• The Commons and Global Sustainable Information Society (GSIS)

  • Von Wolfgang Hofkirchner | 09 Mar 16 | Posted under: Commons
  • Dieser Beitrag ist in der deutschen Ausgabe nicht inkludiert und daher nur auf Englisch verfügbar.

    The age of global challenges

    The information age is the age of the societies into which industrialised societies are transforming, as seen in the spread of new information and communication technologies (ICTs), just as the industrial age is the age of the societies into which agricultural societies had and are still transforming worldwide. However, scientific development is still lagging behind societal and technological development. Technological development is not accompanied by an equally rapid growth in scientific insight, let alone foresight, into the impact of technology on the levels of society other than that of technological organisation. Attempts at observing and understanding the basic nature of this change are still not prioritised. The public use of the term ‘information society’ has been reduced to denoting a society in which applications of modern ICT are widespread in order to facilitate the handling of what is commonly called ‘information’. A scientific conceptualisation of this transformation has not had time to develop. There is still no actual ‘science of information society’ or ‘science of information’.

    Yet, from the point of view of information, the relationship between science and techno-social development today is analogous to what Karl Marx confronted in respect to labour.1 In his time, labour could and necessarily did become a matter of scientific interest, since labour had in fact taken on a new role in society. It became something more abstract in social life, that is, it was treated in society irrespective of its concrete characteristics. Marx called this a ‘real abstraction’ – an abstraction that occurred in reality due to the real treatment of labour in emerging capitalism, which became the basis for the general concept of labour in scientific thought. It was only at that point that the concept of labour could be projected back onto former social formations in the history of humanity and that phenomena other than industrial work could be subsumed under the concept of labour, albeit as different manifestations. Making use of this notion of real abstraction we might postulate that information is today playing as decisive a role in society as labour formerly did and so is fostering a new scientific conceptualisation and theorisation – that it has turned into a real abstraction, which is the rationale for formulating a new general idea: what labour is in relation to human history as seen from the perspective of industrial society, information is in relation to history from the perspective of information society.

    In August 2010, the first-ever scientific conference under the slogan ‘Towards a New Science of Information’ was held. It took place in Beijing and was organised by the Social Information Science Institute (SISI) at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST) in Wuhan, and sponsored by the Technical Committee on Artificial Intelligence Theory (TCAIT) of the Chinese Association for Artificial Intelligence (CAAI). At the conference a committee was established to prepare the founding of an International Society for Information Studies (ISIS). Its objectives are to advance global and collaborative studies in the sciences of information, information technology, and information society as a field in its own right, to elaborate common conceptual frameworks, and to implement them in practice so as to help confront the challenges of the information age. On 24 June 2011, the International Society for Information Studies was registered in Vienna as an association under Austrian law.

    The society’s first conference was hosted by Moscow Humanitarian University in May 2013. It focused on ‘Perspectives of Information in Global Education as a New Approach for the 21st Century’.

    As I said in my Presidential address at that occasion:

    The study and the engineering of information processes have been spreading and diversifying, while diffusing throughout the disciplines. There is a rich body of knowledge about diverse aspects of information. In many cases valuable findings have been achieved. But more often than not Information Studies are not focused on contributing to the urgent needs of civilisation in crisis and research and development is undertaken to meet short-sighted economic interests, one-sided military and political interests, and self-centered cultural interests all of which prohibit thinking big. Thus diversity still outbalances unity instead of providing the basis for Information Studies to become a science of information in its own right.2

    I therefore called for a Summit, as a second conference of ISIS, titled ‘The Information Society at the Crossroads – Response and Responsibility of the Sciences of Information’. It was held in Vienna on 3-7 June 2015.

    The point of departure of the conference was the following statement:

    The information society has come with a promise – the promise, with the help of technology, to restore information as a commons: generated and utilised by everyone; for the benefit of every single person and all humanity; unfettered, empowering the people, truthful and reasonable, enabling constructive ways of living and a proper understanding of the environment.

    The promise has not yet proven true. Instead, we face trends towards the commercialisation and commoditisation of all information; towards the totalisation of surveillance and the extension of the battlefield to civil society through information warfare; towards disinfotainment overflow; towards a collapse of the technological civilisation itself as a consequence of the vulnerability of information networks and, in the most general terms, as a consequence of ignorance of the fundamental information processes at work not only in natural systems but also in social and artificial systems.

