The information, er, protocol society ...


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The ‘information society’ is a vague term, but seems to convey enough of something useful to stay in currency. Frank Webster reviews the concept as it is used in the social sciences and communications studies here.
Reductively, one might point to two emphases in thinking about an Information Society, which emerged successively. In the first, information management activities are seen as centrally important, manifest in the emergence of the service economy and the importance of ‘knowledge workers’. The defining characteristic is that a large part of economic and professional activity involves information management. A second sees information processing activities as more constitutive and generative of a fuller range of activities, in the way that industrial processes were in an earlier phase. Commerce, manufacturing, trade, and so on, are increasingly structured by flows of information, and reflexively adapt to the application of new knowledge. Think of the processes around supply chain management for example, or of data driven R&D, or of the use of transactional data in consumer websites. In this latter sense, ‘information’ is not just managed, but a wide range of activities are ‘informationalised’ and the application and generation of knowledge is a dynamic force in process evolution and refinement.
In a recent column in the NYT David Brooks uses the term ‘Protocol Society’ for a set of ideas similar to the second emphasis above, or maybe for what Manuel Castells calls an ‘informational society’ (modeled after ‘industrial society’).

In the 19th and 20th centuries we made stuff: corn and steel and trucks. Now, we make protocols: sets of instructions. A software program is a protocol for organizing information. A new drug is a protocol for organizing chemicals. Wal-Mart produces protocols for moving and marketing consumer goods. Even when you are buying a car, you are mostly paying for the knowledge embedded in its design, not the metal and glass. [The protocol society]

Brooks goes on to discuss development and innovation in this context referring to recent research.
The term ‘information society’ is probably too vague to be useful except in broad gestural terms. I will be interested to see if ‘protocol society’ gains any traction.


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