3 What is a Knowledge Society?

K S Raghavan and A. Neelameghan

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I. Objectives

This unit will introduce the notions of information and knowledge societies and examine in some detail their basic traits and characteristics. The principal differences between knowledge societies and pre-knowledge societies are explained and the major issues that need to be addressed in becoming a knowledge society are outlined.


II. Learning Outcome


On completion of this module, you should know what the terms ‘knowledge society’ and ‘information society’ connote. You should also have a general idea of the traits and characteristics of knowledge / information society. Another important learning outcome expected on completing this module is an understanding of the dominant characteristics of Pre-industrial, industrial and information societies.


III.   Structure of the Module


1.  Introduction

2.  Terminology and Definitional Issues

2.1 Approaches to Information Security

3.  Traits and Characteristics of the Information Society

3.1 Emerging Patterns of Information Security

4.   Some indicators of information security

5.  Issues in the Information Society

5.1 Information Society: Challenges for India

6.  Summary

7.  References


1. Introduction


Knowledge has been at the heart of growth and development since time immemorial. The ability to invent and innovate, and create new knowledge to trigger development of new products, processes and services that help improve the quality of life has been a principal occupation of mankind .The terms ‘knowledge society’, ‘knowledge-based economy’, however, are terms that were coined more recently. It is important for proper understanding to make a distinction between knowledge and information. Knowledge empowers its possessors with the capability for action- intellectual or physical. Knowledge is a matter of cognitive capability. Information, on the other hand, takes the shape of structured and formatted data that remain passive and inert until used by those with the knowledge needed to interpret and process them. The term knowledge society was probably first used by Peter Drucker in 1969 (1). It is not a mere coincidence that the idea emerged along with such notions as learning societies, life-long education, etc; the notion of knowledge society is closely related to these. In a broad sense every society has been a knowledge society as every society must have had its knowledge assets. However when the term is used in the present context ,it often refers to a society in which knowledge is a primary factor of economic productivity as contrasted with societies in which capital and labour still rule. There is another significant difference between ‘knowledge society’ as understood today and the earlier knowledge societies. The focus today is on human rights, inclusivity and participation of all sections of the society. A knowledge society generates shares and applies knowledge for the prosperity and well-being of its people and for overall development.


A closely related term ‘Post-industrial society’ was used as early as in 1914, i.e. 100 years ago. It was Daniel Bell who revived its usage in his well known book, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (2). This term was the most frequently used one before the expression “information society” gained overall acceptance; it defined the newly emerged social-economic phenomenon by emphasizing the fact that the old structures of the industrial era were replaced by new ones rather than by focusing on its “content”. Information Society is a closely related term and widely used today (3). Although the terms ‘Information society’ and ‘Knowledge society’ are often used interchangeably there is a difference that needs to be understood. The idea of ‘Information society’ as it is understood today, is primarily based on the technological breakthroughs that resulted from the revolution in information and communication technologies (ICT). While the idea of the Internet as a public network and as a platform for universal and equitable access to knowledge resources is at the core of the concept of ‘Knowledge society’, the notion has much broader implications as it has social, political, cultural and even ethical dimensions. Plans to ushering in a Knowledge society’ should be based on the clear understanding that even in today’s technology driven society the control of knowledge and access to knowledge can go hand in hand with serious inequality, exclusion and social conflict. Ideally a true knowledge society should integrate all its members and promote new forms of solidarity involving both present and future generations. Nobody should be excluded from knowledge societies, where knowledge is a public good, available to every individual.


Abdul Waheed Khan of the UNESCO Division for Communication and Information says, “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. (…) the knowledge in question is important not only for economic growth but also for empowering and developing all sectors of society.” (4)


