The Information Society: From Fordism to Gatesism: The 1995 Southam Lecture

Gaetan Tremblay (Université du Québec a Montréal)

Abstract: The information society model claims that the new information hegemony is transforming industrial society. But is it not the case that the major change has to do with the increasingly greater integration of information and communication into the functioning of the economy and society, in the submission of information and communication to the operative rules of industrial society, in sum, in the commodification of information, culture, and communication? Rather than a "post-industrial society," the period of transition which we are experiencing consists more modestly in the shift from one industrial mode of organization to another mode of industrial organization, that is, from Fordism to Gatesism.

Résumé: Le modèle de la société de l'information affirme que la nouvelle hégémonie de l'information transforme la société industrielle. Le changement majeur ne réside-t-il pas davantage dans l'intégration de plus en plus poussée de l'information et de la communication au fonctionnement de l'économie et de la société, dans la soumission de l'information et de la communication aux règles qui régissent la société industrielle, bref dans la marchandisation de l'information, de la culture et de la communication? Plutôt qu'un "une société post-industrielle", la période de transition que nous vivons ne consisterait-elle pas plus modestement en un passage d'un mode d'organisation industrielle à un autre mode d'organisation industrielle, du fordisme au gatesisme.


Current events, technological developments, and the evolution of our societies continually provide us with subjects, themes, and problems which greatly influence our work. Communication researchers are particularly sensitive to these influences, as is borne out by the analysis of publications in our field. Such permeability to contemporary preoccupations is surely positive in many respects. It roots us in our society and incites us to participate in major public debates. It also helps us continually to adapt our teaching to the evolution of the world of communications. But it also carries certain dangers and often presents us with difficulties. Things evolve so rapidly that our research findings are often out of date even before they are published. And, above all, drawn into the heat of the action, we often lack the distance necessary for rigorous and impartial analysis of the phenomena we are studying. It is often difficult to distinguish our own discourse from the normative and prophetic discourses of other social actors. Indeed, at times we even contribute to nourishing and renewing them. In sum, it is too often the case that our discourse does not demarcate itself from that of the political and economic promoters of these new communication technologies. If this is the case, are we fulfilling our roles as researchers, academics, intellectuals, and critical, impartial analysts?

For some years, decades even, certain recurring themes have imposed themselves with force. Extremely fast-paced developments in technology have led us to focus attention on its immense possibilities and predict the arrival of what has been variously termed "the global village," "the cabled city," "the information economy," "the knowledge economy," and "the information society." Within the same time frame and movement of thought, transformations in the economic system have led us to emphasize globalization and its social and cultural consequences. The most recent development, propelled by the highest political authorities, has focused these preoccupations into the "electronic highways" or "information highways" metaphor. Countless newspaper and magazine articles, television programs, conferences, and public addresses have been devoted to this subject over the past two years. The culminating moment was attained when the G7 members decided to make it the theme of their February 1995 meeting in Brussels.

The subject of my talk is not that of information highways. Rather, I wish to focus on its subtending project, one that has continually been taken up and reactualized over the past few decades, namely, the emergence of a new society characterized as an "information society" (see Lacroix, Miège, & Tremblay, 1994). I would like to explore, in the form of a paper, the following questions: Where does communication theory stand on these issues? How can it help us to conceptualize these phenomena? And how is the evolution of communication theory influenced by these phenomena?

Reactions to technological developments in the field of communication are typically classified into two broad categories: optimist and pessimist. The former views innovations as elements of ineluctable progress, while the latter sees increasing alienation. This dichotomous categorization has been imposed to such an extent and functions so well that whosoever expresses the least criticism is quickly classified as a pessimist, and anyone who mentions the positive outcomes is labelled an optimist. I wish to avoid such a Manichean approach and warn you at the same time that my initial perspective takes nothing from visions of a concentration camp universe or of better things to come, from Orwell and Huxley, or Martin and Chagnon. I merely wish to question, in a critical manner to be sure, the basis of the postulates and concepts we use in the analysis of the above-mentioned phenomena, something which the convenient classification into optimist and pessimist too often occludes and eludes. I begin by discussing some epistemological obstacles facing our conceptualization of the changes affecting our societies. This is followed by a discussion of the meanings we have given to the notion of an information society. Lastly, I propose a change in perspective and offer an hypothesis for explaining current transformations.