    The social and technological innovations that are intended to boost cognition, communication and co-operation are ambiguous: their potential to advance information commons is exploited for purposes of self-aggrandisement rather than concern for the overarching communities in which every human self is embedded from the family to world society. Tools – computer and other – are made for profit, power or predominance; the goal of a flourishing and thriving of humanity as a whole takes a distant second place, if it runs at all.

    Thus, the information society has reached a crossroads: without significant change, business as usual can even accelerate its breakdown. A breakthrough to a global, sustainable information society must establish an information commons as a cornerstone of a programme for coping with the challenges of the information age.3

    The Summit was thus intended to highlight the question of a transformation of the current information societies into an alternative information society and the question of the commons.

    The commons and a global sustainable information society

    The transformation of current societies is absolutely necessary in view of the global challenges with which we have been living since the second half of the last century. Global challenges are global because they affect humanity as a whole and because it is only humanity as a whole that can deal with them successfully. As global challenges have a ‘dark’ and a ‘bright’ side, they constitute a great crossroad that lies ahead for humanity. The dark side is the imminent danger of the breakdown of interdependent societies with the extermination of civilised human life in the end. The bright side is the possibility of transition to a higher state of civilisation, which could bring about a peaceful, environmentally sound, and socially and economically just and inclusive world society. I call the vision of this transformation Global Sustainable Information Society (GSIS).

    The vision of GSIS projects an overall framework consisting of three conditions that need to be fulfilled rather than a detailed blueprint.4

    1. A GSIS can only exist on a planetary scale, that is, it needs to be global.
    2. It has to be able, by establishing its own organisational relations, to prevent the dangers of anthropogenic breakdown, that is, it needs to be sustainable.
    3. It needs to have the capacity, through ICTs, to create the requisite wisdom, knowledge, and data, that is, it needs to be informational.

    Being global implies being sustainable, which in turn implies being informational. Informationality means there is information needed for sustainability; sustainability means there are sustainable relations needed for globality.

    In order to achieve globality, sustainability, and informationality the commons need to be addressed.

    The rationale of every system is synergy. Because agents when producing a system produce synergetic effects, that is, effects they could not produce when in isolation, systems have a strong incentive to proliferate. In social systems synergism takes on the form of some social good. Actors contribute together to the good and are common beneficiaries of that good – the good is a common good, it is a commons. That good comes into being through the common effort of the actors’ combined productive energies and is located on a social system’s macro-level. It is a relational good that influences actors on the micro-level, since it enables or constrains the actors’ participation in producing and consuming the good. All actors contribute to the emergence of that order which allows their interactions to become stable relations. The new structure relates the actors to each other.

    Since the commons is an emergent quality, it cannot be fully traced back to the quantity of each actor’s contribution.5 There is a qualitative leap that is not fully determined by the initial conditions (which play the role of boundary-setting conditions – necessary but not sufficient conditions). The converse is also true: there is less-than-strict determinism in top-down emergence. Accordingly, the commons does not have the same impact on every actor; a quantity of the commons used by one actor may yield a different qualitative result than it does when used by another actor. The actors have a share in the added value when producing it and they share it when using it; but the share the actors have does not account for the added value produced, nor does the latter account for how much the actors share. This problem of the lack of reciprocal relationship between the labour costs of, and benefits for, individual actors is an argument against measurements of transactions and exchanges between individual or aggregate actors as a basis for justifiably balancing their rights and duties; instead, individual input into, and individual benefit from, the commons is a matter of collective action. And, for that reason, the only acceptable principle of a humane organisation of production and consumption of the commons is, in general, ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their need’.

    At the Summit a report by Manuel Bohn, co-worker of Michael Tomasello at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, provided ontogenetic evidence of behaviour that resembles such a principle. In an experiment young children are prompted by a device to work together in a subtle way in order that each may receive an award. They receive it after successfully carrying out the task. If the award was distributed in an uneven way, the child receiving a greater award spontaneously shared the excess portion with the other child.

    In heteronymous societies, however, the production and provision of commons becomes a contested field. Antagonistic relations appear. It is increasingly clear that the social (cultural, political, and economic) crises, the ecological crises, and the scientific-technological crises we are witnessing are battles over the whole spectrum of commons. These battles occur precisely in those fields marked by the global problematic that is putting humanity’s survival at risk. Thus the effort to cope with the global challenges is tantamount to the struggle for inclusion in, and against exclusion from, any of society’s subsystems.