2. Terminology and Definitional Issues


Perhaps a brief discussion on terminology and definitions of knowledge society is relevant. Some argue that Information Society is not an appropriate term as, ‘to inform’ refers to a unidirectional process intended to alter the state and / or behavior of a passive receiver. The suggestion is to employ, instead, the term ‘information and communication societies’. It is argued that ‘communication’ places emphasis simultaneously on both reception and dissemination and leads to a social structure. As for the term ‘knowledge society’, those who uphold it feel that it evokes a more integral vision and an essentially human process. To some, the expression knowledge society denotes a more “progressive” state than information society. Too some, information society is one of the components of knowledge society, which is not surprising as information is one of the constituent parts of knowledge. There are, though, those who are not very happy with the use of the term; The term ‘knowledge’ extensively used in today’s corporate sector places emphasis on the economic value and function of knowledge (as, for example, in the notion of ‘Knowledge Management’, which emphasizes an organization’s or individual’s claim to a piece of knowledge and how to take economic advantage of knowledge of employees of an organization); There is also the feeling that the emphasis in ‘Knowledge Management’ is on the type of knowledge that is supposedly objective, scientific, and is amenable for digitization. Such an approach, it is argued that, tends to view knowledge and information as a commodity rather than as public good; this has been severely criticized by the civil society throughout the world which rejects the supremacy of the market over health, culture, environment, and development in general. That resistance is alive and active even today and is fighting for acceptance of exceptions to the rules of international trade and for respect of our common interests to ensure that they are not subordinated to intellectual property and market interests. Interestingly it is the liberalization movement that is fighting for recognition of information and knowledge as a public good; on the other hand , the same movement holds that only a free and open economy can ensure the speedy development and building up of the infrastructure necessary for universal access to information. Another interesting variants “shared knowledge society (ies)” .The emphasis is on the plural form (Societies rather than Society) recognizing the heterogeneity and diversity of human societies.


László Z. Karvalics lists the following definitions from among over 50 such definitions:(5)

  • A society that organizes itself around knowledge in the interest of social control, and the management of innovation and change… ( Daniel Bell)
  • A new type of society, where the possession of information (and not material wealth) is the driving force behind its transformation and development … (and where) human intellectual creativity flourishes. (Yoneji Masuda)
  • The information society is an economic reality and not simply a mental abstraction …The slow spread/dissemination of information ends … new activities, operations and products gradually come to light. (John Naisbitt)
  • A society where … information is used as an economic resource, the community harnesses/exploits it, and behind it all an industry develops which produces the necessary information … (Nick Moore)
  • A social structure based on the free creation, distribution, access and use of information and knowledge … the globalization of various fields of life. (Hungarian) National Strategy of Informatics, 1995
  • A new type of society in which humanity has the opportunity to lead a new way of life, to have a higher standard of living, accomplish better work, and to play a better role in society thanks to the global use of information and telecommunication technologies.” (BélaMurányi)


Evidently the definitions are based on different perceptions and what the author of the definition perceives as the aspect of life affected significantly. As is obvious from a reading of the above definitions, some focus on resources, some on products, or industries, or activities, or society and people. Some definitions consider the representation of global dimensions extremely important, while others do not. Some view political dimensions (control) as important; others do not even mention it. Partly the differences stem from the fact that both ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’ are ambiguous and have never really been clearly defined. Whichever term is used, it will be primarily to refer to a phenomenon – present, emerging or future. It is important, however, to realize that the term does not necessarily define the content. The content should emerge from usage after considering the concerned specific social context, which in turn influences perceptions and expectations.


It is, however, important to differentiate between an existing or an emerging reality (referred to as Information / Knowledge Society) and an ideal (Vision) one that we would like to realize. An understanding of the first will help us clearly identify and analyze the factors that have contributed to the reality , and the second – vision or goal – will assist us shape and formulate our policies and programmes that will help us get there. With regard to the first – an existing or emerging reality – Manuel Castells prefers the term ‘informational society’ to ‘information society’ (making the comparison with the difference between industry and industrial). Knowledge and information are decisive elements in all modes of development: “the term informational indicates the attribute of a specific form of social organization in which information generation, processing, and transmission are transformed into the fundamental sources of productivity and power, due to the new technological conditions that arise during this historic period.” [6].


The documents that have emerged from the WSIS (The global summits on Information Society) are important. In fact developing a common vision of the Information Society’ was one of the goals of WSIS. The declarations adopted at WSIS are significant as not only governments participated in these; but civil society has played a major role in shaping the outcome of WSIS. The Geneva Declaration of Principles [7] adopted by governments, with significant contributions from civil society, in its first article, says:


“We… declare our common desire and commitment to build a people-centered, inclusive, and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize, and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life, premised on the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and respecting fully and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”


The Civil Society Declaration [8] extends this vision and focuses on a commitment to building people-centered, inclusive, and equitable information societies, i.e. a society in which everyone can freely create, access, utilize, share and disseminate information and knowledge. The focus here is more on empowering people to improve their quality of life and to achieve their full potential. The principles of social, political, and economic justice, as well as capacity-building of the peoples are emphasized as essential for sustainable development, democracy, gender equality; and for ensuring fundamental human rights.


