrial and post-industrial or scientific-technological society means that some simplified Marxist categories no longer hold." The working class, they say, is no longer an agent of change. A knowledge theory of value (whatever that is) should be substituted for a labour theory of value.3

Since the 1970s, these post-industrial theories have been increasingly premised on the centrality of computer technology and information.

Examining information society theories, Webster1 concludes that these new versions also display an ideological function - that of making the changes demanded by capitalism appear inevitable. They are vague, imprecise, and give contradictory criteria for deciding whether the new information society has arrived or not. They tend to have a naive technological determinist view in which (as the second quote from Blair shows) technology emerges from somewhere outside human control and reshapes society, while society can have little effect on the course of technological development. (To debunk this view, one need do no more than follow the recent course of events in the development and abandonment of genetically modified organisms by Monsanto.)

And they increasingly see information and knowledge as something disembodied and disconnected from both human labour and the hard, material commodities required to process it. They have a view of knowledge in which it is separated from its human carriers and floats along wires, appearing as outside the social relations of capitalism. "The social relation [behind information] appears as the relation between bytes - a second-order fetishism".4

Information society theorists overestimate the real importance of information in the world economy by forgetting its dependence on manufactured goods such as personal computers, videos, and CD players for its functioning.5 These require large manufacturing plants, even if they are now more likely to be in the Third World.

However, information and the technologies used in its processing and communication really have become more central to capitalism. They have been driven forward by the need for capitalists to compete by adopting the most advanced technology; to find profitable outlets for capital; and to increase the rate of exploitation in the workplace.

Sharper competition, in a period of deep technological change, has forced firms to adopt the most advanced technology in order to survive. As the technology is itself changing, there is a constant rush to catch up, both at the level of the firm and of national economies. Information technology is central to this. For example, while the growing share of hi-tech investment in the US can be traced back to the 1940s, it markedly accelerated in the wake of the 1974-5 recession and had reached 36% by 1985.6 It has been calculated that around 50% of capital investment in the US is now in information and communication technologies.7 Capital goods are increasingly being written off as a result of obsolescence rather than being used to the end of their lives.

The need to find new profitable outlets for a fast growing mass of capital can be resolved either by the creation of new markets (e.g. in the countries of the ex-Stalinist bloc and China) or, for as long as confidence lasts, by speculation continuing to feed on itself, or - and this is decisive in the growing importance of information in capitalism - the creation of a stream of new commodities. This can be done either by shortening product life cycles (therefore quickening obsolescence), by creating totally new commodities (easier in a period of fast technological change) or by making items that were freely available into commodities. The product life of car models has decreased from around seven to about two years. For personal computers it is now around three months, making them obsolete almost as soon as they are sold. In this sense, capitalism is becoming more wasteful than ever.

This approach does not free capital from the necessity of finding consumers with the cash to buy the goods (though that is made easier by the wide availability of consumer credit and the cheapening of certain goods). It does both allow the destruction of capital through write-offs, the creation of new markets and the subjection of new areas to the logic of capital.

Information technology, and information itself, make it possible to have a flexible and faster response to change and to produce in smaller batches. For example, integrated computer-aided design and manufacture with programmable machine tools makes it much easier to develop new models and put them into production. Information flows can also be used both to coordinate and integrate production processes distributed over the globe. Marketing and consumer information is collected (for example, by recording supermarket and credit card purchases) to try to decrease the uncertainty of producing for the market.

Information can also become a commodity, or a component of commodities - so, for example, the supermarket data can itself be bought and sold.

"Intellectual property" industries - software, education, consultancy, media production, data-management etc., are now the fastest growing. Bill Gates became the world's richest man through selling a stream of "ever-improving" software products, none of which works perfectly and each of which has a new collection of less necessary functions.

The directly knowledge-based elements in commodities (e.g., design) are becoming more important in distinguishing them.

Patents and copyrights attempt to ensure that intellectual property emerging from scientific research, higher education, consultancy, advertising, images, films, CDs, news networks, databanks cannot be used without payment. Medical research and drug development is now predominantly funded by private interests who retain control of the output. They are also trying to patent the genetic information underlying human, animal and plant life.

Higher education is increasingly subordinated to the production of information commodities - research, or saleable course materials, now often to be found on the Internet.

An increasing number of commodities include microprocessors and software. Information previously available cheaply or for free becomes commodified, as for example in the increasing replacement of public libraries by online resources or the threat to public broadcasting from private satellite and cable companies. This restricts access to those who can afford to pay.

Information as a commodity needs to be protected by legal constraints and secrecy because it has the unfortunate property from the capitalist point of view of being easily reproducible and transferrable. Thus, as information commodities become more central, there are increasing discussions of the need for regulation of "intellectual property rights" and of the dangers software and CD copying pose for profits. Information technology also aids capital in increasing the productivity of labour and cutting jobs. Automation has extended from manufacturing jobs to those concerned with information manipulation and customer service. Over 100,000 jobs have been lost in banking and insurance in the UK. In addition, information technology makes detailed surveillance of the labour process possible without direct human supervision, thus both thinning out the lower levels of management and controlling workers more closely.

