A Sociology of Information

David Lyon. The Sage Handbook of Sociology. Editor: Craig Calhoun, Chris Rojek, Bryan Turner. 2005. Sage Publications Ltd.


Until quite recently, information was something you could learn from looking at the clouds—a red sky in the morning warns of bad weather—or from tales passed on by your mother, or from flipping the pages of an encyclopedia. Only during the twentieth century did information become central to the social, political and economic organization of life and only late in that century did information become inextricably linked with technology. We still learn from the clouds and from our parents, of course, but these sources are often seen as less central to modern life, less adequate than today’s more codified forms. In today’s globalizing world the newer sense of information as coded, commodified and computer-compatible is in the ascendancy.

At its most mundane, gluts of useless information clog the arteries of the internet, and yet simultaneously, for some, information promises—or threatens—to supplant reality itself. This is a paradoxical development, given that information was once by definition useful, and helped people be in touch with and cope with everyday reality. Reference to the internet also serves as a reminder that today information cannot be conceived separately from communication. The social repercussions of flows of information through networks—the internet, cell phones and so on—present one of sociology’s most stimulating challenges (Castells, 2001; Urry, 2000). But information itself requires sociological analysis if we are to grasp its connection with crucial issues from identity and inequality to matter and meaning.

Information is central to the social transformations that began after the Second World War and are now visible in globalizing high-technology-based societies around the world. So-called information societies started to appear from the 1960s (Lyon, 1988; Mosco, 2004; Webster, 1995), helping to accelerate capitalist development in the global north, and by the 1990s the internet and other new media had also begun to make decisive contributions to the commercialization of information. Cyberspace, as the realm of computer-mediated communications, was no longer just science fiction. Now networking between remote locations is commonplace, and in everyday life people rely on such systems for a variety of activities such as banking, travel arrangements, entertainment, education, access to government services, news, music and movies.

To explore sociologically the significance of these transformations is to ask about their origins, trajectories and effects. The Second World War, mentioned just previously, is not a mere marker of periods. That war, along with the ‘Cold War’ that succeeded it, actually stimulated and in important ways guided the development of many microelectronic and communications technologies on which we depend today. But it is not only a question of military origins; the issue of meaning also surfaced decisively in the nascent information theory of the 1950s, and its resolution had profound effects. It enabled a shift from seeing information as primarily instructive to seeing it as technical and then as something valuable as a commodity.

None of these developments occurred according to a predetermined pattern, of course. Although many claimed from an early date that they could perceive the future social impacts of, first, microelectronics, and, later, information technologies, most predictions have turned out to be notoriously inaccurate. The course of change has been one of trial and error, serendipitous choices, and factors that had nothing to do with technological superiority (otherwise, some devotees might assert, everyone would prefer Macs to PCs) or appropriateness. The process of change is in fact deeply social, with economic and political factors playing crucial roles. Capitalism, competing nation-states and cultural commitments play a larger part than ‘technology’—if by that term is meant devices or machines—in producing societies that stress the value of information.

The mistake made by many commentators is to see ‘information,’ or more likely ‘information technology,’ as having ‘social impacts.’ As soon as this move is made, the ‘information technology’ (or IT) appears as an unquestioned ‘black box,’ something that has a mysterious capacity to produce effects. In fact, IT is always embedded in social, economic and political situations and processes. If one focuses only on ‘technical’ specifications or promotional descriptions of what technologies can ‘do,’ the material conditions and social environments through which they are produced and through which they operate are thereby obscured. In what follows we shall look at some of what Saskia Sassen (2002) calls the ‘mediating cultures’ that organize relations between technologies and their users and the complex interactions between material and digital worlds. We shall also see that for all the differences in social life that are associated with information and IT, there are also many continuities that should not be overlooked.

Because of the volatility that is in part a product of the orientation to information, the consequences of shifts in the social importance of information are still hard to discern with any clarity, still less definitiveness. While some significant debates have occurred regarding the realm of computer-mediated communication often referred to as ‘cyberspace,’ the way this has often been analysed can easily distract attention from the analysis of sociological themes such as identity, inequality and power. As part of a broader trend, the changing role of information is implicated in new ways of understanding social relations, the body and global interactions. But it cannot be detached, either, from equally sociological questions of critique, in which meaning appears again as a contested matter.