2.1 Approaches to Information Security


One also sees two slightly different approaches in moving towards Information Society. One approach views Information Society as a new development paradigm that looks at technology as causal and neutral factor in the social order and as a driving force in economic development. Many developing countries (and to a certain extent, even India) seem to have adopted this approach which places technology at the core of this development model expecting the telecommunications industry to lead this move towards an Information society. The digital content production industry also assumes significance in this approach. The second perspective contests the first one in certain respects. This approach emphasizes that the focus should be on human beings and conceived in terms of their needs and within a benchmark of human rights and social justice. It suggests that the new phase of human development that we are entering into is characterized by the predominance of information, communication, and knowledge in the economy as well as human activities. Technology has accelerated this process; but is not a neutral factor, as technological development is guided by games of interest. While the first perspective focuses on data, telecommunication channels, and storage space, the second is about human beings, cultures, and communication; i.e. the information is determined in terms of society and not the other way.


The following could be inferred from the above discussions:

  • The term ‘Information Society’ (or knowledge society) may not necessarily imply the same notion for all. It is therefore appropriate to think in terms of information societies considering the pluralistic, heterogeneous and diverse nature of societies. An equally important point is that in moving towards an information society a country will have to consider and employ technologies appropriate to tits development priorities;
  • The term Information Society also means a society in which Information /Knowledge is a public good and not a commodity or private property; Information communication is a participative and interactive process; and technologies, a support for all this without being an end in itself.
  • The true dimensions of information society will be visible not within telecommunications or informatics, but rather in education, science, innovation, the (new) economy, content and culture.


It is doubtful if it is meaningful to try and differentiate between the meanings of ‘knowledge society’ and ‘information society’. The conceptual distinction between the two is only relative and is indeed very difficult to sustain as these terms are often used as synonyms. The difference is in the focus. One way to broadly understand the difference in the focus between the two is to view them as below1:


Information society is a society in which information is seen as a commodity that one can exchange, buy, sell, store, transport, process. In the Information society the problem of digital dividepersists. On the other hand, Knowledge Society is one which seeks to over come the problem of digital divide. A society in which knowledge should ideally bring justice, democracy, peace, etc. A society in which knowledge isused to transform the society in to a more equitable, just and democratic society with universal and enquit able access to information for all. A knowledge society, therefore, presupposes the availability and accessibility of


1Note : The twotermswillbeused more or less in terchangeably in this text knowledge resources relevant to the community under consideration and in a language and format understandable to the members of the society. In the Knowledge Society, every learner is a lifelong learner. The content and the methods of initial education must take into account preparation for lifelong learning. ICT is a key tool for developing lifelong learning. The development of lifelong learning needs an integration of education into the real world – ICT should be used for this purpose. Lifelong learning must be encouraged in all countries, as a tool for reducing the Digital Divide.


3. Traits and Characteristics of the Information Society


Before examining the traits and characteristics of knowledge society, it is useful to note some of the indicators that suggest that the knowledge society has indeed arrived.


  • The single most important indicator is the unprecedented speed at which new knowledge is created, accumulated, and also the rate at which its economic value depreciates. This reflects the pace of scientific and technological progress;
  • Increasingly the disparities in the productivity and growth of different countries have less to do with the availability of natural resources than with the capacity to improve the quality of their human resources to create new knowledge and ideas and incorporate them;
  • Significant proportion of the workforce is getting involved in knowledge-related activities.


Daniel Bell is widely credited with defining the characteristics and traits of the information society and contrasting these with those of the industrial and pre-industrial societies. He categorizes societies into three broad groups based on a number of parameters. The three groups of societies according to Bell are:


•      Pre-Industrial Society

•      Industrial Society

•      Post-Industrial Society



The three periods correspond to those defined by Alvin Toffler in his book, The Third Wave (1980) (9); They also match with the typology employed by TadaoUmesao, who divided the economy into endodermal (agriculture, fishing), mesodermal (transportation, heavy industry) and ectodermal (information, communication, training) sectors.


It is useful to examine briefly the traits and characteristic differences identified by some other important writers in the area. Masuda also compares industrial and information societies (10).


Schement and Curtis reduce the essential components to a few categories. (11) While their categories include the already known categories such as good, industry and work, they also introduce some entirely new ones, such as interconnectedness, media environment and community. Obviously there are different ways of looking at and characterizing the information society. Broadly we can conclude that information societies are characterized by the:


3.1. Emerging Patterns of Information Security

  • Focus on ideas: Tangible goods are no longer the forces that drive the economy; New ideas and innovation that bring about changes in the quality of life of people are the factors that drive economic growth and development;
  • Focus on continuous education: The new focus on information and technology emphasizes the importance of education and lifelong learning in the knowledge society;
  • Shift in workplace: New communications /technology allows work to be performed from a variety of locations;
  • Focus on empowering people: The focus is on ensuring that not only people are beneficiaries of the revolution brought about the new technologies, but are also empowered to actively participate in the process of development and decision-making.
  • Focus on service sector as the primary driving force of the economy: Service is a more important factor of growth of the economy than production of goods. Communication and Technology have developed attracting employees to the service sector (white collar employees).


