From the Information Age to the Communication Age

Andrew Feenberg


In the 1960s, sociologists in the United States introduced the new theory of the “Information Age.” They argued that industry was declining in the most advanced countries as a new economic and social paradigm emerged based on the production of information and the provision of services. The employment figures seemed to bear out this argument, especially if one counted all service workers as “information workers.”

Of course, there were some who protested that most service workers had no more to do with information than industrial workers. I recall one Marxist sociologist of labor indignantly explaining at the time that it was not technical work but janitorial services that had grown more than any other occupation since World War II. Other critics of the new theory noted that the decline of industry in the US was compensated by its rise in countries with lower labor costs such as Mexico and now of course China. The Industrial Age continues on a global scale.

Nevertheless, whatever the flaws in the theory of the Information Age, it was influential with governments attempting to anticipate and plan for the future. But the outcome of policies based on the theory has sometimes proved surprising. This was certainly the case in France and South Korea, two countries that aspired to enter the Information Age quickly through encouraging the accelerated computerization of society.

The French case was once much discussed before the Internet eclipsed it. It is worth recalling the basic facts. In the early 1980s France introduced a nation-wide domestic computer network called Teletel. The French government was convinced that computer networking would turn out to be the Information Age equivalent of industrialism’s coal and steel. It was therefore essential to set up a network early, before other countries (read: the United States, IBM) dominated the field.

All this occurred years before the Internet was opened to general use and accustomed us to thinking of computers as network nodes. At the time most computer networking was internal to large computer corporations and a few subscriber services with modest membership. These services were not interlinked and so were not very useful except for specialized purposes. The idea of something like Teletel, or what the Internet was soon to become, seemed a daring projection from a speculative sociological theory. Many predicted failure. What in fact resulted was a kind of success, but it called into question the theory on which the experiment in networking was based.

The Teletel network was implemented by the French telephone company. The key to the success of its network was the free distribution of terminals, called Minitels, to every phone subscriber sufficiently interested to pick one up at his local phone store. Beginning in 1981, the distribution of terminals was enormously successful. Eventually six million were placed in homes, a significant proportion of households in a country of about 50 million.

The existence of a large user base encouraged the creation of services. The directory grew by leaps and bounds from year to year. Soon there were thousands of services offering everything from medical advice to state exam test results, business news to train schedules, real estate listings to games, help with homework to dates.

The government officials who had designed the network and obtained vast sums in state support to launch it imagined that they were contributing to the modernization of French society by increasing the efficiency of everyday life. They intended their network to enable ordinary people to enter the Information Age better equipped to handle the challenges of a post-industrial society. For the officials this meant better access to information. What they got instead was human communication and much of it was about…sex. Here is the story.

Teletel opened with various information services such as a national telephone directory and news provided by newspaper editors. Within a year, one of these news services was hacked. The hack enabled the hackers to send system messages to everyone on the service at the time, essentially what we now think of as instant messaging. The owners of the service were furious at first but the hack attracted a lot of attention around the country and soon thousands of users were signing on to see the messages. Since the newspaper which owned the site was paid by the telephone company for each minute of connection, the editors decided to support rather than resist the hackers’ innovation. Instant messaging software was placed on the site.

 What happened next was completely unexpected. Users transformed the newspaper’s site into a place to seek dates. Since the messages could be sent anonymously, users dared to explain their desires in the most explicit language. So-called “pink messaging” was born and spread like wildfire throughout the network as service after service introduced similar programs. The telephone company was scandalized but the phenomenon insured Teletel’s financial success and could not be stopped. In fact, in 1987, the only year for which I could obtain data, messaging accounted for about 40% of the revenues of the system. Teletel did not preside over the birth of an Information Age in France but rather unleashed a strange Communication Age for which sociology at that time had no good theory.

Instant messaging is only useful for everyday social interaction but it transformed a tool originally designed for the exchange of information into a communication medium. With email, web forums, and blogs the Internet has gone much further in exploring the communicative potential of computer networking. Today classes and business meetings are conducted online, social groups and academic organizations plan events, and political discussions influence elections. The very nature of computer networking has been transformed by users.

The South Korean case is similar in some ways, different in others. Like France, but at a later date. South Korea attempted to modernize quickly by introducing computer networking on a large scale. In the 1990s the government encouraged the widespread adoption of the Internet and supported the introduction of broadband service. South Korea now has the highest penetration of high-speed Internet in the world, reaching 75% percent of households. But as in France, the explosion of interest in computer networking did not have the intended result.

Today young people in South Korea gather in so-called PC-Bangs, local internet cafes, where they sign on to multi-player computer games, do email and instant messaging, maintain personal blogs, and surf online matchmaking sites. The PC-Bangs serve to escape the pressures of home and meet with friends. They are cheap places to “hang out” and teenagers spend most of their free time in these cafes.

Computer gaming has become so popular since the introduction of the Internet that national championship matches attract huge audiences. Over half the population plays online games and the game economy in Korea is worth an astonishing $4.3 billion a year. The best players become professionals and are worshipped by fans like movie stars. The darker side of the phenomenon is denounced as “addiction,” an excessive concentration on gaming to the exclusion of other pursuits. In fact, several players have actually died after lengthy sessions at the computer without proper food or drink. But this is a rare exception to a generally positive picture of safe and entertaining leisure activity.

At first sight it appears that this case is due to an obsession with games that would presumably be unique to South Korean youth. However, research on young Koreans’ fascination with computer games reveals a different story. Computer gaming in Korea is the occasion for the formation of youth communities. It is the glue that holds together the social groups in which most young people’s social life goes on. The games themselves have both competitive and cooperative elements. They offer opportunities to achieve and also to form community bonds with others in cooperative online ventures. Thus gaming is not just about scoring points. The context of play is a human environment participants join out of social needs.

This case confirms what we have learned from Teletel and the Internet. The computer becomes a medium of communication as soon as it leaves the engineers’ desk to enter the daily life of ordinary people. The larger implications of this phenomenon for the study of technology have to do with the importance of users in influencing the development of technologies once they are unleashed on the public. This will be a subject of a future article.