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Making the Information Society: Experience, Consequences, and Possibilities

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Making the Information Society: Experience, Consequences, and Possibilities


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  • Copyright 2002
  • Edition: 1st
  • Book
  • ISBN-10: 0-13-065906-1
  • ISBN-13: 978-0-13-065906-4

Making the Information Society illuminates the complex chain of experiences,consequences, and possibilities that launched the information age in theU.S., and drive it onward today. Dr. James Cortada shows how Americans haveleveraged information technology in every area of their lives -- and offersa provocative look at the next phase of this new American revolution.

Sample Content

Online Sample Chapters

America's Love Affair with the Internet

Does Technology Have a Will of Its Own?

Everyone an Information Technology Worker? A Peek at Our Future

How Will e-Democracy Evolve?

Informationalizing Sports: Baseball, Football, and Basketball

Playing on the Net

The Internet as a Source of Information

Table of Contents


1. An Introduction to the Long Trip to the Information Age.

General Patterns of Information in American Life. Birth and Evolution of the Information Age in America. Events at Mid-Century. Conclusions.

2. The Long Trip to the Information Age.

America's Love Affair with Information Machines. The Ubiquitous Typewriter. Crunching Numbers: Adding and Calculating Machines. Big Time Computing: Punched-Card Tabulators. Hello!: Role of the Telephone. The Radio in America. Arrival of Electronic Entertainment: Television. What Americans Thought of Information Just Before the Computer. Conclusions.

3. Big Gizmos, New Tools, and a Changing Way of Life, 1950-1995.

A Quick Course on How Computers Were Invented. The Invention of Software. Military Uses of Computers. Business Uses of Computers. Computers for Entertainment. Consequences of the Computer. Conclusions.

4. America's Love Affair with the Internet.

Creation of the Internet. Digitizing America the Small Way. The Special Role of Globalization. Conclusions.

5. How Information Is Playing a Bigger Role in American Work.

Some Realities About the American Economy. Information Workers and Knowledge Management. Book Publishing: As Source of Information. Role of Newspapers and Magazines: American Information Landmarks. Everyone an Information Technology Worker? A Peek at Our Future? Patterns in Work and Workplaces. The Internet as a Source of Information. Consequences and Implications for Worker Productivity. Conclusions.

6. Information and Leisure Activities.

Informationalizing Sports: Baseball, Football, and Basketball. Reading and Collecting Books for Entertainment. Information, Tourism, and the American Vacation. Pursuing Education on One's Own Initiative. Playing on the Net. Television: A Media in Transition. Patterns and Consequences. Conclusions.

7. Information and Religion.

Patterns From the Age of Paper. Origins of American Religious Practices. The Special Role of the Bible. Role of Radio and TV. Cyber-Religion: Religious Life and the Internet. Consequences and Possibilities.

8. Public Policy and Information.

Origins of Policies and Infrastructures in the Age of Paper. The Special Role of Book Banning. The Special Role of the Press. Expanding Access to Information. Policies and Infrastructures in the Electrical Age. V-Chips and Television. Recent Trends in Regulatory Practices. Uncle Sam, the Ultimate Venture Capitalist of Digital Technologies. The Special Case of the Internet. Conclusions.

9. A Digital Democracy.

How Will e-Democracy Evolve? The Special Role of the Internet. So What Are We to Do?

10. The Future of Information in America.

Does Technology Have a Will of Its Own? Some Basic Assumptions About the Future. How Information Technology Is Affecting Our Future. Effects of Further Economic Globalization on How Americans Use Information. American Values, Beliefs, and Habits. The Nature of American Information. Conclusions.

11. Leveraging Information for Fun and Profit.

Consequences and Possibilities for Workers and Managers. Consequences and Possibilities for Players. Consequences and Possibilities for the Religious. Consequences and Possibilities for Public Officials and Citizens. Some Final Thoughts.

12. Learning More About Info-America.

Historical Background. The Telephone. The Computer. Economics of the Information Age. Work in the United States. Sociological Views of Information in America. Leisure in the United States. Religion in the United States. The Internet. Public Policy and Information. Future of Information in America.




