The Impact of Information on Society: An Examination of its Nature, Value and Usage

Alistair S. Duff (Lecturer in the Information Society, Department of Print Media, Publishing and Communication, Napier University, Edinburgh)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 1 April 2000




Duff, A.S. (2000), "The Impact of Information on Society: An Examination of its Nature, Value and Usage", Library Review, Vol. 49 No. 3, pp. 139-156.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

It is a moderately remarkable fact that almost every librarian and information studies academic feels that (s)he is qualified to lecture on the information society. This is not true of artificial intelligence, or of organic chemistry, or of Kierkegaard studies, so why is it true of the information society? Are information society studies somehow not deemed to be a proper specialism involving, like all other academic specialisms, its own conditions of entry – for example, a mastery of the major texts around which the field has grown? Of course, librarians are the professional vanguard of the information age, or so we think, but does this in itself justify all the attempts at monograph production issuing from eager word‐processors in off‐duty hours?

I am sorry to be so school‐masterly, and I am very sorry to pick on the text before me, but the matter needed to be candidly stated. There is nothing seriously wrong with Michael Hill’s book. It is self‐evidently the work of a thoughtful and intelligent individual. It is also reasonably well written, albeit stylistically somewhat listless. However, it does not really succeed as a book on the social impact of information, in any sense. The Impact of Information on Society comes closest to being a general introduction, but even at that level it is not, I think, viable. To begin with, there is too much competition. The preface makes the rash claim that there is no other book on “the basics”, but the truth is that there are many: Martin’s Global Information Society, Feather’s Information Society, and Burton’s Information Technology and Society, to name three of them. All of these titles cover largely the same ground, and they cover it with greater surefootedness. Thus, Hill’s work is, I fear, strictly superfluous to requirements.

There is also a problem with the erudition. The author quotes very widely, but he has missed some of the core classics which have made the information society worth studying. Thus, the discussion of the impact of information on the economy proceeds without reference to the mighty triumvirate of Machlup, Porat and Bell, who between them created and established the whole idea of an “information economy”. The engagement with epistemology (how can we know that such a social formation exists?) relies largely on a single article by Frank Webster. Webster’s article on this topic is pretty good, but it is only one among literally hundreds, and real scholarship does not pluck one paper out of the ether and talk as if it were the only one in existence. And so on. The underlying problem is no doubt the excessive range. Hill tries to deal with everything from information theory to information management, from communication to comprehension, from ethics to sociology, from education to economics. As a result he spreads himself far too thinly, and does not really say anything to write home about on any of these subjects.

There are some strong points, however. A discussion of information and the environment (Chapter 12) is rather uncommon in a work of this kind, and would bear further probing. Also, the treatment of information policy constitutes a useful introduction to that rather slippery subfield of information society studies. Hill has written elsewhere on information policy and seems to be a reliable guide. Arguably, another partially redeeming feature is the political independence which can be detected here and there. It is not every author today who has the audacity to write the likes of the following: “Lord Emsworth sought his pig keeper’s views on pigs but not on any other subject. Today, the government seeks the views on almost every policy topic of even those who are pig‐ignorant” (p. 281). One may not like this “right‐wing” (or just non‐populist?) opinion, but at least it shows that Hill is not a phoney. He is mentally alive and kicking, something of a rarity in New Labour’s bland Britain!My criticism of this book thus amounts in the end to venturing the advice that its author should have confined himself to policy and a few other areas where he has something of particular interest to say.

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