Knowledge society

OLE Nepal cover

Idyllic mage from OLE Nepal (One Laptop Per Child), an ambitious but somewhat controversial project. Nepal, 2009.Courtesy of Flickr: OLE Nepal cover

In 1896 there were 50,000 scientific researchers in the world; in 2011 there were around 1000 researchers per million inhabitants ( According to Derek de Solla Price, these changes are associated to a concept, that of “big science”, which encompasses the increasingly complex frameworks were science and technology practices take place in the second half of the 20th and the first decades of the 21st century. In this period a culture of innovation has become omnipresent, affecting the way technology is understood. All these transformations are associated to a complex phenomenon implying changes in both the values and the central role of science and technology in society, as well as in the relationship between them. The meaning of the so-called “Knowledge society” derives directly from these changes.

So what does this term refers to? Previous societies have not been knowledge societies? Weren’t they based on knowledge? According to Manuel Castells (Castells, 2003, 7) the term “knowledge society”, in some cases “Information society”, refers to a society where the conditions both to produce knowledge and manage information have been substantially altered due to a technological revolution focused on the processing of information, the generation of knowledge and on information technologies. This does not suggest a technological determinism –yet technology develops hand in hand with social elements, receiving influences from market demands, state policies and a world view–, but a real paradigm shift has occurred where all social, political, cultural and economic processes are affected. This revolution is characterized not by the central role of knowledge or information, but rather by its application to apparatus for generating and processing knowledge; new information technologies are then not only tools that can be applied, but also processes to be developed. Good examples of this are the two interacting technological expressions this paradigm has: internet and genetic engineering. On the one hand, internet is not only, or chiefly, a technology, but a cultural production. On the other hand, apart from the fact that the discovery of DNA has driven to consider information as the organizing principle in itself, we are having the possibility of processing and manipulating not only information, but also life. The revolution in the processing of information affects then both electronic and genetic information.

Some of the first approaches to the concept of Knowledge Society were suggested by Peter Drucker, Marc Porat, and Daniel Bell. Drucker “forecasted” the emergency of knowledge workers (Druker, 1959), and the tendency towards a knowledge society (Druker, 1969) where knowledge substitute work, row materials and capital as the main source of productivity, growth and social inequalities. Porat published in 1977 the first version of “Global implications of the Information Society”, which fully expressed the idea of ‘information economy’ and ‘information society’. Bell described in 1973 (Bell, 1999) a society based in service production, the “post-industrial society”, whose central feature was “the codification of theoretical knowledge and the new relation of science to technology”. According to him,

 Every society has existed on the basis of knowledge and the role of language in the transmission of knowledge. But only in the twentieth century have we seen the codification of theoretical knowledge and the development of self-conscious research programs in the unfolding of new knowledge. One sees this change in the new relation of science to technology. Almost all the industries of the nineteenth century –steel, electricity, telephone, automobile, aviation, the wireless– were created by talented thinkers (a Bessemer, a Thomas Alva Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright brothers, Marconi) who were indifferent to or worked independently of the developments in science. But the major developments of the twentieth century –in telecommunications, computers, semi-conductors and transistors, materials science, optics, biotechnology– derive from the revolutions in twentieth century physics and biology […]. Research and development are the handmaidens of invention and innovation, and these are integral to the developments in science” (Bell, 1999, xiv-xv)

Bell’s view –reflected also in other assertions– corresponds to a linear model of innovation. This model, that subordinates technology to science, has proved insufficient to explain technological change. Nevertheless, his idea of a post-industrial society where the technical component of knowledge occupies a central role was an interesting approach to the upcoming changes.

In the 1990’s the model of society suggested by Bell, Drucker and others, with the presence of an important economic component, was described using different concepts: “Knowledge society” (KS), “Information society” (IS), “Network society” (NS). But there is not universal definition for these terms because their meaning emerges from the uses it has in a specific social context and it can differ from one society to another. These concepts then should not be regarded in purely static terms: being these changes something that keep taking place, they encompass experiences from countries having different, and sometimes opposing, political and social systems.

Taking into account the lack of a clear definition, we can say that IS is more generally used in the framework of the development of Internet and the ICT’s, making reference both to technological aspects and to its effects on economic growth and employment, whereas KS, emerged as an evolution of IS, and for some authors even as a substitute for it, is a more comprehensive concept which also considers both the central role of knowledge –mainly scientific knowledge– in the organization of society and its importance for the changes taking place in aspects such as economic structure, labor or education. This concept comprises the massive participation of science and technology on social and economic development as well as the knowledge easily accessible due to technological novelties. In between we find the concept of network society, defined by Manuel Castells as “a society where the key social structures and activities are organized around electronically processed information networks” (Castells, 2001).