The Rise of Information

In the middle of the twentieth century, information was what you asked the telephone operator for when you wanted to find a number, or it was discrete bits of handy lore like recipes or fire route instructions (Roszak, 1986: 3-4). But by the end of that century, information was associated with major technological infrastructures, government policies, educational innovations and commercial and industrial management systems. The word information was used as an adjective to qualify basic descriptive categories: information economy, information society, information superhighway (significantly, because speed, acceleration, mobility, technological obsolescence and some other features make the car-computer analogy an interesting one) and even information age. Information was a commodity; it was cool. For some, it was almost a cult.

This major shift can be explained partly in terms of long-term trends which James Beniger dubs the ‘control revolution’ (Beniger,1986). He insists that the so-called information society was structurally present from before the Second World War, well before the word information was in common everyday use. From the 1880s the application of steam power and then electricity stimulated the development of communication and control innovations to monitor, calibrate and coordinate everything from steam ships to factories. The railways with their timetables, factories with scientific management and governments and businesses with their bureaucracies were the outcomes. Each put a new, high premium on information. What Beniger says less about is the political economy that gave much of this its dynamic. The means of greater control were harnessed to the ends of capitalist development and information would become increasingly significant within the process.

But while the longer-term trends are significant, on their own they would not have produced the specific items that appeared in the mid-twentieth century. The military activity that so reshaped the world politically also sparked crucial technical quests, that appeared in the form of radar, transistors and computing machines. It is no exaggeration to say that the Pentagon paid for a large part of the basic research behind what came to be called the information revolution. In the geo-politics of the mid-twentieth century, the threat from the then Soviet Union was paramount. Bell Labs’s production of the transistor was at first kept secret from the military because it had such obvious strategic value. Radar systems, set up after the Russians showed that they had nuclear capacities in 1949, needed both computer power to analyse signals, and communications capacity to connect distant monitoring centres. When the Russians upped the ante by launching their first sputnik the Americans responded by funding research into aerospace industries miniaturization in what became Silicon Valley, which in turn stimulated the race for power in space. This is where the ‘convergence’ between computing and telecommunications began (Lyon, 1988: 26-30; see also Winseck, 1998).

At the same time, information theory was also shaped in ways that proved decisive for both culture and commerce. In the 1950s, Norbert Weiner’s ‘cybernetics’ and Claude Shannon’s ‘mathematical theory of communication’ reduced information to coded transmissions and simultaneously opened new ways for information to be a source of added value (Shannon and Weaver, 1949; Weiner, 1950). I say ‘reduced’ because both historically, and at the time, information connoted more than ‘coded transmissions.’ In particular, information was (and is today, by some) viewed by many scholars as having a strong relationship with meaning. The shift, which may have appeared arcane and academic to some, was to have concrete and critical significance in the decades to come.

Looked at historically, information seems basic to social life. In oral cultures, stories and ancestral anecdotes ensure that people know about reality, and some of this involves what might be called ‘natural’ signs to do with, say, weather or hunting. In modern, literate cultures, artificial signs proliferate, and are frequently associated with social order itself. Signs tell us of distant events, places, persons and processes. Information is relational, connecting by reference persons and things. Intelligence is assumed, as are the reality of things and contexts. But whereas information might once have thrown light on reality, or even, through instructions or recipes, contributed to the transformation of reality, once technological devices become the predominant carriers of information, the distinctions blur. In the well-known illustration of digital music recordings, where what is produced in the studio could not be produced live, information displaces reality (Borgmann, 1999).

The debates over information in the 1950s occurred above all in a significant series of Anglo-American meetings called the ‘Macey Conferences.’ Shannon’s theory tried to isolate discrete bits of information for analysis and measurement. The structure of signs was all important; meaning was for him excluded from information theory. This view, though vigorously opposed by the British School, whose key spokesperson was Donald MacKay (MacKay, 1969), became the standard. To oversimplify, where Shannon (and his champion, Warren Weaver) saw information as engineering, MacKay saw it as semantics. The consequences of uncoupling meaning and information would prove to be profound. The intellectual struggle also concealed a political and economic one; questions of capital and control would surface in coming years as the so-called information society emerged.

The American School facilitated the quantifying and thus the commodifying of information, which, when associated with the rapid rise of computer science, laid the groundwork for the far-reaching cultural and economic assumption that the value of information does not inhere in its meaning. This first move made possible today’s assumption that information is primarily a commodity, rather than a gift or something to be shared communally. Today many companies have information as both raw material and product, across a range of information types. The idea of cybernetics on the other hand, where control is achieved through communication and feed-back loops, was popularized through the work of Norbert Weiner, but did not really come into its own until the widespread computerization of administrative and productive spheres from the late 1960s onwards. Not until William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer (1984) would the ‘cyber’ prefix appear in ‘cyberspace,’ now in dystopian rather than utopian guise. It marks no lapse into dystopianism to note that the ‘cyber’ aspect of ‘cyberspace’ now relates socially to control and regulation, empirically through surveillance in the broadest sense.