In a whirlwind of change, there is a real contradiction here between a felt need to take control of and exploit the worker's knowledge of their own job (epitomised by the management fad of "knowledge management") and the equally felt need not to be constrained by the past and to be able to throw the way things have traditionally been done up in the air in order to steal a competitive edge. Thus, many of the American firms that most embraced "downsizing" have found that they have sacked the people who had the best knowledge of how the organisation really worked.

Information and communication technologies enable the faster and more efficient circulation of capital. Billions of pounds travel daily across the wires and speculative capital itself becomes more and more purely a collection of symbols with less and less reference to real world assets or events.8 New types of investment such as derivatives are simply speculative instruments, traded on computerised markets and at removed at several levels from capital goods or commodities.

Despite the importance of information in capitalism, we are still a long way from the scenarios outlined by "information society" theorists such as Peter Drucker9, who writes that "the typical business will be knowledge-based, an organization composed largely of specialists who direct and discipline their own performance through organized feedback from their colleagues, customers and headquarters." Rather it seems more likely that these jobs will remain a tiny minority, with a far greater mass of routine, often part-time, clerical work, requiring limited computer skills and performed under strict management control - as in call centres - together with a lot of low skill, low paid service jobs. Doug Henwood has calculated that Reich's "symbolic analysts" were only 7% of the US labour force in 1995.

Equally, market-led development of information access is likely to lead to a growing gap between the information-rich and information-poor - who are also the income-rich and the income-poor. A recent report on "The Digital Divide" by the US Commerce Department stated: "Households with incomes of $75,000 and higher are more than twenty times more likely to have access to the Internet than those at the lowest income levels, and more than nine times as likely to have a computer at home... Whites are more likely to have access to the Internet from home than Blacks or Hispanics have from any location." The technological-determinist naivety of Clinton and Blair's attempts to reconcile trying to remove the digital divide (for example, by putting Internet access into schools and libraries) and doing nothing to remove the wealth divide can be seen by this statement from Clinton: "I think we should shoot for a goal within the developed countries of having Internet access as complete as telephone access within a fixed number of years. It will do as much as anything else to reduce income inequality."10

A similar divide exists between rich and poor countries. Europe and North America count for nearly 80% of those people with access to the Internet. Fewer than 1% of people in South Asia are online even though it is home to one-fifth of the world's population. Fewer than 2% of the world's population are connected, and over 80% of the world's population have never used a phone simply because the infrastructure to do so does not exist.

While an Indian entrepreneur is trying to overcome this by using satellite phones to bring the delights of Internet shopping to rural India, the same applies here - as does Clinton's market-driven stupidity whereby developed countries should work to "get more cell phones and computer hook-ups out there in poorer nations... The people in Africa are no different from the people in America. If you give people access to technology, a lot of smart people will figure out how to make a lot of money."

In these statements we can see the ideological con of the "information society" solution to inequalities. The ideological functions of "information society" theories is not just to disguise the real nature of society but also to enlist acquiescence in the new profits race from the majority as buyers and workers, while the happy few will "make a lot of money".

None of these developments should surprise us. Marx warned long ago that capital will try increasingly to seize hold of the collective knowledge of society and use it for its own ends in production and to realise profits.

However, the left needs to do more than point to this foresight, expose the ideological element in the new orthodox wisdom and reassert the fundamentals of Marxist ideas. It is also necessary to develop a real, critical understanding of what precisely is new in contemporary capitalism and how it affects working-class organisation and politics. The new information-based forms of commodity, work organisation and capital are an important part of this.


  1. Webster, F., Theories of the Information Society. International Library of Sociology. 1995, London: Routledge.

  2. Beniger, J., The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society. 1986, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  3. Schiller, D., "The Information Commodity: A Preliminary View", in Cutting Edge: Technology, Information, Capitalism and Social Revolution, J. Davis, T. Hirschl, and M. Stack, Editors. 1997, Verso: London.

  4. Henwood, D., "Info Fetishism", in Resisting the virtual life: the culture and politics of information, J. Brook and I.A. Boal, Editors. 1995, City Lights: San Francisco.

  5. Huws, U., "Material World: The Myth of the Weightless Economy", in Global Capitalism versus Democracy, L. Panitch and C. Leys, Editors. 1999, Merlin Press: London. p. 29-55.

  6. Schiller, D., "How to think about Information", in The Political Economy of Information, V. Mosco and J. Wasko, Editors. 1988, Univ. of Wisconsin Press: Madison, WI.

  7. Kling, R., "What is Social Informatics and why does it matter?" D-Lib Magazine, 1999. 5(1).

  8. Graham, P. "Hypercapitalism: Political economy, electric identity, and authorial alienation", in "Exploring Cybersociety" Conference. 1999. Newcastle.

  9. Drucker, P., "The Coming of the New Organization". Harvard Business Review, 1988(January-February): p. 45-53.

  10. "Internet: Clinton warns of 'digital divide'," Financial Times,22/11/99.

    Information is used here in the broad sense of anything based on symbols with the ability to communicate meaning. As such it includes images, sound and cultural artefacts, which are now able all to be processed in the same way by information technology by virtue of being reducible to binary digits.

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