Information Revolution

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john desmond bernal

The term information revolution describes current economic, social, and technological trends beyond the Industrial Revolution. Many competing terms have been proposed that focus on different aspects of this societal development.

The British polymath crystallographer J. D. Bernal introduced the term ‘scientific and technical revolution’ in his book ‘The Social Function of Science’ (1939) in order to describe the new role that science and technology are coming to play within society. He asserted that science is becoming a ‘productive force,’ using the Marxist Theory of Productive Forces (a widely-used concept in communism placing primary emphasis on technical advances and strong productive forces in a nominally socialist economy before real communism, or even real socialism, can have a hope of being achieved).

After some controversy, the term was taken up by authors and institutions of the then-Soviet Bloc. Their aim was to show that socialism was a safe home for the scientific and technical revolution. The book ‘Civilization at the Crossroads’ (1969), edited by the Czech philosopher Radovan Richta, became a standard reference for this topic. American socialist Daniel Bell challenged the information revolution theory in the 1980s and advanced instead the concept of a post-industrial society, which would lead to a service economy rather than socialism. Many other authors presented their views, including political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski with his ‘Technetronic Society.’

The main feature of the information revolution is the growing economic, social, and technological role of information. Information-related activities did not come up with the Information Revolution. They existed, in one form or the other, in all human societies, and eventually developed into institutions, such as the Platonic Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, the Library of Alexandria, or the schools of Babylonian astronomy.

The Agricultural Revolution (the transition from hunting and gathering to farming) and the Industrial Revolution (the transition from manual labor to machines and factories) came up when new informational inputs were produced by individual innovators, or by scientific and technical institutions. Information is the central theme of several new sciences, which emerged in the 1940s, including American cryptographer Claude Shannon’s Information Theory (measures the amount of information in data which could have more than one value) and MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics (electronic systems designed to replace human control functions). Wiener stated: ‘information is information not matter or energy.’ This aphorism suggests that information should be considered along with matter and energy as the third constituent part of the Universe; information is carried by matter or by energy.

We can outline a hierarchy to distinguish between data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. Data are sensations, facts, figures, etc, that are independent and atomic in nature. Information can be described alternately as organized data, the patterns that exist in data, or the underlying meaning of interrelated pieces of data. Knowledge is the ability to comprehend and use information. Wisdom is the ability to make the best use of knowledge. Data and information are easily transferable in the modern world, whether through oral, written, or electronic methods. Knowledge, however, is built by one person and transferred (more slowly) through education and human interaction. Wisdom is the least transferable by virtue of being built upon the other three with the addition of personal experience and reflection on one’s experience.

Information is then further considered as an economic activity, since firms and institutions are involved in its production, collection, exchange, distribution, circulation, processing, transmission, and control. Labor is also divided into physical labor (use of muscle power) and informational labor (use of intellectual power). A new economic sector is thereby identified, the Information Sector, which amalgamates information-related labor activities.

Fritz Machlup, in his 1962 book ‘The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States,’ claimed that the ‘knowledge industry represented 29% of the US gross national product,’ which he saw as evidence that the Information Age has begun. He defines knowledge as a commodity and attempts to measure the magnitude of the production and distribution of this commodity within a modern economy. Machlup divided information use into three classes: instrumental, intellectual, and pastime knowledge. He identified also five types of knowledge: practical knowledge; intellectual knowledge (general culture and the satisfying of intellectual curiosity); pastime knowledge (knowledge satisfying non-intellectual curiosity or the desire for light entertainment and emotional stimulation); spiritual or religious knowledge; and unwanted knowledge (accidentally acquired and aimlessly retained).

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