The Triumph of Information

The ‘triumph’ of information in the last quarter of the twentieth century began with what might be called the demobilizing of military technologies after the Second World War and the establishment of the American School’s engineering theory, but it did not end there. The capacities of computing technologies to store and process both data and instructions boosted tremendously their role in control systems. More and more productive and administrative processes became information-dependent as the potential for digitization and automation became evident. Many welcomed this as technological progress, as the promise of lives unburdened from the mundane and the tedious was issued by those who perceived in the union of computing and telecommunication the possibilities for nothing less than a new phase of human existence—the information society (Mosco, 2004; Webster, 2004).

In the 1980s, when talk of the information society became widespread for the first time, key issues appeared in three areas: one, the workplace and the occupational structure; two, the nation-state and democratic processes; and three, in global relations between nation-state and corporations (Lyon, 1988; Webster, 1995). It was discussions of the first, and especially occupational structure, that dominated the pervasively important work of Daniel bell on ‘postindustrialism’ (1974). He argued that older industrial society models were crumbling under the pressure of evidence of new cadres of ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’ workers. The distinction, which was moot when Bell made it, has now become even more problematic in an era when ‘knowledge-based’ enterprises are seemingly very profitable (but see Duff, 2000 for a defence of Bell).

These issues continue to be highly significant, even though in two major respects they underwent further transformation. First, the technologies developed exponentially during the last part of the twentieth century, and became dominated by the rise of the internet and of multi-media. Second, the old categories and distinctions such as workplace or nation-state began to blur as fresh organizational forms started to displace them.

Information had become central to productive and commercial processes, from the programming of numerically controlled machine tools to the quest for customer data and personal profiling to target marketing. Information flows increasingly through bureaucratic organizations in electronic networks known as Local Area Networks (and on a larger scale, in Wide Area Networks) and office e-mail has become a commonplace administrative tool. The various phenomena known as globalization are also in large measure a product of the same processes, now upscaled. Contemporary globalization is unthinkable without the communication and information technologies that facilitate its flows, not only of information, but also of goods, people, capital, entertainment and ideas. Both capitalist production and commerce develop in increasingly international contexts, dispersed over great distances, but connected through nodes of the network.

This shift towards a so-called network society’ draws attention to changing modes of organization. In policy areas, talk of the ‘information society’ is still predominant—the European Union’s program ‘e-Europe: an Information Society for All’ is an example—but the work of Manuel Castells has been especially influential in shifting the focus to networks,’ where flows of information are the life-blood. Castells emphasizes the dynamic, open, innovative nature of networks, especially in management. He sees them as helping to reposition capitalism globally, and in a framework of financial flows (1996: 471).

Castells’s trilogy is called The Information Age, which indicates the central significance he grants to the category of information. He posits an ‘informational mode of development’ that is not merely accretions on previous modes, but is flexible, pervasive, integrated and reflexive. The competitiveness of firms now depends on their being able to generate and process information electronically, and this helps to restructure economic activity on a real-time worldwide basis, especially through burgeoning global cities such as New York and Tokyo, but also like Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore. Socially, the key consequence of Castells’s theory of informational capitalism is an emerging polarity between the ‘net’ and the ‘self’ that displays itself in a perturbing pull between the places where people live, and the ‘spaces of flows’ where they connect to nodes in the net. Identity, experienced as increasingly questioned and unstable, appears in new forms (see Stalder, 1998, 2005 for exposition and assessment).

Just because it is such a far-reaching and well-organized theory, Castells’s work has attracted not only wide acclaim but also critical debate. The idea of the informational worker continues to raise questions, for example, just as it did when Bell began to discuss such categories. Frank Webster, for one, comments that this category could be seen in terms of a much longer-term trend towards higher educational levels among the employees of the advanced societies. But he does acknowledge that Castells’s ‘emphasis on the adaptability and malleability of informational labour does give us a clue to one of the most distinctive characteristics of the present epoch’—workers are expected to ‘learn how to learn’ (Webster, 2000: 77). Such ‘flexibility,’ however, can be unsettling as well as invigorating.