Most of us have been experiencing the changes that have come about in banking, airline / railway reservations, education, governance, shopping, etc areas – as a result of the impact of ICTs. The impact has been so pervasive that there is hardly any sector of human activity that has not been impacted the ICTs.


4. Some indicators of information security


There are distortions related to information society. Some place the dawn of the information society in the distant future; some argue that an information society existed as early as the late 19th century. Some even question the viability of the term as historically information and knowledge have always played an important role in the society. It is therefore better to understand ‘information society as a historical notion and as referring to a social condition which a society can claim to have attained by taking various criteria into consideration as opposed to the prior stage of development it had achieved. In this section we will briefly examine some of these indicators. But before we begin it is important to understand that these indicators are just that, ‘indicators’. The measures are only indicative of the stage a country or society is in its transition to an information society. In fact one of the primary goals of the first phase of the WSIS meet was precisely to develop a common vision of the information society. There is at present no consensus among sociologists as to what variables should be examined in order to ascertain whether and when a country transited into the information society club. As technology has developed the measures suggested have also changed. For example the number of telephones for every 1000 population was considered a good indicator of interconnectedness some years back, while today the basic indicators for this are mobile phones, internet connectivity and usage.


Surely different countries are in different stages in terms of their transition to ‘knowledge society’. Even within a country different regions and sections of the society usually are in different stages of transiting into the information society2. An idea of the proportion of population using Internet in the developed and developing countries of the world can be got from the graph below (Fig. 1).


The developed countries of Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and a few Asian countries could be said to have become information societies. However, a great part of Africa, Asia and Latin America cannot be regarded as information 2The digital divide – a subject that will be dealt with in greater detail in another lesson in this package societies. The transition is faster in small countries in which the internal penetration time for a new technology is minimal; whereas in large, complex and diverse societies a new technology takes much longer to become widespread and touch all sections of the society.


In addition, literacy levels, culture and even geography play a major role in determining the speed with which informatization of different sections and regions of the society happens. Karvalics lists the following criteria for assessing the stage in which a society is in. These assume significance because they are measurable and could be quantified. (5)


Some are of the opinion that if a single year is to be mentioned as the beginning of the transition to information society ,it has to be the year 1961 when the prototype computer network forming the backbone of the networked society was built. This was the period when man entered space and began transmitting signals using satellites. The birth of the global information society is expected to happen around 2020.


Another area that will see far-reaching and fundamental changes – but an area in which changes are only beginning to happen, at least in most countries – is e-governance.



The significance of the Internet in governance is because ICTs have the potential to affect production (or capacity) as well as coordination, communication, and control. In other words they have the power to alter the fundamental nature of organizations and governments. While the corporate sector has brought in significant changes in the ways in which organizations function, the effect of IT on governance has not been as visible, especially in the developing and less developed countries; perhaps governments change much more slowly probably because market mechanisms that operate in the corporate world and weed out less competitive forms are not relevant here. It is also partly due to the complexities of government and bureaucracies.


5. Issues in the Information Society


In the emergence of knowledge societies accelerated by rapid technological advances,both hopes and fears have been expressed. Of course the potential of the new technologies to represent the full diversity of knowledge and provide access to disseminate knowledge is something that is widely accepted. There are issues, however, such as privacy, social justice, peace and sustainable development. Clearly the benefits of living in knowledge-intensive societies are not equally felt by all sections of the society. Unless all citizens are enabled to evenly enjoy the new opportunities offered by ICTs, the new technologies may result in further widening the multi-layered digital divide experienced both between individuals and entire communities leading to social exclusion of certain sections of the society. It is important to address these issues, if a truly knowledge society has to be established. Let us briefly examine some of these issues:

