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information society

What is an information society?

An information society is a society where the creation, distribution, use, integration and manipulation of information  is a noteworthy economic, political and cultural activity.

The term information society is used in academic discourse more narrowly than in common usage.

In common usage, an information society can be simply understood as a society where the usage and knowledge of information and computer technology is at a high level.

An information society may be contrasted with societies in which the economic underpinning is primarily industrial or agrarian. The machine tools of an information society are computers and telecommunications, rather than lathes or ploughs.

Information technology components and functions
An information society is a society where the usage and knowledge of information and computer technology is at a high level.

Information society and information and communications technology

The term information society is closely associated with the field of information and communications technology (ICT).

ICT is said to have a major impact on almost every aspect of our lives, and is a driver of social, economic and business change.

The widespread adoption of ICT in recent years has led to a fundamental change in the way we live, work and communicate with each other.

ICT has become an essential part of our daily lives, with many of us now relying on computers, mobile phones and the internet for a range of activities such as shopping, banking, studying and socializing.

Components of ICT
Information society is closely connected to the field of ICT.

Other definitions of information society

Here is a succinct definition of information society from the IBM Community Development Foundation in a 1997 report, "The Net Result: Social Inclusion in the Information Society. Report of the National Working Party on Social Inclusion in the Information Society."

"Information society: A society characterized by a high level of information intensity in the everyday life of most citizens, in most organisations and workplaces; by the use of common or compatible technology for a wide range of personal, social, educational and business activities, and by the ability to transmit, receive, and exchange digital data rapidly between places irrespective of distance."

However, a more modern way to view an information society is simply by understanding it as technology allowing humans to interact with each other and share information and content regardless of time or space constraints.

In this way, individuals have access to a multitude of resources and services that otherwise would not be available and can communicate with each other instantly regardless of location.

There is no single agreed-upon definition of what an information society is, but there are several common themes that seem to emerge from the literature. These include the following:

  • a shift from industrial to knowledge-based economies;
  • an increase in the importance of services over manufacturing;
  • the growth of creative industries;
  • the rise of the information worker;
  • the spread of ICT throughout society;
  • increasing importance of knowledge and information;
  • blurring of the distinction between work and leisure;
  • the development of new forms of social interaction; and
  • the transformation of traditional institutions.

How do you measure an information society?

There are several ways to measure an information society. We will examine three now.

1. Penetration of ICTs

One common method is simply to look at the penetration of ICTs throughout society. This can be done by measuring the following:

  • the number of main telephone lines per 100 inhabitants;
  • the number of mobile telephone subscriptions per 100 inhabitants;
  • the number of personal computers per 100 inhabitants; and
  • internet users per 100 inhabitants or households with access to the internet.

2. The digital divide

Another way to measure an information society is to look at the digital divide -- that is, the gap between those who have access to ICTs and those who do not. This can be done by measuring the following:

  • percentage of households with a computer;
  • percentage of households with internet access; and
  • percentage of individuals who have used the internet in the last 12 months.

3. Global Knowledge Index

A third way to measure an information society is to look at the Global Knowledge Index (GKI), which has been measuring the extent to which a country's economy relies on knowledge-intensive activities since 2017. The GKI replaced the World Bank Institutes knowledge economy index (KEI), which was discontinued in 2012.

The GKI tracks the knowledge performance of countries in the following seven areas:

  • pre-university education;
  • technical and vocational education and training;
  • higher education research;
  • development and innovation;
  • information and communications technology; and
  • economy and the general enabling environment.

The GKI covers 138 countries and 199 indicators.

With the KEI, countries were ranked according to their KEI score, with the higher-scoring countries being more knowledge-intensive. The KEI was calculated using data on the following:

  • research and development expenditures
  • high-tech exports
  • internet users
  • patents

What are the benefits of an information society?

There are many benefits of an information society, including the following:

  • greater efficiency and productivity in businesses and organizations;
  • increased opportunities for education and lifelong learning;
  • improved healthcare through telemedicine and other applications;
  • greater social inclusion of marginalized groups;
  • enhanced cultural exchange and understanding; and
  • a more sustainable planet through increased use of ICTs in environmental monitoring and management.
Example of telemedicine
A telemedicine visit via smartphone.

What are the challenges of an information society?

There are several challenges associated with an information society, such as the following:

  • the risk of exclusion for those without access to ICTs;
  • the need for increased security and privacy protections;
  • the challenge of managing ever-increasing amounts of data;
  • the need for improved literacy in using and understanding ICTs;
  • potential negative impacts on health from too much screen time; and
  • the need for careful regulation of ICTs to ensure they're used ethically.

What does the future hold for the information society?

The future of the information society is difficult to predict. However, it seems likely that ICTs will continue to become more pervasive and integrated into all aspects of our lives.

As we become more reliant on ICTs, it will be important to ensure that everyone has access to them and knows how to use them safely and responsibly.

See also: digital economy, Information Age, data literacy, e-inclusion.

This was last updated in November 2022

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