Thursday, October 27, 2005

Politics in the Age of Information

In line with the news item presented below, here is an excerpt of a paper I wrote on the politics of the digital revolution.

We live in a continually evolving world polity. In an age where individuals are increasingly aware of what exist outside of the personal spaces they inhabit, and indeed in a time where it is relatively facile to move out of the spaces they have known all their lives, what is global, what is international, what is transnational is increasingly local and domestic. The developments in the technological, political and socio-economic realm have eclipsed each and every one of our notions of humanity. To continue viewing the world through dichotomies that artificially separate the domestic and international, the economic and political, are the gravest of follies anyone can commit.

With the view that social structures and their concomitant processes are products of historical change, we examine the notions of power and society in a world indelibly marked by information revolution. We ask, what do we mean exactly by ‘information revolution’?

We argue that power today is more the ability to exclude from access to vital information embodied in networks and institutions. We also argue that world politics in this age of information remains much as it has been for the past few centuries; one wherein struggles for dominance and power preside over human activities. The information revolution is yet another matrix, venue or stage wherein these struggles are juxtaposed...

...We attempt to reveal the structures that underlie what so many digerati claim as a new frontier wherein netizens are all plugged in as equals. Where humanity has the capacity to transcend differences, and create a harmonious world. We attempt to explode this utopian drivel and interpret today’s realities through open and conscious eyes.

It is also useful to address myths by taking them more seriously. If in fact their value is determined less by their empirical truth or falsity but rather by whether they are living or dead, then the question is not are they true but what keeps them alive. Myths are sustained by social practices that involve the leadership of iconic story tellers whose accomplishments in one area live them a platform to promote mythic story-telling (Mosco, 2001: 7).

By these ‘iconic’ storytellers Mosco means those who unequivocally see the increasing informationalization of society as a good when they are in fact speaking for particular interests and at the same time creating a misleading depiction of what the new advances in technology and the so-called information society is all about. He cautions us in the wholesale buying of the idea of globalization and the information age which has acquired such gloss and such demagogical baggage that it does not leave for a deeper unearthing of its dynamics underneath.

What is Information?

Information is not something we knowingly consume as we have in the past, but something that reaches us instantaneously and injects us the message. An interesting question therefore is what is this message?

Information today is presentational instead of representational as in the past. Art such as paintings, sculptures and works of fiction are representations of reality. They are information relaying to us depictions of what is ‘real.’ Information today however presents a message as factual, not leaving time or space for reflection as to whether the message is at all true or indeed relevant. In real life, this kind of information reaches us through the media.

Next we consider information in four perspectives. William Martin gives us four such perceptions (1995: 19-21).

Information-as-thing. Here knowledge is differentiated from information in that the former must be expressed or represented to make it tangible. To make knowledge tangible it must be communicated. The tangible form is information.

Information-as-resource. It is seen as any kind of natural endowment that can be harnessed from the environment (i.e. oil, minerals, wood etc.).

Information-as-commodity. Here it is treated as any commodity gaining value as it progresses through the various steps of creation, processing, storage, distribution and use.

Information-as-constitutive-force-in-society. “Information is not just affected by its environment, but is itself an actor affecting other elements in its environment. Information is not just embedded within a social structure, but creates the structure itself (1995: 21).”

What is the Information Society?

It is said that we are moving into a post-industrial society where increasingly production has diversified into services instead of manufacturing (to the detriment of the latter). Thus, production has become highly dependent on the possession and manipulation of information.

The Information Society is a society in which the quality of life, as well as prospects for social change and economic development depend increasing on information and its exploitation. In such a society, living standards, patterns of work and leisure, education and market place are all influenced markedly by advances in information and knowledge…This is evidenced by an increasing array of information-sensitive products and services, commoditized through a wide range of media, many of them electronic in nature (Martin, 1995: 3).

What is Power in the Information Age?

Our conception of power in the age of information is seen and investigated through different (and complementary to the traditional conceptions) lenses.

In this new economy of knowledge-intensive production, power arises more from the exclusion of actors from access to information. This exclusion is enabled through intellectual property.

“Real property in the means of production carries with it the right to exploit. Intellectual property carries with it the right to exclude (Lash, 2002: 24).”

Intellectual property rights are then enforced through political will and political institutions. The very nature of the information economy being global has made it difficult for individual states to enforce these rights. Therefore, politically-instituted international regimes such as the World Trade Organization (Which has now subsumed the World Intellectual Property Organization) have been designated the task. The WTO is increasingly becoming the battle grounds of defending the right to exclude.

This exclusion is also synonymous to exclusive right to exploit, to make profit from. For this exclusion to occur, information must necessarily be commoditized.

Knowledge is collectively produced and is not inherently scarce, it only acquires a commodity form insofar as it is made artificially scare and access thereto depends on payment of rent… It is worth noting here at least three processes involved in transforming knowledge into a fictitious commodity: the first is its formal transformation from a collective resource ('intellectual commons') into intellectual property (e.g., patent, copyright) as a basis for revenue generation; the second is the formal subsumption of knowledge production under exploitative class relations through the separation of intellectual and manual labour and the transformation of the former into wage labour producing knowledge for the market; and the third is the real subsumption of intellectual labour and its products under capitalist control through their commoditisation and integration into a networked, digitised production-consumption process that is controlled by capital (Jessop).

These seemingly innocuous events are increasingly becoming the norm in today’s scramble for exclusivity-in-use. Power in the information age then stems from the capacity to exclude other actors from access to and profiting from these life forms/modes of doing things. In an era where the creation of wealth is increasingly dependent on being plugged-in into the information network, exclusion from it promises to be detrimental to material and intangible well-being of people.

It is therefore the increasing preoccupation of world powers to appropriate as much knowledge/information as they can.

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