‘Informational workers’ not only work ‘with’ information, information may also work on them. A number of years ago Shoshana Zuboff (1988) examined some worksites which, she argued, were becoming increasingly ‘informated.’ This term indicates the ways in which work may be (re)organized in new informational ways, to carry forward into a fresh context the control that capitalist employers have always tried to exert over their workers. Other studies (such as Head, 2003) suggest that many jobs do not live up to their ‘informated’ promises. Simon Head shows that many American doctors now find that their ‘informated’ work is subject to regimentation, time constraints and such-like, which makes their experiences in some ways not dissimilar from those of call centre workers. Debates in this area are manifold—and often inconclusive—but one thing that is clear is that ‘information’ in this sense is used to increase the efficiency and productivity of production and consumption processes. Some ‘informating’ of work situations has improved working conditions and collegial relationships, but this is more likely to be a side-effect of the drive to make units more profitable.

The greater ‘flexibility’ associated with IT-enabled work situations easily spills over into non-work time, thus drawing all other social relationships into this mode. Network socialities—based on the required flexibility of informational workers (Sennett, 1998)—are another, not necessarily positive, outcome of reliance on information technologies. They are ‘disembedded’ from older localities and ties. Richard Sennett sees this in terms of a decline of enduring friendships, responsibility and trust, while Zygmunt Bauman adds that lifelong projects and lasting commitments seem to have given way to an ‘until further notice’ approach (Bauman, 1995), and Ulrich Beck argues that it is part of a process of ‘individualization’ (Beck, 1999). Fast-food, speed-dating and instant-messaging are no doubt the quotidian signs of similar processes. Of course, these may affect informational and media workers first, but these authors argue that such uncertainties are fairly broadly distributed in what Castells calls network societies.

Several ways exist of considering how IT might relate to forms of human sociality. One helpful approach, from Craig Calhoun (1992), involves a consideration of different levels of relationship. If ‘primary’ relationships are face-to-face, then ‘secondary’ ones require some kind of mediation, say through a bureaucratic organization like a bank or a driver’s licence department. ‘Tertiary’ relationships, however, may exist with no direct contact at all, whereas ‘quaternary’ ones may not even involve human beings. People could be communicating with machines—say, an automated call centre system—or machines could be communicating with each other, but still concerning the activities or virtual traces of humans. Information technology facilitates the last two, which are clearly growing in significance in the twenty-first century and create what is called computer-mediated communication, whose ‘environment’ is ‘cyberspace.’

A number of sociological accounts stress the ambiguity of informational cultures as seen in ‘network socialities.’ For example, Barry Wellman’s research on the diffusion of the internet suggests that social capital is built, and relationships fostered, by on-line activities (2001a). However, Wellman acknowledges that what he is discussing is better thought of as ‘networked individualism’ (2001b). The sorts of security and social control that characterize all-encompassing communities give way, typically, to fragmented and personal communities marked by opportunity and vulnerability. When people are immersed in asocial activities such as surfing and news-reading they turn away from community even more than television-watchers. But when the internet is used for communicating and coordinating with friends, family and organizations, it is an effective medium for building social capital (2001a: 451).

These kinds of sociological debate will continue, especially in relation to Castells’s ‘information age’ and ‘network society’ theories. Castells himself is in no doubt that these phenomena represent a phase of capitalist development, and he candidly notes that the chances of poorer countries and sectors making any headway out of their relative deprivation hangs to a large extent on information technology developments. Others fear that this is an overly sanguine and overly technological account, and they refer us back to the putatively prior capitalist need to create value with information commodities. Nicholas Garnham, for instance, sees ‘information society’ ideas (he discusses Castells’s work in these terms, rather than Castells’s own ‘informationalism’) as ideological (1998) in the sense that it obscures the underlying reality of capitalist process. Whether or not one accepts Garnham’s critique, it is an important reminder that the ‘information society’ has a life of its own as a rationale for government policy and commercial innovation, which assumes much that has yet to be demonstrated by sociological research.

Codes, Classes, Classifications

The attempts by conventional sociological and Marxist analysts to discount some of Castells’s conclusions about informationalism and the network society are often appropriate but inadequate. Such critiques sometimes miss the point that certain significant changes are indeed under way, and that they relate directly to specific ways of construing and organizing information. If one considers some classic sites for sociological analysis—identity, inequality, power—it is clear that each is deeply affected by informationalism, or what Mark Poster calls the ‘mode of information’ (Golding, 2000; Poster, 1990). Why is information thus implicated in these basic social processes today?