Epistemological obstacles

There are many different types of obstacles lying in the path of a more objective--or, if you like, the most desubjectivized possible--understanding of the transformations currently taking place in the most industrialized societies, to speak only of them. I will identify three from among many others.

Let us be honest: we are spontaneously sympathetic to the idea that we are moving towards an information society, even before taking the facts into consideration. This notion is pleasing to us, not only because its usual descriptions evoke the idea of a society in which knowledge and information will be readily accessible and greatly shared (i.e., a more just, more prosperous, and more democratic society), but because it comforts us in our own personal choices: we really are engaged in important matters, we who have chosen to devote our professional lives to the study of communication. We were right. Our work is at the heart of the changes traversing contemporary societies.

This quite natural sympathy constitutes the first obstacle we need to surmount in our efforts to theorize the phenomenon. And we should take note that it will not be easy, particularly since this sympathy finds an easy justification in the Innisian postulate--that nearly all of us accept--to the effect that communications are central to the constitution and life of empires (Innis, 1950 /1972, 1951/1968). What could be more normal than for communicologists to adopt this perspective? Are sociologists not convinced of the importance of social facts, psychologists of mental and affective processes, economists of markets, and so forth?

The information society thus flows logically from the historical importance that communication has always occupied in the lives of societies. But if communication media have always played a central role, then why is this characteristic reserved only for the society unfolding before our eyes? Should we not be more precise in how it is qualified, more specific in terms of its characteristics?

The second obstacle is also intimately related to our choice of the field of communication as the object of our professional activities. Despite our explicit denials, we find it difficult to distance ourselves from technological determinism. We are spontaneously given to according considerable and at times inordinate importance to communication media. We tend to begin with the technological, to analyze its characteristics, and to study or deduce its social, economic, cultural, and political consequences. Too often, our work implicitly assumes that technology has an autonomous, independent status relative to socioeconomic structures and actions of social actors. This obstacle is just as difficult to overcome as the previous one because it, too, appears natural, just as it also strikes us as normal that we should conduct ourselves like other social science professionals who give priority to their object of study and their own perspective. In addition, perhaps we are fascinated by ever more powerful technology, the functioning of which we understand poorly!

The centrality of technology has been a characteristic of communication scholarship since its beginning. With few exceptions--such as semiotics and rhetoric--communication theories, from Shannon & Weaver's information theory to mass communication theory and Innis and McLuhan, have been developed as a function of, or reaction to, the development of modern communication technology. However understandable it may be, this tendency to situate technology at the centre of our work needs to be questioned, particularly since we go so far as to draw general conclusions about the type of society in which we live or which we foretell.

The third epistemological obstacle I wish to mention concerns our latent progressivism. The dominant discourse on communication technologies, particularly on what is with some confusion called "the new information and communication technologies" (NICTs), is characterized by an optimism which, though not always overflowing or without nuance, is nevertheless fundamentally convinced that we are progressing. The least one can say is that Jacques Ellul has been left aside! One hardly ever hears, with respect to communication technologies, the same criticisms and doubts abundantly expressed in every other field by the ecology movement. Indeed, communication technology is considered to be essentially positive: it does not pollute, can replace transportation, even allow the movement to organize itself, etc. This optimism is tempered only by the threat posed to individual privacy by the establishment of all manner of electronic files.

Let me be clear: it is not my claim that the pessimists are right after all. At the outset, I stated that I wanted to avoid this dichotomy. I would simply like to point to a recurring theme in the dominant discourse on NICTs, which, even when it tries to have a balanced view of things, tends to present the positive consequences as inevitable, as self-evident, as the natural outcome of the introduction and use of technology, while the negative consequences are viewed as simple possibilities that can be avoided or minimized, given adequate policies and strategies. Without wishing to advocate a catastrophic vision, it seems to me that this prejudice constitutes a significant epistemological obstacle to the apprehension of current changes. It is hardly compatible with the systematic doubt characteristic of any scientific undertaking.

There are thus three obstacles lying on the road to our understanding of changes related to the introduction and spread of NICTs in our societies: professional complacency, technological determinism, and inveterate progressivism. To be sure, there are others. I only hope that my brief mention of these three will suffice to alert us to our own foibles and awaken our critical spirit in the assessment of the pertinence of the model articulated by theories of the "information society."