One can hardly escape the notion that many nations are evolving into new forms, often simply labeled the Information Age or the Information Economy. While changes are clearly underway, they are not isolated from past experiences. Societies have long rooted their values and behavior in earlier experiences, actions, and memories that influence today's patterns of development. Current experiences surrounding rising standards of living in advanced industrial societies, the rapidly expanding deployment of telecommunications and the Internet, and the growing deployment of computer-based technologies in work and products all suggest that much is changing. To be sure, that is the case, but not the whole story. The whole story would have to take into account the fact that this process of evolution to perhaps an "Information Society" has been underway not only for decades, but centuries.

That process of historical evolution—the experience I refer to in the title of this book—is insufficiently acknowledged by those who want to describe what is happening today. Yet it is that experience which profoundly influences the nature of contemporary behavior. There are consequences of any action, and the happenings in any society have always had many. Therefore, any discussion about how a society evolves takes into account the consequences of its actions, and hence the reason for the second word in the subtitle of this book. Consequences must be linked to experience if we are to get a sense of what is happening today. Finally, all change presents opportunities—I chose to use the word possibilities—and the actions people take today mimic many of those taken in the past: they identify new things to do and take action. Making the Information Society: Experience, Consequences, and Possibilities is thus about how these three elements have come to influence the evolution of society. To illustrate the process of evolution, I have chosen to present the experience of the United States because it clearly is recognized around the world as a society that is either already living in an Information Age or is well on its way to being an information society. While the definition of the terms Information Age and Information Society remain fuzzy at best, we cannot ignore them because they are in such wide use. Furthermore, they help provide focus on the fundamental role of information and its artifacts in everyday life. When we probe more deeply under those labels, we see specific patterns of behavior that are familiar to residents in other nations.

Americans love technology and have long been obsessed with access to information. They have always used both to make a dollar, to enjoy life, and to build a better world. The extensive use of information and its technologies, from broadsides to broadcasts, from the telegraph to the Internet, is so American. A key premise of this book is that extensive use of information is a fundamental feature of society and culture in the United States. Americans collectively admire information technology and the use of its byproducts: data, information, and knowledge. Information content plays a much larger role in American society than is often recognized. Information is exploited for fun and profit, always tied to action. Conversely, entertainment and leisure activities have frequently been a source of new information. But the fundamental point is that information in all its variant forms is central to any appreciation of what happens in American society. This feature must sit alongside others that we have come to believe make up American culture, including respect for the rights of individuals, freedom of speech, the impulse to be active in business, the love of law and democracy, and the utopian aspiration to build a better society at home while serving as a model for the world. If we recognize the special role that information plays in the evolution of American society, we gain yet another useful perspective on how this nation came to be what it is and how it might yet evolve. Information and its technologies are not subjects restricted to engineering and business history; they are also very social and cultural in form. Because they were used so extensively across the centuries and by such a high percentage of Americans, I cannot avoid the conclusion that the topic of this book is crucial to any appreciation of what has been happening in the United States.

These comments may seem disingenuous to Europeans and East Asians, but they are not intended to be so. They simply reflect the American condition, stated at no intended expense of any different society. Other countries have also relied on information and its technologies, and in recent years we have seen an enormous increase in the adoption of computer-based tools around the world. But that is another story for a different book. The reason for selecting the United States grew out of the fact that so much was done with information and its technologies, often sooner here than in other countries. To understand the American experience enriches our appreciation of what is currently happening in other industrialized nations that are beginning to evolve into service-based economies.

A second point is the fact that Americans did not get to the Information Revolution or the Information Age in the 1990s or even in the 1970s or 1980s, or even with the arrival of widespread use of computers in the 1960s. That just did not happen overnight. European residents in North America came to the New World literate, with an historical desire of freedom to live as they chose. They did not hesitate to use information to achieve their objectives. They devoted considerable time, effort, and resources over the next several centuries, exploiting existing technologies and inventing new ones that made the availability and use of information an important feature of their lives. Regardless of what one may want to call our era, the fact remains that Americans have been at this information game for a very long time. That observation leads first to a different, more enriched view of how this nation developed and second, it suggests how we might evolve in the future. While the future is difficult to predict, the constant influencing features of our world are less obscure.

