Week Two — Participation, Culture, Literacy

What is an information society?

Few people would disagree that we live in an information society (that is, “we,” the contemporary North American population)… but what does that mean?

Although used earlier, the term was officially coined in 1973 by Daniel Bell… as an idea/label for a (then) coming future in which knowledge and knowledge-based services and economies dominate production and economy. The term is often used interchangeably with knowledge society or network society (the terms mean *generally* the same thing but each stresses different factors/components).

According to Wikipedia (and therefore numerous other places on the internet), “[a]n information society is a society where the creation, distribution, use, integration and manipulation of information is a significant economic, political, and cultural activity. Its main driver[s] are digital information and communication technologies, which have resulted in an information explosion and are profoundly changing all aspects of social organization” (2016, n.p.).

(As an aside: I don’t mind using Wikipedia as an academic source… but I don’t recommend the use of definitions in student assignments–especially as the opening; it’s a bit different for the instructor, but, *more importantly,* the definition needs to be pushed further or used very specifically, something I’m going to do next.)

The specific words that I really want to pick on/out in the above definitions are “dominate,” “significant,” and “main.” That is, all the definitions basically agree that an information society is a society in/for which information is important… and while these definitions offer some specifics of the ways in which information can be(come) important, they offer little in terms of how to tell when a society crosses a threshold into information dominating or being sufficiently significant. Or… put another way… these definitions suggest the characteristics of an information society but without offering criteria by which we might identify such a society when we encounter one.

There’s a similar issue around what the word information means. That is, information is, at times, interchangeable with knowledge and, at times, interchangeable with data. This last is particularly interesting for me/us since it makes obvious another assumption that runs beneath the label of the information society: it, like new media, is contiguous with computers. When we talk about the information society, we’re also (almost) always talking about the kinds of society that are made possible by computers and made significant but the ubiquity of those same computers. (These questions, if interesting to you, are much further interrogated by, the contemporary philosopher of information, Luciano Floridi.)

So the rise of information is also the rise of the computer which is also the rise of data and quantification (something we’ll discuss much more in a couple weeks). The internet provides us with a tremendous quantity of numbers, in part because it forces all online interaction to become numbers (something central to Lawrence Lessig’s suggestion that digitality has fundamentally changed what a copy is).

Partly because we live in an era of numbers, numbers are compelling. That is, arguments (mine, yours, etc.) will generally be better if we can connect the theories and ideas to the numbers that (so significantly) make up our reality.

Wikipedia does this to some extent, by including these images with their exploration of the concept:



Again, both images make compelling arguments that we (North America) inhabit an age in which digital technologies and media are significant (and, thus, so are their connected literacies), but neither image really helps identifying which societies can be considered information(al) and which can’t.

However, if we concentrate on the word “main” (from above) then we can actually connect some hard numbers, which is exactly what D. Steven White does here:

According to official U.S. sources reporting gross domestic product (GDP) data, the U.S. became a service-based economy (majority of Gross Domestic Product made up by services) at the end of 1958, beginning of 1959 ($211.2 billion GDP services, $200 billion GDP goods), much earlier than previously proposed. Today, services make up 70 percent of total U.S. GDP ($9.8 trillion out of $14.07 trillion).

Following the logic of total factor productivity, the argument can be made that the U.S. officially became a knowledge-based economy, simply measured as the point at which a majority of total service exports are made up of knowledge-based services, at the end of 1997, beginning of 1998. By the end of 1997, 50.74 percent of all U.S. service exports consisted of knowledge-based services. Today [2012], knowledge-based service exports make up 64.6 percent of total U.S. service exports, accounting for $390.95 billion of $604.90 billion in annual service exports for 2011.

So, the U.S. converted to a knowledge-based economy when the quantified production of the knowledge (or quaternary) economy made the main (or most significant) contribution to the economy as a whole (replacing the less specific service, or tertiary economy). While this conflates society with economy (something we’ll complicate over the next couple weeks), it offers a quantified measure by which we can consider the comparative significance of information. That is, it allows us to identify when the (economic) significance of information is such that we can consider a society to be dominated by it.



What is produsage?

According to produsage.org (2007):

In collaborative communities the creation of shared content takes place in a networked, participatory environment which breaks down the boundaries between producers and consumers and instead enables all participants to be users as well as producers of information and knowledge – frequently in a hybrid role of produser where usage is necessarily also productive. Produsers engage not in a traditional form of content production, but are instead involved in produsagethe collaborative and continuous building and extending of existing content in pursuit of further improvement. Participants in such activities are not producers in a conventional, industrial sense, as that term implies a distinction between producers and consumers which no longer exists; the artefacts of their work are not products existing as discrete, complete packages; and their activities are not a form of production because they proceed based on a set of preconditions and principles that are markedly at odds with the conventional industrial model.