The discourse of the information society

There have been many attempts to name the changes to post-Second World War society and to identify the resulting new society. These have included "mass society," "leisure society," "programmed society," "post-industrial society," "consumer society," "information society," and so on. If certain authors are to be believed, society types change as often as governments! Historians will no doubt sort matters out in a few decades. But one already suspects that despite the fantastic acceleration of the rate of change over the last half century, profound transformations of society are less rapid and certain developments, hailed as fundamental, will not have as dramatic an effect on the system's base as had been anticipated. In this light, to what does the notion of "information society" refer? What are its characteristics? And do they represent a radical transformation justifying claims of a new type of society, of a change as important as that of the industrial revolution, the invention of the printing press, or even the invention of writing?

The argument presenting the advent of the information society as a radical change essentially rests on two kinds of consideration: (1) extremely rapid developments in information processing and transmission, and (2) the growing strategic importance of information and knowledge in the entire arena of human activities. Let me briefly summarize what has been said on this matter over the last few decades by discussing four themes: (1) an interconnected society, (2) an information economy, (3) an interactive society, and (4) informatics as a new form of writing. I will conclude this point with an assessment of the utility of the notion of the information society.

An interconnected society

The first speculations about the information society arose in the 1970s, contemporaneously with the first sense of the immense development possibilities of cable, satellite communications, fibre optics, and micro-informatics. In his 1978 book, The Wired Society, James Martin, for example, traces an often-echoed but rarely surpassed portrait. From the new technical possibilities of information transmission and processing, he inferred a number of consequences for the organization of work, social relations, education, political life, the environment, and so on, which led him to sketch a portrait of an idyllic society. In the book's second chapter, entitled "New Highways"--as if the metaphor were not so recent--he writes:

Imagine a city ten or twenty years in the future, with parks and flowers and lakes, where the air is crystal clear and most cars are kept in large parking lots on the outskirts. The high rise buildings are not too close, so they all have good views, and everyone living in the city can walk through the gardens or rain-free pedestrian mall to shops, restaurants, or pubs. The city has cabling under the streets and new forms of radio that provide all manner of communication facilities. The television sets, which can pick up many more channels than today's television, can also be used in conjunction with small keyboards to provide a multitude of communication services. The more affluent citizens have 7-foot television screens, or even larger.

There is less need for physical travel than in an earlier era. Banking can be done from the home, and so can as much shopping as is desired....

Some homes have machines that receive transmitted documents. With these new machines one can obtain business paperwork, new items selected to match one's interests, financial or stock market reports, mail, bank statements, airline schedules, and so on....

There is almost no street robbery, because most persons carry little cash....Citizens can wear radio devices for automatically calling police or ambulances if they wish. Homes have burglar and fire alarms connected to the police and fire stations....

Industry is to a major extent run by machines....There is almost no machine tool that does not contain a miniature computer. Paperwork is largely avoided by having computers send orders and invoices directly to other computers and by making most payments, including salary payments, by automatic transmission of funds into the appropriate bank accounts. To avoid unemployment, long weekends have become normal and are demanded by the labor unions.

Inventing and producing ways to fill the increased leisure time is a major growth industry....

Above all, there is superlative education. History can be learned with programs as gripping and informative as Alistair Cooke's America. University courses modeled on England's Open University use television and remote computers; degrees can be obtained via television....To prepare such programs, there has grown up an industry as large as Hollywood and just as professional. Program production is expensive, but one program is often used by hundreds of thousands of students....

The communication channels provide excellent medical facilities, some computerized and some via the videophones and large television screens. Remote diagnostic studios are used, employing powerful television lenses and many medical instruments....

Technical innovation has changed the news media. Citizens can watch their political representatives in action and can register approval or protest....

If new telecommunications has changed the city, it has changed the rural districts even more....

Many country villages have a satellite antenna. People can have their own garden or farmstead and can walk in the fields and woods; they eat fresh vegetables and bread from the local bakery; but they are no longer cut off from the world....There is a growing trend to small communities which are self-dependent except for their use of the new telecommunications highways. (Martin, 1978 /1981, pp. 8-12)

It is curious that Martin did not entertain the possibility that these networks might be used for other ends. There is nothing in his book predicting the use of the Internet by movements on the extreme right or the extreme left. There is nothing that might allow for anticipating the events in Oklahoma City. Nor is there anything about the infatuation of television viewers with events like the O. J. Simpson trial rather than with city council debates. What lovely optimism! What lovely naïveté! What utopianism!