This book is not intended to be a formal academic monograph. That means several trappings of sound scholarship are missing on purpose. First, I do not engage in extensive dialogues with scholars who have written on various aspects of this story, arguing against or agreeing with one point or another. Rather, I use their findings and data. Such a dialogue would have led to a much larger book, something neither I nor the publisher wanted. Second, this is not a complete or definitive history of the subject. I have left out, for example, long discussions about how one sector of society versus another viewed and used information, such as women versus men in one period or another, or the approach of one class, ethnic group, or region over various periods. I recognize that the book may be criticized for that, but I opted to take a run at the "big picture." Third, I took a great risk in generalizing throughout the book, even though I recognize that whenever you generalize, the generalization has its exceptions and thus is never quite right. I generalize because this book is intended to generate not only awareness of basic info-features of American society to inform or entertain, but also to offer some basic insights that can influence future behavior, in areas such as public policy or business strategy. These three decisions put this book at odds with what experts normally prefer to see. They like to describe differences and nuances in how various groups in society viewed an issue. Generalizations should always be extensively qualified. But, my goals are different.

The biggest objection might be to the underlying use of the term American society as if it were one monolithic, homogeneous one, with everyone behaving the same way. Obviously this is not true; however, I contend, and have written this book with the belief, that there are some features, even myths, to which Americans subscribe, that influence their behavior and the way they see themselves. Scholars for most of the second half of the twentieth century have patently rejected national characteristics as a viable notion. In large part they reacted this way because of the world's experience with Nazi Germany and its racist policies. These policies were based on generalizations believed by its political leaders, and influenced such initiatives as the extermination of Jews, gays, the mentally ill, and a variety of ethnic and national groups.

However, I think the wholesale rejection of the notion of national characteristics does a disservice to the general reader. If a scholar wants to describe differences in attitudes and behavior of one ethnic group or another within a pluralistic society such as that in the United States, the rejection is essential. But there are times when national generalizations are useful because a pattern of behavior or belief is sufficiently extensive, regardless of class or race. I think the role of information fits into this category. I am referring to a predisposition. In the case of the United States, there is clear evidence of the love of information and of its use, just as there has long been great nervousness about curtailing application of the First Amendment, even though Americans at times become frustrated with comments made by unpopular groups (e.g., those who want to burn the American flag or curtail public prayer).

I am not alone anymore in thinking of national features. In the area of political science, for example, after over a half century of silence on the subject, scholars are beginning to pick it up again. Colin Crouch has written about preconditions of modern corporatism. The distinguished political scientist John Hall has called on his colleagues to identify national characteristics.1 Alex Inkeles went the extra step to do this in looking at the role of democracy. In fact, I found his definition of national features useful in writing this book: "National character refers to relatively enduring personality characteristics and patterns that are model among the adult members of a society."2

When we get to the period of the personal computer, there is ample survey data to demonstrate specifically patterns of use. To quickly illustrate the point, between 1984 and 1997, the U.S. Census Bureau documented the expanded use of computers in the workplace, from 18 percent of the adult population having used computers in 1984 to 53 percent reporting they had in 1997. As the Internet expanded, so too did use of it, to the point where by the end of the century over 80 million Americans had logged on to it.3 We can, therefore, speak generally of American uses of PCs.

This book is an extended essay intended to raise our awareness about the role information plays in our lives. I also want to suggest actions that can be taken by the nation as a whole and individuals in specific aspects of their lives, to leverage the information I present in this book. So, more than simply an historical essay, I have an agenda. Simply stated, it is this: Americans have a love of information and its technologies. They find practical uses for this information and its technologies in all aspects of their lives. They should continue to invest in the infrastructures, that make information available, and nurture an economic and political environment in which new forms are developed, brought to market, and exploited. Or, to use a wonderful idea developed by historian Joel Mokyr, leverage information and technology to advantage. His notion was that the Western World became prosperous because it leveraged technology.4 That pattern extends effectively to the role of information in American society.

Now that I have written this book, I know that to have done the topic justice the book could have easily been twice as long. But by keeping it shorter and focused just on the American experience, I could communicate the key themes without the clutter of a larger tome. It became possible to write such a book because so many historians, economists, sociologists, and business professors have been nibbling at the topic from their various points of view. When you put together their findings, a new pattern emerges that was not so obvious before; We Americans love our information and extensively use its technologies. Like children with toys, we fill our homes and offices with new electronic gadgets as fast as they are invented and look to our engineers, scientists, and manufacturers to come up with yet additional ones. Simultaneously, you begin noticing that our political values concerning free flow of information, freedom of expression, and protection for inventors through patents, make it possible for Americans to have so much information. These circumstances also apply to all the devices that support this information, from pagers to personal computers, from scores of channels on television to fax machines and fat Sunday newspapers. I have concluded that our relationship with information is a far more pervasive feature of American life than journalists, historians, sociologists or political scientists have told us before. Until now, when they discussed the Information Age, many observers treated it as if it were something new, an emerging world of connectivity through the Internet with vast quantities of information. The discussion was normally all about computers. As you will see, they basically missed the big point, namely, that we have been at this for a long time and that it is about more than computers. As a result, information and its technologies have been a greater part of who we are than otherwise has been acknowledged. New waves of technology are part of a larger pattern making up the American experience.