Because many have associated the emergence of so-called cyberspace with a sense of changing realities, it is not surprising that this includes identity. However, this may be seen in at least three distinct ways. One refers to playful identities beloved of postmodernist cyber-theory—where simulation and spectacle predominate—but which is also treated seriously by theorists such as Sherry Turkle. Particularly in her work on ‘life on the screen she considers how we see ourselves differently when we catch sight of our images in the mirror of the machine’ (Turkle, 1995). A second insists that interactions with networked machines constitute subjects in new ways. Mark Poster, for example, posits the appearance of cyborgs, or ‘huma-chines’ (2001: 38), that represents a new bond between human and machine enabled by computers and especially by the internet. We shall return to these below.

The third, represented by Castells, is more conventional. Although he hints at ways in which new social organizations may mirror the networking logic of informational society (1998: 362) he does not explore this as a structuring of identities. Rather, he sees the power of identity’ as a key feature of network societies, in which the net-self polarity is the basic social axis. This is best expressed as ‘collective identities’ that ‘challenge globalization and cosmopolitanism on behalf of cultural singularity and people’s control over their lives and their environment’ (Castells, 1998: 2). Whatever one makes of Castells’s categories (see Lyon, 2000) the fact remains that this understanding of identity is tied to action-based notions of nation-states, social movements and politics.

Indeed, Castells sees identity-formation as part of a quest for meaning, in which older sources, such as the nation-state, seem less relevant, if not redundant. Castells argues that this leads either to potentially dangerous, regressive and fundamentalist identities, challenged by the network world, or to more progressive, ‘project identities’ such as those expressed in environmental or feminist movements. A third category of movements works with ‘legitimizing identities.’ All movements depend at least in part on new information sources for identity construction. But, direct communication aside, those new information sources are bound to be circumscribed by the availability of symbols. Large corporations still dominate the circulation of ideas in the era of the internet, and there is strong continuity between them and older media companies.

Not only is identity-construction affected by informational flows, inequality takes on new meanings too. Social inequalities and the uneven distribution of life-chances have been a sociological staple for decades. This has often included studies of how certain kinds of inequalities—especially socio-economic differences—are reproduced across generations. Leaving aside the rosy visions of a world of abundance brought about by the ‘information revolution,’ much has been made of the so-called digital divide in network societies, between the information-rich and information-poor. While visionaries such as Nicholas Negroponte argue that the real divide is between generations (Negroponte, 1996: 6), in fact electronic access to information correlates closely on both regional and international scales with material conditions. Castells talks of certain deprived regions in North America or Europe, or massive areas such as sub-Saharan Africa, being ‘switched off’ from the benefits of the new information technologies.

Another notable aspect of information inequality- or digital divides—is this. Not only is access to information articulated with material differences, but material differences may be reinforced by information. For instance, a key means of discrimination between different population groups who are more and less valuable to marketers is the information garnered on consumer behaviour. Although market research was carried out for much of the twentieth century, it only became a major industry in its own right with the advent of appropriate computing machinery. Today a systematic process of ‘social sorting,’ using searchable databases, occurs through gathering publicly held data and matching it with data gleaned from other sources such as warranty forms or internet-surfing habits (Gandy, 1993; Lyon, 2001). The effects of this and other related practices tend to reinforce already existing social divisions of socio-economic class, race and ethnicity, and gender.

Such ‘social sorting’ (see Lyon, 2003b) is achieved by surveillance which, at its most general, has to do with focused attention to personal details for the purposes of influence, management, care or control. Surveillance is increasingly required in order to meet risks and to provide opportunities and this means gathering and processing information relating to people. Insurance companies want to know about several kinds of risks, marketers want consumer data, police seek information about offenders, welfare departments check their claimants to reduce fraud, and so on. In each case, data are generated by abstracting them from people’s behaviours and their bodies and used to make judgements about them either as individuals or as members of a certain population. This means that control over personal information has become a critical political issue in all so-called information societies. Some assume that the main problem is invaded privacy; others that the key issue is excluded persons (and the two are connected).

The exponential growth of communication and information services from the later part of the twentieth century permitted such social sorting to take place across a broad terrain, from voter analysis by political parties, to health data collected by insurance companies, to employment records, screening and monitoring, to opinion polling, as well as the consumer behaviour mentioned above. What Karl Marx called ‘frozen labour’—technology—is now given further meaning in a world of digital surveillance. As Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star suggest, software is frozen decisions and policies that are not very visible but are very influential. So, ‘values, opinions and rhetoric are frozen into codes, electronic thresholds, and computer applications’ (1999: 135). This resonates with Scott Lash’s conclusion about the fresh features of technological capitalism, that it operates more by exclusion than by exploitation (2001: 4-5).