What is striking about this type of discourse is not so much the prediction of technological developments--which are not all that wrong-headed--as the manifest absence of any appreciation of the complexity of social, cultural, political, and economic processes. After all, the telecommunications infrastructures have been largely developed and household equipment has been improved. Not as much can be said, however, for the ecological, erudite, policed, and idyllic society depicted by Martin.

But the tone had been set. Many government documents and articles were to be produced with the same visionary accents, the same type of reasoning which consists in extrapolating a host of improvements in every walk of social life solely on the basis of the spread of new information and communication technologies. Such is the background to the dominant discourse of the information society.

An information economy

The work of Daniel Bell (1973) and Marc Porat (1977) represents another type of vision centred on technological potential. More specifically, their vision is predicated on the importance of knowledge and information in contemporary economies. In Bell's view, knowledge has become the most important production factor in modern economies. It is the basis of the exercise of power, it produces gains in productivity, and it ensures business competitiveness. And in Porat's view, America's post-war economy can be characterized by the rise in importance of activities related to information production, processing, and transmission. Since an economy can be defined by the type of activities occupying the majority of its workers, we can talk in terms of an information economy, just as one spoke of an industrial economy when manufacturing and transformation were the dominant activities, or an agrarian economy when the majority of workers were in the primary sector.

It is undeniable that knowledge is now one of the most important factors in production. While this has always been true to a lesser extent, it must be admitted that technical and scientific knowledge plays a much more important role in contemporary economies than in the economy of, for example, the first industrial revolution. Porat's argument in this respect, however, is subject to certain problems, as William Leiss points out in his systematic critique (Leiss, 1982). Let me only mention that Porat's conclusions rely on disputable statistical aggregates. In order to show the supreme importance of information-related activities in contemporary economies, Porat lumps together very different trades and professions, which all touch upon information production and processing, but in degrees that vary considerably. In certain respects, insurance agents, computer programmers, secretaries, telephone operators, scholars, writers, accountants, journalists, and so forth are all communicators. However, their relationships to producing, processing, and diffusing information are extremely different. In this light, the meaning of the expressions "information economy" or "information society" is problematic.

There is another characteristic generally attributed to the information society, its place of honour due to progress in digitalization, the modernization and expansion of telecommunications networks (via satellite, cable, and airwaves), and the advent of multimedia products: interactivity. With the most advanced technologies now capable of interactivity, the information society will become much more interactive, which is, of course, presented as constituting considerable progress.

Lastly, the information society, predicated on the generalization of informatics, would involve a major cultural revolution, comparable to those which followed the invention of the printing press and writing itself. These two points merit closer attention.

An interactive society

In the campaign promoting the new communication technologies, as well as the so-called information highways, much is made of interactivity, claimed as their essential and revolutionary characteristic. But are we not both victims and accomplices of this propaganda?

The potentialities of interactive multimedia are indeed fabulous, if still poorly defined. But is this enough to infer the coming of a profound social and cultural change? Upon what is this prediction based? On three a priori: (1) that these technological potentialities will necessarily become concrete features of social reality, (2) that the media have until now kept audiences in a passive state, and (3) that interactivity is necessarily a good thing, and, as a corollary, that all that is not interactive is uninteresting.

Though I discussed the first a priori above, it is important to come back to it here: our field of study has difficulty in freeing itself from technological determinism. This can be seen once again in thought about interactivity. Since the technology is interactive, it will necessarily foster interactive uses. The history of media, however, is rife with examples demonstrating that "technological potential" does not necessarily fulfill itself and that uses do not flow naturally from the characteristics of a given technique (Flichy, 1991). Allow me a single example. Writing is a medium that allows for interactivity and creativity. But are these its most everyday and widespread uses?

The second a priori concerning the passive nature of traditional media reception flies in the face of a few decades of research. It has been known for some time that the receiver is not merely a photographic plate, that even watching a television program involves selective perception, decoding, and recoding of messages. Interlocution already exists. Its extension to interaction with machines and the profusion of remote interactive possibilities does not in itself constitute a revolution. Before jumping to this conclusion, however, there is a need for rigorous analysis of how interactive uses of NICTs, about which we still know little, will transform the conditions of interactivity in our societies.