How This Book Is Organized

Because I intended to flush out only enough evidence to make my points, I chose to organize the material into three groups of chapters. The first four are intended to provide a very high-level, brief, general overview of the introduction and use of information and its associated technologies in the United States over the past three centuries. The chapters are full of generalizations to save time and space, and touch only on key issues with just enough detail to situate the current national experience in historical context. This context is intended to help the general reader get ready for the second part of the book.

In the next five chapters, I look at various slices of American life, such as work, play, and religion, to probe deeper into the role of information and how it is used. In each chapter, I am biased toward the positive, emphasizing more what worked, while minimizing discussions about the fits and starts, exceptions and protests, failures and weaknesses. For example, I was less concerned about what computers could not do, and more concerned about what they did. Without apology, this book tells a story in relatively positive terms to emphasize what works and why. As with the first four chapters, each of these could have taken up a book or more, but we are on a fast trip through a great deal of material.

The final two chapters address the question "So What?" Americans are a practical people; their love affair with information proves that. To know the history of the use of information in America is only entertainment if we do not go the extra step of exploring consequences and possibilities. As a manager, as a user of information and its technologies, as a parent, and as an American, knowledge about information is not enough. I want to apply the insights gained from such a book as this one.

Chapter 1 sets the table by describing general patterns in the use of information up to the start of the Gilded Age in post Civil War America. The basics of many features of American use of information were laid down in this period. Chapter 2 takes the story to the point where the modern digital computer makes its appearance in the private sector. In this chapter I review many of the post Civil War electronic innovations and uses, such as those surrounding the telephone, radio, TV, and so many other devices. I also describe what Americans thought about information just before the arrival of the computer. Chapter 3 deals squarely with the development and deployment of the computer, including the personal computer. But I focus primarily on the impact of the computer chip and its uses. Chapter 4 is devoted to two issues: arrival of the Internet, and how it is being used. It is the most important evolution in information technology to have come in a long time and must be carefully understood.

Beginning with Chapter 5, I start looking at how all the many iterations of technology, information tools (e.g., books), and data are used in various aspects of American life. In each of the next several chapters I look at one slice of activity, both historically and in its contemporary form. Chapter 5 looks at work. Chapter 6 is broad, covering a raft of activities not done at work: sports, reading and collecting books, tourism and vacationing, and adult education. I also look at the emerging role of the Internet as a source of entertainment and recreation. Because religion plays an important role in American society and is the venue for the use of all kinds of information and info-technologies, a whole chapter is devoted to this subject. Chapter 7 shows how what was learned in other areas of life are applied simultaneously in religious matters. Chapter 8 looks at how government officials work with, regulate, and influence the use of information and, more important, its infrastructure. Chapter 9 looks at democracy and the effects of information and its technologies on our political practices.

An underlying theme in this book is the profound influence information technologies have on how information is used. Therefore, any appreciation of future developments has to be predicated on our understanding of what will come next in what is today the most important medium for information: digital formats. To that end, I have devoted all of Chapter 10. The final chapter discusses the implications of the findings from Chapter 10 and all the earlier parts of the book, and what these findings mean to individuals. I discuss these both in general and by slice of life, bringing to a logical conclusion my reviews of work, leisure, religion, and politics. The bibliographic essay is a sampling of additional materials for those who wish to explore more fully the themes and stories told in this book.

One final comment on language should help. I use the word American very often to refer collectively to the United States, sometimes to Canada, but usually not, and to residents of this continent, even though some are not U.S. citizens. I did this for two reasons. First, it reduces the need for lots of qualifying language that would simply make the book longer, and second, it is my observation that in general residents on this continent reflected some common behaviors and lived in a shared environment in which the actions described in this book took place.