The two major symbols for the KS are the hacker culture and Silicon Valley. The first one represents a real subculture primarily concern with curiosity, openness, sharing, cooperation and playful cleverness that enjoys the intellectual challenge of overcoming software systems’ limitations in a creative way. The second one is a geographical area where many of the world’s largest high-tech corporations and startup companies are placed, and whose social and business mentality encourages innovation and entrepreneurship. They are somehow opposed in its purpose, yet the first is associated with improving or creating software and sharing it –being free and open source software one of its outcomes–, whereas the second is aimed at creating products to commercialize them.

The fact that the use of the concept KS is previous to the development of ICT’s shows that it is not a consequence of these technologies but the other way round:

Ce n’est pas le développement des TIC qui a permis de passer de la société industrielle à la société de l’information. Les technologies ne sont venues qu’après, pour faciliter et multiplier les effets du passage à la société de l’information (Courrier, 2000).

Many are the changes associated to these new technologies. Some of them, as well as its consequences, can be found in Bell’s 1999 foreword to his book The Coming Of Post-industrial Society. We shall here point out only a few ones reflecting the relationship between technology, society and culture.

In the first place, the concept of technology has changed. In pre-industrial and industrial societies the term technology made reference mainly to physical objects, material things. In this new KS, we have a greater presence of intangible technology:

For most people, technology still means machines or mechanical modes –mecanisms that still exist, of course. But the newer technology of telecommunications and computers –which is the basis of post-industrial society–, is an intellectual technology with very different roots and patterns of learning than the mechanical technology that created the industrial world (Bell, 1999, xxxviii).

These changes have a reflection, for example, in some companies based on virtual entities which, with a few workers, reach a high economic value.

And even though some old calculating machines could be considered as intellectual technologies (Guijarro and González, 2010), its meaning has been broadened. On the one hand, technology contributes to specify how to do things in a reproducible way, and it allows us to manage reality and complex systems replacing intuition and decision making with algorithms in processes ranging from playing chess to the analysis of big data. On the other hand, technology –in particular computers– has become essential to process large amounts of information.

In the second place, new technologies make also possible the existence of a collective intelligence: individuals worldwide sharing knowledge in virtual spaces and having free access to it, being wikis –user-editable websites created by Ward Cunningham (WikiWikiWeb) and based on the collaborative modification of its content and structure directly from the web browser– a very good example of this idea.

All of this has contributed to consider the internet, one of the KS’ technological expressions, as a means of improving our society. For his advocates, KS can be considered more an ideal than a fact, something we are approaching and that will improve our society. Its proponents

have put a greater emphasis on the public engagement in science, and on debate and discussion. Involving people in the scientific enterprise and a widening participation in higher education among all groups and strata of society has been among their goals (Sörlin and Vessuri, 11-12).

But the values and meanings associated to the KS and its technologies are sometimes opposing, as reflects the variety of metaphors emerged around them (see the post “Metaphors” on this blog). His supporters consider that it offers people the possibility to emancipate, to become active society members, able to associate in order to get more power or representativeness. This new paradigm of KS drives to an apparent decentralization of power, a situation in which the individual gains power both over state and other economic powers. KS is then considered as a primary resource to create wealth, prosperity and well-being for the people. An example of this view can be seen in the following words from an interview to Abdul Waheed Khan, the UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information:

Actually, the two concepts are complementary. Information society is the building block for knowledge societies. Whereas I see the concept of ‘information society’ as linked to the idea of ‘technological innovation’, the concept of ‘knowledge societies’ includes a dimension of social, cultural, economical, political and institutional transformation, and a more pluralistic and developmental perspective. In my view, the concept of ‘knowledge societies’ is preferable to that of the ‘information society’ because it better captures the complexity and dynamism of the changes taking place. As I said before, the knowledge in question is important not only for economic growth but also for empowering and developing all sectors of society. Thus, the role of ICTs extends to human development more generally – and, therefore, to such matters as intellectual cooperation, lifelong learning and basic human values and rights (Kahn, 2003).