Surveillance today has many facets and it represents a rapidly growing phenomenon in every sphere of life. Personal information from transaction records to street video surveillance images to national identification card numbers flow through the electronic networks that comprise the infrastructure of any modern society. The populations of the global north increasingly inhabit surveillance societies in which simply to navigate through everyday life is to confront constantly the protocols of control; sensors, swipes, image capture, message interception and the like (Lyon, 1994, 2001; Norris and Armstrong, 1999). While many construe this—correctly- as raising questions about ‘information privacy,’ such an approach may also deflect attention from the powerful social forces at work. From a personal perspective, loss of control over personal information maybe experienced as an intrusion or a violation. Private space, where legitimate activities may be protected from prying eyes or where the agents of the state may not venture without a warrant, is fully understandable and important from the point of view of both social psychology and democratic practice. But beyond these is a question of power.

The etymology of cyberspace reveals that the ‘cyber’ component comes from ‘cybernetics,’ the science of control through feedback loops which was mentioned above. The use of personal information drawn from the myriad data, visual and audio protocols of daily life serves to create categories that situate population segments according to their value to the corporation, their reliability in the use of government services, or their risk level as seen by law enforcement or insurance companies. Treatments and judgements are based on these, which—within a feedback loop—affect life chances and choices for better or for worse, thus reinforcing already existing social distinctions and divisions. This is how the ‘society of control’ as described by Gilles Deleuze (1992) actually works. It exploits difference and individuality to achieve control without conformity, directing desire without discipline. For much of the time, this is construed as producing convenience, comfort and security but it can also mean control. This does not make Foucault’s work redundant but it does mean that it is unusable on its own.

In terms of power, then, a picture is already appearing of a world—a ‘network society’—in which access to the crucial ‘switches’ means access to power, informational power. This is both economic, as we have seen, and political. Dreams of digital democracy, for instance, have to confront the realities of access to information sources, of the relative ignorance of many voters, and the fact that whatever entry to government services and information is permitted, governments still hold on tightly to the reins of real power. Moreover, events such as the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 indicate how quickly governments that one moment are debating the merits of ‘e-democracy’ and new information privacy laws can move at the next moment to augment their already extensive control of personal information and communications data (Lyon, 2003a). The enhancing of surveillance occurs in the quest for greater security, producing a greater demand for surveillance information. At the same time, the downward spiral of anxiety and fear that is fuelled not only by palpable risks and dangers but also by attempts to address them with more ‘security’ facilitates the further supply of information. The cybernetic loops are in this way self-augmenting.

However, this does not leave citizens of network societies in some kind of permanent and hopeless information-deprived or information-governed state. Rather, what the new landscapes of power indicate is that the terrains of struggle are altering, with ‘switches’ and ‘codes’ becoming the vital determinants of life-chances and life-choices. Information is power in the sense that it has become a critical component of the capacities of individuals and groups to make a difference in today’s world. As the legal theorist Lawrence Lessig points out, the ‘code’ is a kind of ‘law of cyberspace’ (Lessig, 1999). The unregulated spaces of liberty that once were proclaimed by the cyber-utopians are chimerical, according to Lessig. Rather, cyberspace is by its very constitution subject to law—the codes embedded in hardware and especially in software already regulate cyberspace. All this means is that the arena of politics—of all kinds—is closely connected with coded information, which is also where the fault-lines of power lie.

Bodies of Information: Meaning and Matter

I suggested earlier that at the start of the twenty-first century information is a commodity with a price tag, it is cool—this is the Wired magazine contribution—and it is almost a cult. In fact, Theodore Roszak (1986) was first to note the cult-like treatment of information, though many others have attacked this ‘fetish’ or this ‘myth.’ John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid (2000) point out that the ‘myth’ of information arises when information is isolated from its context, and seen as a kind of prime mover in social affairs. The ‘information revolution’ has impacts, it is said, beyond the wildest dreams of the early inventors (say, of silicon chips). Brown and Duguid argue that the alternative is to focus on the ‘social life of information’ which they trace particularly through organizations. I have painted on an even broader canvas here, showing that the social life of information is today implicated in everything from social and self identities, to new forms of discrimination, to patterns of ‘glocalization.’