How This Book Came About

This book has a history that reflects a common American experience with information. One of the features of information in America is the openness with which ideas flow back and forth, causing people to put notions together in new ways, leading to different, often useful, applications. And so it is with this book. Although trained as an historian, I have spent the bulk of my adult life working at IBM—itself a major American provider of information technology since before World War I—selling, managing, and consulting on computer-related issues. It was at IBM that I learned about how computer technology is developed and used, whether for a mainframe or a PC. Colleagues at IBM, and even more important, my many American customers over the years, made sure I had ample opportunity to learn how to exploit and manage information and its technologies. That experience led me to write a series of books on the management of computing and later about the history of information processing in America.

I participated recently in a project that further shaped my thinking about the role of information in America and became the basis of much of the material in the first three chapters of this book. I became involved with a wonderful team of experts on information and business history and management that was writing a history of the role of information in America. They focused largely on the arrival and use of the enabling technologies, such as the telegraph, telephone, radio, television, transistor, and computer chip. Led by America's premier business historian, Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., the team included Richard D. Brown, Richard R. John, JoAnne Yates, Margaret Graham, Richard L. Nolan, and Lee Sproull-all experts on various aspects of the role of information in America. I relied on much of their knowledge and publications to become familiar with important themes discussed in this book. The result of their effort was a book, A Nation Transformed by Information: How Information Has Shaped the United States From Colonial Times to the Present (Oxford University Press, 2000). But more important than the book were the lessons each taught me, sharpening my awareness of the many factors one has to consider in looking at the contemporary American experience with information. While our project was very historical in theme, and the book you are reading more focused on the present (but with historical perspective), they showed me the direct link between the past and today. This book is a direct product of their influence on me, hopefully a meaningful extension of the good work we did together. But in the end, it reflects my thinking and research and should not be seen as their endorsement of it. We are all on a journey of discovery of the American experience with information, and so over time we will refine our perspectives on different aspects of the story; it is a normal process in the creation of information and knowledge.

Many people helped or influenced my thinking. The team that worked on the book mentioned previously is one group. One of America's leading experts on knowledge management, Larry Prusak, encouraged me to pay greater attention to the role of information in the daily work of business workers. The great commentator of American society of the early 1800s, Alexis de Tocqueville, made essentially the same point: "Look at how Americans conduct business and you will better understand what America is all about." Credit for the original concept of this book has to go to a highly experienced editor, Jack Repcheck, who urged me to write it and then gave me advice on how it could be improved, even as he moved from one publishing firm to another. The staff at the Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota, the premier center in the world for the study of the history of information technology, and the scholars who routinely use its resources, have been continuously helpful in providing me with information and insights that I used in this publication. Professor Edward Wakin, at Fordham University, mentored and challenged me on the ideas in the book and line by line as I sought to tighten my logic, defend it with research, and yet make it readable and sensible.

This book, however, is the product of my own thinking and writing. I want to give credit to those who helped make it useful, but I must accept responsibilities for its weaknesses. This book is not a statement either of their views nor necessarily those of IBM or my colleagues there. I dedicated this book to my two sisters because they are typical of the kinds of workers I discuss—people who have built careers on information—one as a U.S. government executive, the other as a teacher. Both are extensive users of the Internet, read a great number of books, listen to the radio, watch television, subscribe to newspapers, talk on the phone, love wireless communications, and are defenders of the political values that made all this possible.

Tim Moore, my publisher at Prentice Hall, played an important role in the development of this book. He did more than just agree to publish it; he helped frame some of its arguments and focus, as a world-class editor should do. I also want to thank the production team at Prentice Hall for their good work in getting this book in print efficiently and in a timely manner, and in particular, Nick Radhuber. Finally, I cannot overlook my wife, Dora, who made it possible in countless of ways for me to find the time to work on this project over the past five years.

James W. Cortada


1. Colin Crouch, "Sharing Public Space: Status and Organizated Interests in Western Europe," in States in History, ed. John A Hall (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986): 177-210; Hall took a similar position, Ibid., 20.

2. Alex Inkeles, National Character and Modern Political Systems," in Psychological Anthropology: Approaches to Culture and Personality, ed. Francis L. K. Hsu (Homewood, Ill: Dorsey, 1961): 173.

3. Robert Kominski, "Access Denied: Changes in Computer Ownership and Use: 1984-1997," a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, August 1999, and available at the Web site for the Census Bureau, http://www.census.gov; "Tracking Online Life," press release, Pew Internet and American Life Project, May 10, 2000, http://www.pewtrusts.com/news/DocDisplay.cfm

4. The book is intended for fellow academics but worth reading because it is full of wonderful insights: Joel Mokyr, The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).


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