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The struggle goes on.
Class and the Information Age.

by David Howell

From the Industrial Revolution of the last century, to our post-modern age, class forms the bedrock on which society gives structure to its means of production and distribution. This hasn't changed with the metamorphosis that is taking place, as we move into an informationally dominated society. Once again the battle lines are drawn and mirror the class structure that continues to dominate modern society. And for all the rhetoric about information emancipating the underclass's, this is little more than a mirage.

Information is power in the same way that knowledge was power in the last century. The Clothier dominated his workforce who produced the goods that he would sell on to his customers. His position remained unassailable as his workforce had little access to the knowledge that the Clothier possessed. The Industrial Revolution bought with it a new form of organised oppression. The poor and underclass's were shepherded into factories to produce goods for their masters, who in turn provided them will all the necessarties of life. This captive workforce knew only what they needed to carry out their part of the manufacturing process.

The Information Age is offering society a new and altogether more Utopian existence. Or is it? Class still dominates this new commercial environment. Large corporations still dominate the market they have themselves created. And how do they maintain that dominance? They use the underclass's as grunt labour. Third world countries may be participating in this brave new world, but all they are offering the West is what they have always: an underpaid captive labour force.

Jeremy Bentham wrote of a panoptic society. His Panopticon was a prison so designed that all the inmates were visible at all times. Being under constant surveillance instilled in the inmates an innate fear of their masters. Bentham proposed that under these conditions a tidy profit could be made from this labour. The sweatshops of the Far East don't seem to be a million miles from this archaic form of slave labour.

In the West this situation is little better. Those with the means of access will be able to flourish in this new landscape. However, those that begin disadvantaged will remain disadvantaged. The argument that the underclass's will be emancipated is little more than a veiled attempt to set the conscious of big business at ease. In effect the opposite is taking place. The polarisation of our society continues unabashed. The elite race into the distance, taking their technology and advantages with them. The rest are left to fend for themselves. This usually means finding a niche in this new marketplace for their skills. These tend to be of low value, and so exacerbate their plight.

Education is at the heart of everyone's opportunity. However, society pays little attention to this. Government spending on state prisons now exceeds that on education. And what do some inmates do? Input information into massive databases for large corporations! Here in the UK, BT has plans to connect each and every school to the Internet. This is simply not enough. The basic infrastructure is fine, but training and further resources are needed to make the most of this initiative. Those resources are not forthcoming.

Also the notion that simply giving the disadvantaged access to information technology will allow them to move on is simply illogical. Again form Class Warfare in the Information Age, "Class still exerts a profound influence on the way people's self images develop. Self-image, in turn, exerts a profound influence on the way people develop their job skills." The very psyche of a population must be changed. People must no longer have to know 'their place' in society, but be freely encouraged to develop as they wish, and take advantage of the opportunities that modern technology is offering them.

Information it is said should be free. In an economic sense this will never be the case. Information is the new commodity of the next century. Its possession and manipulation will form the cornerstone of modern business. The skills needed to manipulate that information will be in great demand, but we are not educating our workforces to take advantage of these new opportunities. Literacy levels are falling. In this scenario class divides will continue, and will be reinforced.

A quantum shift in the perception of information needs to take place. Information as commodity will never break through this barrier as in a society where intellectual property is all important, information will always have an intrinsic monetary value. It's unlikely that this will change in the near future. Changing centuries of belief in property and innate worth in any manufactured item is almost impossibility. Information will have to fight hard if it is to be free to all.

It would seem that we all ill prepared for an information society, either economically or socially. If we were, we would be devoting resources to this end. The fact that we are not, is conspicuous by its absence. We must begin to think long and hard about our technological future, as the decisions we make today will have far reaching effects tomorrow.

What we must avoid is what economists call the lock-in phenomenon. As we draw up policy for the management of an information society, we must consider all and every facet lest we make the profound mistakes that will lock us into a development cycle we cannot break free from. Scrapping what we have put in place may simply be economically and socially impossible, even if the consequences are grave if we continue on the current path.

The keyboard that I write these words at is a prime example. The Qwerty keyboard was developed to slow down typists as they moved too fast for early typewriters. Later the Dvorak keyboard was developed. This has been proven to speed up typing, and with modern word processors being more than able to keep up, this would seem to be the ideal solution. However, the costs involved of training new typists is simply too great. The risk of RSI seems to be something that industry would rather ignore than invest in training.

A major factor in avoiding the lock-in phenomenon is the training of the workforce. They must not find their skills out of date too quickly, or be trained for jobs that have a very short life span. However, again the spectre of class domination enters the scenario. Corporations need their labour force, that much is certain. They also wish to keep that workforce and so will always attempt to dominate them. Again knowledge is power. And the knowledge that is disseminated to a workforce will always be at the convenience of the elite.

However, the workforce may have their own power over their masters. Each and every one of us brings to any job those insights that are invisible to management. A certain way of manipulating a piece of software. A set of tasks that only the worker has knowledge of when they operate a machine are examples. Management is not privy to this. The workforce therefore does have some informational power over their managers.

This hierarchy of information however, is self-defeating. We must foster an environment of trust and co-operation if we are to move forward into the next millennium, and reap the rewards that the information society has promised. If the elite continues to dominate, and the workforces continue with their mistrust of their managers, we will never move forward. Information in this instance must be free, but throwing off its shackles will be almost impossible in a class-ridden society. While we have inequitable classes, and a structure that reinforces this, any co-operative behaviour is the stuff of myth.

As we enter the next millennium our information based society will take shape. The millions who are now disenfranchised need to be bought into the fold and educated. No one should suffer, but plenty will. The old class divides will still show their ugly faces in each step we take up the technological ladder. Lets hope we take as many of the worlds populations with us.

b i o
Dave Howell works from his cramped office in a small town 10 miles north of Birmingham in the UK. Freelance writing has taken up the majority of his free time for the last two years.

Currently writing for the Daily Telegraph, and pursuing a variety of publishers for a number of books he is planning; he is also hard at work completing a database of cyberculture books that will form the catalogue of an online bookshop that will go live in the new year.

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