Writing in 2006, Jay Rosen describes a process of significant change in audience-ing, but, prisoner of the past that he is, he addresses this realization to the very media giants he declares his audience free from.

Henry Jenkins’s take (on Blackboard) is more specific but symmetrically positive and similarly focused on the impacts this new form of “participatory culture” has/will have on industry. Jenkins’s use of that phrase, “participatory culture,” also gets at something hidden within this discussion: an increasing responsibility of consumers to be active, to participate, to more than merely consume… to share, link, review, tweet, retweet, blog, comment, or otherwise assert.

S. Elizabeth Bird’s take (also on Blackboard) is less generous. She, in particular, sees a conflation or lineage of terms:

… audience … consumer … fan … participant … community … prosumer … produser …

That is, on one level produsage has parentage in fanfiction… and on one level produsage has parentage in open source software (and the like)… meaning that produsage is, in some ways, the reification of Barthes’s dead author: not that the author is made real but that the absence of the author is made real (or the author is crowdsourced… and the idea of a completed work is challenged).

Or… the term(s), for all three of these authors (Rosen, Jenkins, Bird), are about power and authority: Produsage suggests an increased capacity for the (previously) audience of a text to have a say in what a text means (fan-fiction joining the canon) but it also suggests a responsibility on the part of the (previously) audience to contribute to that meaning, in the same way open-source software requires contribution and collaboration.

And it is important to note that this assertion of the increased power, authority, and responsibility of our contemporary produsers is not unproblematic: for example, as Bird points out, “today, marketers have simply found creative ways to harness the enthusiasm of active media audiences in order to sell to them more effectively” (Bird,  2011, p. 507).

That is, did the rich stop getting richer?

Lastly, any time we’re talking about the changing capacities of a group (here, audience) we’re also considering questions of literacy… with the increased interactivity that is central to the computer/information society, and with the increased capacity that defines the moves from audience to participant to produser, the literacies that enable navigating, comprehending, communicating, contributing, and generating media and content become symmetrically more significant.



Questions to consider for week two’s blog post:

Are you a produser? Consider Van Dijck’s rule of thumb (cited in Bird, p. 504). Are these numbers surprising? Do they feel right?

(Regarding the spectrum of online consumption…)  what is something (a platform, medium, or program/show/artist) you consume passively? What is something to which you comment actively? What is something/someplace where you contribute new content? … that is, what are three examples of you participating as Van Dijck’s 89%, 10%, and 1%. How are they different (both the media and your interaction)? Why do you interact with them differently? How is/was the decision made (to comment/contribute, for example, in one arena and not in another)?

Are produsers more powerful than consumers? Than audience? In what way? Give an example. Are there any exceptions to the rule? Give an example. What is the difference?

Use specific examples and remember to offer evidence that you’ve done the readings for the week.


Works Cited

Bird, S. E. (2011). Are we all produsers now? Cultural Studies 25[4-5], 502-516. doi: 10.1080/09502386.2011.600532

Produsage.org. (2007). Produsage: a working definition. Retrieved from http://produsage.org/produsage

White, S. D. (2012). The foundation of the knowledge-based economy. Retrieved from http://dstevenwhite.com/2012/05/28/the-foundation-of-the-u-s-knowledge-based-economy/

Wikipedia. (2016). Information society. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_society


2 thoughts on “Week Two — Participation, Culture, Literacy

  1. In your blog when you wrote that an information societies main drivers are digital information and communication technologies, which have resulted in an information explosion and are profoundly changing all aspects of social organization. Are examples of these digital information and communication technologies that have resulted in information explosion, technologies such as the internet, social media and sites/search engines such as google?


    • Yes.

      Here’s a quote from techtarget.com (not a great website, but it’s a good definition):

      “ICT (information and communications technology – or technologies) is an umbrella term that includes any communication device or application, encompassing: radio, television, cellular phones, computer and network hardware and software, satellite systems and so on, as well as the various services and applications associated with them, such as videoconferencing and distance learning.”

      So ICTs are both hardware and software that are used for communication. Today, these are (by quantity) almost exclusively digital although remember that the alphabet is a technology (and thus an ICT); we *tend* to think of technologies as new, but that’s not always the case… rather it’s the case that the technologies that are controversial and exciting (or otherwise worth informing people about) are usually new. When we talk about ICTs (and access to ICTs) we’re usually talking about the internet, smartphones, other digital technologies (hardware and software), and anything else connected to them.

      (Lastly, even in a blog post, direct quotes from another source, even a blog post, *must* be in quotation marks.)


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