  • Privacy and Freedom: It is a paradox that while ICTs make people more free the technology also enables surveillance by governments and others. The new technologies raise serious questions related to privacy and freedom. Such fear of loss of privacy could lead people to avoid using technologies and this could have serious consequences. There is therefore the important issue of whether in the name of openness and free access to information and knowledge, societies become societies of technological surveillance? Knowledge societies could lead to confusion between knowledge for all and knowledge on all? There should be a clear separation between the public and private domain to protect individuals against too intrusive an interest by others in what does not concern them.
  • Digital Divide: It has been estimated that there are some 500 million of the world’s population, three-fourths of them in developing countries, not benefiting from the knowledge resources and services of libraries and other information systems. This is an anachronism. There is not only a digital divide between nations but also within a country, For Example between urban and rural populations. Some believe that the digital divide will close naturally over time, others hold that there is nothing “new” about the divide as it only reflects existing structural disadvantage. These suggest the need for more profound social changes beyond those offered by technological skills. Looked at from a community perspective it is important to ensure that people have adequate knowledge to be able to use computers, the Internet, etc.
  • Control of the Network: Another issue that also needs to be addressed is the one that relates to network control. Issues such as those related to open standards, public control or proprietary systems and ownership come up here. It has been suggested that Information Age disaster comes from the network of networks not outer space.
  • Commercialization of Knowledge: The increasing commoditization of knowledge and access to information is also seen in some quarters as a possible threat to the transition to knowledge society. There is no question that the emergence of information industry as a major player is primarily due to the commercial value of information on the one hand and the phenomenon of information overload on the other.
  • Legal and Rights Issues: An important issue that will frequently crop up as possession of knowledge, access to knowledge and the ability to apply knowledge increasingly become factors of economic growth and development, relates to ownership of information and intellectual property rights. This is closely related to the preceding issue (commercialization of knowledge). Some of the other issues that will be at the centre of debate and discussions as countries progress and get closer and closer to becoming knowledge societies are:
  • Information Overload: Too much to know, and little time do anything;
  • Organisation of Work: The networked economy, Tele-working, Flexible Working, Portfolio workers, Virtual workplace have changed the wok environment; Many knowledge communities also cut across the boundaries of conventional organizations (businesses, research institutions, government agencies, etc.) and members are at the same time employed in different organizations.
  • Death of Distance; The End of Time; 24 hour Global economy


5.1 Information Society: Challenges for India


The need to transform the society into an Information / knowledge society is evident. For a country such as India, clearly there are major challenges. Some of these have been addressed to a significant extent. But some are yet to be addressed. The transit into a knowledge society requires that:

  • The country adopts a comprehensive national information policy that will particularly focus on bridging the digital divide between the haves and have nots; the importance of bringing in the marginalized sections of the society into the mainstream cannot be over emphasized. This in turn calls for clearly defined policies related to relevant digital content creation in the regional languages and scripts;
  • The country puts in place an appropriate information, telecom and network infrastructure; The reach should extend to the remote regions of the country;
  • The country puts in place appropriate legislation related to copyright and intellectual property In recent times considerable progress has been made with regard to these aspects of these.


6. Summary


The growth of knowledge economy and its eventual transformation into a knowledge society across the globe depends largely on the proliferation of knowledge-intensive communities. These communities are linked to scientific and business projects. They are characterized by strong knowledge production and application capabilities, and extensive use of ICTs. Only when increasing numbers of communities displaying such traits and characteristics are formed across many countries and organizations, will the knowledge society become a reality rather than merely a vision.


In the following modules some of the major subthemes that have been emphasized above – e.g. the digital divide, communication processes and models, intellectual property rights, information infrastructure, information industry, the economics of information and knowledge, etc will be examined in greater detail.


7.  References

  • Drucker, Peter (1969). The Age of Discontinuity: Guidelines to Our Changing Society. New York: Harper & Row
  • Bell, Daniel (1976): The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: a Venture in Social Forecasting (Basic Books, New York)
  • Bell, Daniel (1980): The Social Framework of the Information Society (In: Forester, T. (ed): The Microelectronics Revolution: The Complete Guide to the New Technology and Its Impact on Society MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.)
  • http://portal.unesco.org/ci/en/ev.php-URL_ID=11958&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html
  • Karvalics, László Z. (2007) Information Society – what is it exactly? (The meaning, history and conceptual framework of an expression), (http://www.ittk.hu/netis/doc/ISCB_eng/02_ZKL_final.pdf)
  • Himanen, Pekka and Castells, Manuel (2001). The Information Society and the Welfare State: The Finnish Model, Oxford, Oxford University Press
  • Geneva declaration of principles (accessible at http://www.itu.int/net/wsis/docs/geneva/official/dop.html)
  • Shaping Information Societies for Human Needs: Civil Society Declaration to the World Summit on the Information Society WSIS Civil Society Plenary Geneva, 8 December 2009
  • Toffler, Alvin (1980). The Third wave. New York: Bantam Books
  • Masuda, Yoneji (1980): The Information Society as Post-Industrial Society. –The World Future Society, Tokyo
  • Schement, Jorge Reina and Curtis, Terry (1995). Tendencies and Tensions of the Information Age: The Production and Distribution of Information in the United States: transaction publishers.
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