    The dominant mode of using technological, environmental, and human commons has turned out to be increasingly incompatible with a peaceful and harmonious future for societies. There are serious impediments on the road to establishing sustainable international as well as intra-national relations (which exclude the use of military violence and other technological means detrimental to the good life); to establishing ecologically sustainable relations with nature (which exclude overuse of resources and their abuse as sinks for harmful waste); and to establishing sustainable relations among people in the cultural, political, and socio-economic context (which include all producers and users in the fair production and use of whatever is commonly produced).

    In the scientific-technological subsystem of society in which actors produce scientific-technological innovations that enhance and augment human self-actuation the common good is scientific knowledge and technological means – both constituting the ‘how’ of ever more human activities – as they are shaped by societal relations that make up the structure of the techno-social systems. This system is now a battlefield in the struggle for science as a ‘communist’, universal, disinterested, and organised sceptical endeavour, as Robert K. Merton put it in 1942 in ‘The Normative Structure of Science’,6 a struggle for technology assessment and for designing meaningful technology as against military-industrial-complex-funded research and development.

    In the ecological subsystem of society, in which actors produce adaptations to, or of, the natural environment that supports human self-preservation, the common good is all of extra-human nature and all of human nature, the material ‘who’ and the material ‘what’, the natural subject and the natural object, of human activities, ecology, and bodies as they are shaped by societal relations – the structure of the eco-social systems. This system has become a battlefield between external and internal nature. There is a struggle for a cautious approach to the biophysical bases of human life as against their extensive and intensive colonisation.

    The economic subsystem – the sphere of resources that is conditioned by the social relations of distribution of the means for a good life – has become the battlefield of the struggle for un-alienated working conditions and a fair share for all against the erosion of the labour force, against the pressure exerted by financial capital, against corruption, and against the Matthew principle (the rich-get-richer mechanism) inherent in capitalist economies, etc.

    The political subsystem – the public sphere that is conditioned by the power of decision-making processes over the conduct of a good life – has become the battlefield of the struggle for participatory democracy against right-wing, technocratic, or populist authoritarian rule.

    And the cultural subsystem – the realm of values and lifestyles conditioned by the process of defining what ‘good’ means in the ‘good life’ – has become the battlefield of the struggle for inclusive definitions of selves oriented to unity through diversity as against parochial ways of living, nationalism, and fundamentalist ideologies.

    In society as a whole, the common good is the inclusive community of actors interrelated such that a humane social system can result with a competitive edge in the course of evolution on our planet. It consists of the social subject, the social object, and the social ways and means of human activities that include the material and natural ones but go beyond mere physicality; the commons is the sphere that allows for the unfolding of individual ingenuity, the space that society provides for it.

    Subjective factors in the transformation

    As current technological, ecological, economic, political, and cultural crises show, conservative forces fall prey to an anachronistic mode of action that increasingly encloses any existing commons. This has been termed ‘idiotism’.7 In ancient Greek ‘Idios’ meant ‘the personal realm, that which is private, and one’s own’. In Neal Curtis’s view, ‘idios’ also implies ‘being enclosed’. He says, that ‘the creation of the private through the enclosure of public or commonly held resources has historically been the primary means by which property has been secured for private use’.8 ‘Idiotes’ then denotes a person who is concerned with his personal realm only, with his own, and not with, say, the res publica and the fate of other human beings. Curtis convincingly demonstrates that neoliberalism, not only in ideology but also as a distinct social order, epitomises the principle of the ‘idiotes’. And it is true that idiotism as a feature of society that functions via the actions of self-interested, self-concerned individuals goes back to antiquity and even earlier social formations in which there was domination that went hand in hand with the enclosure of the commons and the denial of free access to it.