In this section I question once more those naive assumptions about bodies of information, and consider the relation between information and matter, and indeed, the information of bodies. It is not a question of mere quantities of information, such as the frequently heard assertion that each day’s New York Times contains more information than a person in Shakespeare’s day would have acquired in a lifetime. This in any case reflects confusion about different kinds of information; as Sheldon Ungar argues, we can actually become more ignorant in information-saturated societies because information is increasingly specialized and, paradoxically, less publicly accessible (Ungar, 2000). Rather, what matters here is the meaning of matter and the meaning of information.

Discussions among cyberspace devotees in the 1990s frequently involved assertions about existing electronically in a realm beyond matter. Gibson hinted at this in Neuromancer with the thought of leaving the ‘meat’ behind as one was transported into the ‘matrix.’ But many other writers who made no claims about producing fiction followed this idea to its logical conclusion: cyberspace made possible disembodied human life on a self-chosen plane of conflict-free co-existence. As Margaret Wertheim observes, this could be read as the return of a repressed desire for heaven, supposedly squeezed out of the Western world’s physical cosmos by the scientific revolution (Wertheim, 1999). But it is also a highly individualistic idea—surfing as solipsism?—and one that is hard to square with the longer-term Christian insistence on the materiality of the body which alone make sense of the ideas of incarnation and resurrection—not to mention social justice—in that tradition.

In a critique of what I call ‘electronic excar-nation’ (Lyon, 2005), Kevin Robins argues that the ‘consensual hallucination’ of cyberspace simply turns a blind eye to the world we live in (1996: 85). As with the earlier discussion about information, if cyberspace is considered in a social vacuum, along with its oft-encountered partner, virtual reality, it will be misunderstood. Robins insists, for example, that analysis should let ‘reality intrude’ into the argument that self-identity is entirely malleable in cyberspace. After all, virtual identities emerge in a world where larger debates over identity are already under way. It is now a sociological truism that the notion of the self and a life history or narrative is giving way to more fragmented and short-term self-understandings. Robins continues: ‘This important cultural shift involves a loss of social meaning, and a consequent retreat from moral engagement’ (1996: 92).

Robins’s viewpoint is not shared by all commentators, by any means. Mark Poster insists that such action-oriented views that assume ‘modern’ forms of consciousness are less than adequate for understanding information flows and the internet. As he says, ‘Information machines put into question humanity as instrumental agent and thereby disqualify the critique of technology [such as Jacques Ellul’s] as “dehumanizing”’ (2001: 23). Virtual reality technologies so immerse human subjects that they are reconstituted as elements of the object. This goes beyond Marshall McLuhan’s notion of technologies as ‘extensions of man’ (1964) such that the internet ‘forbodes a reconstruction of the basic elements of human culture’ (Poster, 2001: 126). In particular, Poster sees this working itself out in new kinds of post-national identity, and in ‘dispersed and multiple subjectivities that have a component of cosmopolitanism’ (p. 126).

In her work on informatics and the post-human, Katherine Hayles accedes more to McLuhan than Poster does, and she believes that McLuhan was forseeing some aspects of the posthuman in his ‘extensions of man’ (1999: 34). This is not the same as Donna Haraway’s more political ‘cyborg manifesto,’ which may downplay the body, but only in the cause of ‘imagining a world without gender’ (Haraway, 1991). The posthuman, for Hayles, is something seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines, a situation made possible by conceiving bodies as information, which in turn could only have happened after Shannon’s information theory became dominant. Genetic coding provides the most obvious example of the ‘body as information’ but Hayles also sees this in relation to information technology proper.

However, unlike some other theorists she does not simply celebrate the disembodied, decentred subject. While acknowledging that, in the networked conditions of the present, considerations of the posthuman cannot be avoided, she argues that claims about disembodiment are merely a powerful illusion. Spurning the meatless existence of Gibson’s hero, Case, which leaves the body behind, Hayles opts rather for the extension of ‘embodied awareness in highly specific, local, and material ways that would be impossible without electronic prosthesis’ (1999: 291). In the end, she avers, ‘Information, like humanity, cannot exist apart from the embodiment that brings it into being as a material entity in the world’(1999: 49).

Embodiment is crucial both to information and to humans. Hayles sees the problem in relation to the Macey Conference debates between Shannon and MacKay—in which MacKay held tenaciously to the idea that information is representational, an action rather than a thing. It thus implies context and embodiment, not to mention reflexivity (Hayles, 1999: 56-7). However much one seeks the universality and quantifiability of information as a thing (Shannon’s position), or to explore the interfaces of humans and machines (as Turkle or Poster do), Hayles’s stress on embodiment is a helpful constraint, for it reminds us that whatever effects are achieved by hooking ourselves up to electronic networks, what Robins calls ‘the world we live in’ is still local and immediate, with real social inequalities, messy politics and agonizing moral dilemmas.