Nevertheless, the central role adopted by ICT’s & internet in our society has led, perhaps, to an overestimation of its possibilities and to the idea that this model should be extended to any society, no matter its necessities and social conditions.

This idea is on the basis of some utopic and presumably philanthropic projects originated in this environment, aimed at both promoting development and improving the non-developed countries’ quality of life. Thus, projects such as OLPC (One Laptop Per Child, a program launched in 2005 by Nicholas Negroponte aimed at transforming education in the developing world by creating and distributing specific computers, hardware and contents, or (“a Facebook-led initiative with the goal of bringing internet access and the benefits of connectivity to the two-thirds of the world that doesn’t have them” may reflect an ethnocentric point of view which tries to export a specific model of society. This view corresponds to a technologically deterministic idea (see the post “Technological determinism” on this blog) ignoring that the cause and consequence of a technology depends on social, cultural and economic factors. As Daniel Bell states:

I am not a technological determinist, for all technology operates in a context not always of its making (such as politics and culture); yet technology is the major instrument of change (and instruments can be used well or badly) (Bell, 1999, xviii).

Technology does not determine social change; technology provides instrumentalities and potentialities. The ways that these are used involve social choices (Bell, 1999, xxxviii).

The criticism to the KS takes place at different levels. Some critics come from within. Such is the case, among others, of Mike Steep, Senior Vice President for the PARC innovation center in Palo Alto and who worked previously at Microsoft. In an interview he stated:

This town [Silicon Valley] used to think big—the integrated circuit, personal computers, the Internet. Are we really leveraging all that intellectual power and creativity creating Instagram and dating apps? Is this truly going to change the world? (Malone, 2015).

But other critics go further: For its detractors, KS is all about economy and social control; thus, the powerful media offered by the new technologies are considered to provide an effective tool to big economical institutions to “suggest” trends and global thinking in these changes (Crovi, 2002, 13), as well as to internet companies to have access to a huge amount of personal data available both to enrich these companies and to control individuals, something not always easily accepted within knowledge-sharing communities.

Still, for certain authors the consequences of all these changes are difficult to accept. For José Carlos Bermejo, the economic theory’ mathematical formalism has created

nociones ilusorias de economía y sociedad del conocimiento, que no solo están consiguiendo arruinar la economía real, sino también destruir los sistemas educativos en todos y cada uno de sus niveles (Bermejo, 2015, 7).

The point made here concerning education refers to the fact that, from the two main purposes associated to technical education since the eighteenth century (which can be applied to education in general), i.e., the moral purpose –aimed at both the complete development of the individual and his social integration–, and the economistic one –focused on the acquisition of skills– (Guijarro & González, 2015, Chapter 6), it seems to the author that the second option is the prevailing one.

Carlo Maria Cipolla wrote in his book Literacy and Development in the West, in the language of the late 1960`s, that “Instructing a savage in advanced techniques does not change him into a civilized person; it just makes him an efficient savage” (Cipolla, 1969, 110). It may be appropriate to recall his words in the present context.

References and further reading

Daniel Bell (1999), The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society, New York, Basic Books (first ed. 1973); José Carlos Bermejo (2015), La tentación del Rey Midas, Siglo XXI; Manuel Castells (2001), The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, business, and society, Oxford University Press, and “La dimensión cultural de internet”, Andalucía educativa, april 2003, n. 36, pp. 7-10; Carlo M. Cipolla (1969), Literacy and Development in the West, Penguin; Yves Courrier (2000), “Société de l’information et technologies ”, Points of View, UNESCO) (; Delia Crovi Druetta (2002), “Sociedad de la información y el conocimiento. Entre el optimismo y la desesperanza”, en Revista mexicana de Ciencias Políticas y Sociales, n.º 185; Druker, Peter (1959), Landmarks of Tomorrow, New York, Harper, and (1969), The Age of Discontinuity, New York, Harper & Row; Víctor Guijarro and Leonor González (2010), La quimera del autómata matemático, Madrid, Cátedra and (2015), La comprensión cultural de la tecnología, Madrid, Universitas; Abdul Waheed Khan, (2003), A World of Science (UNESCO’s Natural Sciences Quarterly Newsletter), vol. 1, n.º 4, pp. 8-9,; Michael S. Malone (2015), “The purpose of Silicon Valley”, MIT Technology Review, January, 30; S. Sörlin, and ‎H. Vessuri (eds.) (2007), Knowledge Society vs. Knowledge Economy, New York and Hampshire, Palgrave Macmillan.


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