    In contrast to idiotism, a transformation into GSIS requires a new cosmopolitanism that by promoting a new image of world citizens – from the perspective of all humanity – inspires a new kind of behaviour, from the world-society level to various groupings at different levels and finally to the individual. Idiotism is characterised by an attempt to decouple the means from the ends and invent ever-new means while the ends remain fixed as givens. New cosmopolitanism questions both means and ends; no means, no ends are taken as givens unless agreed upon in common; not only are the means to be variable, but the ends are not to be imposed as constants anymore; a permanent adjustment of the means to the end and of the end to the means is understood as feasible and mandatory; the means is open to critique if it does not lead to the desired moral end, and the end is open to critique too if it turns out to frustrate a higher moral end. Since, in idiotism, particularist understandings of means and ends are either made into absolutes or are simply put forward from a relativist point of view, and since idiotism’s views of means and ends are short-sighted and disregard harmful effects on other parts of the system, they express the interests of self­regarding persons (and groups). In new cosmopolitanism, on the other hand, interests are compelled to replace short-sightedness with long-sightedness. Individual interests need not be particularistic; they can be coherent with social relations that are concerned with, and care for, all of the community in question. Actors can serve their true and best interests by acknowledging that they can do so best when in harmony with the overarching system and thus without doing harm to other system components. They can construct a unity-through-diversity relationship to the social system. But to be able to do so they need to overcome the restrictions of reflexivity they face in idiotism. Reflections in new cosmopolitanism are compelled to refer to commonalities. Actors need to be enabled to reflect their own positions and the positions of others from the perspective of the overall social system; through collective reflecion on the part of the actors, the system itself can be said to be reflexive about its actors when it assures improved conditions for social synergy and for the reduction of social frictions in the generation and utilisation of the commons. Actors need to extend their reflections to the community and its commons.

    The transition to GSIS would necessitate a reflexive revolution. However, as I wrote in 2014, societal development after 1968 was not particularly conducive to the formation of strong, comprehensive, and deep-rooted forces composed of agents of change working towards a GSIS and a mitigation of the global challenges.

    In the aftermath of the oil crises in the first half of the seventies and on the eve of the eighties of the last century, the post-war boom and the blind trust in the continuing improvement of social life conditions lost momentum. In economy, the accumulation of industry capital decoupled the increase of wages from the increase in productivity. In technology, flexible automation displaced Fordism (mass production with mass consumption). In politics, Thatcherism and Reagonomics, the destruction of the social welfare state by liberalisation, privatisation, and deregulation were introduced. In culture, the ideology of neoliberalism, of ‘make your own luck’, of individualism began to become hegemonic. All of that formed a pattern that connects. It was implemented by the advised response of the ruling classes to the decline of the profit rates that had accelerated because of the accumulation of capital that could not find appropriate spheres of investments. And this implementation could capitalise [on] the weakness of the trade union and labour movements. In the nineties, the financial capital began even to outweigh the industrial, ‘material’, ‘productive’ capital causing several bubble implosions. In the current crises, the transnational financial capital is targeting national economies and the politicians support it by administering austerity at the cost of the 80, 90 or even 99 per cent of the populations instead of starting a redistribution of wealth and income.9

    The conditions for a subjective factor to emerge even worsened. Students were trained to work as cogs in the machine of myopic economic interests and not educated to grasp the big picture. Personal competence through political education and engagement is neither required nor offered, and technical and business skills and (natural) science training prevail. The economisation of education has transformed pupils and students into customers. Schools and universities do not provide guidance for critical thinking nor do they provide free space for it. Even a sense of connection with society is not fostered.

    There is still no empirical evidence that consciousness is spreading among the youth in the Western world about the commons that need to be reclaimed for a just social order in nascent world society. Restricted reflection still appears to be predominant.

    But there is still hope. The protests of new social movements might have helped prepare the ground for growing political awareness that reflects the economic situation and a will to change. Insight into the causes of the crises may have spread. There may be realisation that the current crises are expressions of a progressive enclosure of all the common goods generated and utilised by actors in the whole range of social systems that make up society. Battles over reclaiming the commons may now be more easily recognised as such.

    In conclusion, there is still grounds for hope, since imponderables, contingencies, and serendipity are inherent in social evolution. Social evolution is emergent, and situations may arise that open the window to the needed transition to a Global Sustainable Information Society.


    1. See Wolfgang Hofkirchner, Twenty Questions About a Unified Theory of Information, Litchfield Park: ISCE Publishing, 2010, pp. 5-6.

    2. http://is4is.org

    3. http://summit.is4is.org

    4. Wolfgang Hofkirchner, ‘Potentials and Risks for Creating a Global Sustainable Information Society’, Christian Fuchs and Marisol Sandoval (eds), Critique, Social Media and the Information Society, London and New York: Routledge, 2013, pp. 66-75.

    5. Wolfgang Hofkirchner, ‘The Commons from a Critical Social Systems Perspective’, Recerca, 14 (2014), pp. 71-91.

    6. Robert K. Merton, The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973, pp. 267-278.

    7. Neal Curtis, Idiotism: Capitalism and the Privatisation of Life, London: Pluto Press, 2013.

    8. Curtis, Idiotism, p. 12.

    9. Hofkirchner, ‘The Commons’, pp. 85-86. 

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