Codes and Critique

Information may be viewed historically as something that has recently come to prominence, economically and politically, and has achieved hegemonic power in today’s globalized and networked world. Information may be viewed sociologically in terms of its contribution to the diffusion of new social practices and to new fault-lines of inequality and identity. And information may be seen culturally as an aspect of fresh mutations of human self-understanding that bifurcate between those that either elevate or erode meaning and matter.

In each context, the coding of information has become increasingly important and, given the fact that the coding is now facilitated by computer systems, the contexts are increasingly interconnected. This is because the technologically advanced societies depend so heavily on information infrastructures, which enable socially constructed and socially consequential flows of ideas and technologies to exert their influence in diverse settings. The codings carried out by computer scientists are not innocent, by any means; they affect the very regulation of commercial and administrative life as they embody the practices and purposes of firms and government departments, not to mention the internet itself.

It helps to step back for a moment and consider the kinds of changes that occurred in the communication of information during the twentieth century. Although some small-scale experiments had been undertaken in other modes of disseminating information before the turn of the twentieth century, print still dominated the literate world in 1900. By the early decades of the century radio was making strides and after the Second World War television became a rapidly expanding supplement to radio, which would soon take away much of the radio audience for entertainment. The internet became a public medium in the 1990s and today the trend is towards integration of numerous media for channelling information. This is highly suggestive when it comes to ‘coding’ and the power of information.

In the middle of the last century Canadian communication scholar Harold Adams Innis proposed a theory of the ‘bias’ of communication (Innis, 1962). He suggested that different media have different capacities or tendencies. Some emphasize time and religious organization, and others, space and political organization. These may occur together, as in the Byzantine empire, where political organization was based on parchment and religious, on papyrus. Parchment use in the West biased organization ecclesiastically, whereas the use of paper enabled more political organization—‘binding space’ as Innis said. Print helped to increase literacy and was in turn influential in early nationalism and democratic experiments. ‘Lighter’ methods, on the other hand, like broadcast media, travel easily and thus help further to ‘bind space.’ They are conducive to imperial and colonial situations (see also Comor, 2001, who discusses how this might apply to the internet).

Another reason, then, why information has moved towards the centre of political life is that it is seen to be an important aspect of power. In recent decades, for example, government information has been recognized for its critical position in determining the outcomes of law and policy. Thus several countries have passed laws—under a ‘freedom of information’ rubric—to enable ordinary citizens, or the mass media, to obtain access to what might previously have been inaccessible, or, worse, under a veil of secrecy. Equally, major debates occur, often in the realm of commerce, over intellectual property rights and over computer software monopolies. Again, in these spheres, information has been turned into a scarce resource by those who have succeeded in controlling it, but this move is countered by others who insist that ‘open source’ software enables all to not only have access but to contribute to it themselves.

A sociology that explores the coding of informational systems cannot ignore the fact that such systems also entail new ways of conceiving and producing human subjects and indeed bodies. Questions of how information touches ‘reality’ are thus central to, and unavoidable in, debates over social structuring and process today, because information is implicated in the broadest—globalization—and most intimate—the body—levels of sociological analysis. If, as I have argued, information is relational, connecting by reference persons and things, then doubt is cast on the capacity of information actually to displace reality. But the involvement of information in social organization does blur old boundaries and raise new questions. Thus in a world of technologically constituted and communicated information, the risk of displacing reality is always present.

The risk may be confronted, however, by an awareness of the ethical dimensions of information—now assuming once more its association with meaning—in relation to power and accountability, embodiment and responsibility. When the classifying of social groups for administration or policing is automated, algorithmic and dependent on information flows, reproducing social inequality has to be conceived as a socio-technical matter. When the use of body-information for identification or screening raises questions about the conventional anatomical definition of the ‘body,’ new notions of bodily or personal integrity must be sought (Ploeg, 2003). In both cases, information as commodity, as control and as concatenations of abstract data are highly significant. But information is more than a commodity, and more than a means of control. Moreover, embodied persons are more than the abstract data that all too often serve as proxy for them. Notions of ‘commodity’ maybe countered with those of ‘resource’ and ‘stewardship’; notions of control with those of ‘accountability’ and ‘responsibility.’ The realization that coded information plays such a profound part in social processes today has to be matched by a search for appropriate modes of critique.