The third a priori rests on an undisputed claim regarding the positive value of interactivity. Passivity is automatically assigned a negative sign and interactivity a positive one. Interactivity is good in itself, passivity is bad. Passivity entails a hierarchic relationship between a sender and receivers. In contrast, interactivity fosters equality and symmetry in the relationship. Traditional television exploited the passivity of its viewers, the new media encourage interactivity. The advent of these new media, therefore, indisputably constitutes progress. Users will spontaneously recognize this fact and the passive use of media, television among others, will disappear. Interactive television will soon replace mass television. We have finally entered the EMEREC era, that is, according to the neologism coined by Jean Cloutier from ÉMEtteur (sender) and RÉCepteur (receiver), an age in which receivers can at the same time be senders (Cloutier, 1973).

You might well find that the above borders on caricature. I do not believe it is. This a priori is rarely explicitly stated, but it subtends most of the work on interactivity. This unconditional valuing of interactivity generally omits to take a certain number of relatively elementary things into consideration:

that there are several types of interactivity, and that there is a fundamental difference between, for example, accessing a data bank, playing a video game, and a telephone conversation. A typology of the different forms of interactivity is a prerequisite to any rigorous research into the question.
that listening (which is not a purely passive phenomenon) is not necessarily inferior to speaking; my apologies for the following analogy of questionable taste: one might enjoy cooking, but it is not obvious that one always eats better at home, or in a cafeteria, than in the fief of a master chef!
that the pleasure of being told a story or of watching a show considerably predates the invention of modern media, and that it will probably survive the advent of interactive multimedia technology.
that interactivity does not always translate into egalitarian relationships and does not produce only happy results. As is the case in interpersonal relationships, conflict and mutual misunderstanding are equally possible results of electronic exchanges.
that the real uses of this technology will be the result of a long and complex process of creation, and that, though it is difficult to predict the result, it is unlikely that it will establish itself as a function of a rectilinear logic which will lead to the replacement of all passive uses by active uses.

What can we take from all this? Two things: (1) it is true that recent technology displays interesting interactive possibilities, and (2) it is not obvious that this will lead to qualitative social change. In any event, it remains to be seen. The information society will not necessarily be more interactive than the preceding ones.

Informatics: A new form of writing?

Are the consequences of the invention of informatics as significant as those of the invention of the printing press and of writing, as is claimed by authors whose theories have made the bestseller list? Historians of the next few decades, if not centuries, will no doubt be in a better position to judge the validity of this assertion.

It is undeniable that informatics products have spread to every sector of human activity. In the factory, at the office, and in the home, a vast array of objects now incorporate computer chips. While not yet universal, the use of the computer is widespread and the expansion of telematics networks ensures an ever-widening electronic diffusion of information. Neither the computer nor telecommunications has caused paper to disappear, as has been predicted several times over, but it is not unreasonable to suggest that the volume of electronic exchanges will soon be equal in importance to that of printed material. The construction of information highways is likely to reinforce this trend. The comparison with the printing press would appear to be justified.

The comparison with writing, however, is more complex and less obvious. To be sure, very complex "informatics languages" that rely on formal logic do exist. But these particular "languages" remain the preserve of a small number of specialists. While the use of computers is now widespread, the same is not the case with learning computer programming. The use of a spreadsheet, a word processor, or desktop publishing, or graphics software requires a certain learning period, but it has nothing to do with computer programming.

Far from relying on the spread of a new informatics culture, manufacturers do their utmost to produce user-friendly software that resembles natural languages as much as possible. Less and less energy is devoted to teaching humans how to speak "machine language" and more and more time to teaching machines how to speak "human language." All specialists are unanimous in thinking that the information highways will never truly have mass appeal unless their use modes and navigational instruments become more user-friendly. The same requirement of simplicity of use applies to the generalization of multimedia products.

Under these conditions, it is very difficult to speak of the generalization of an "informatics writing," the impact of which is comparable to that of the invention of alphabetic writing.

It remains to raise the eventuality of a mode of multimedia thought, which will be the result of the simultaneous use of writing, sounds, and images, and a non-linear approach to the production and use of these products. Given the embryonic state of multimedia, all claims in this regard are much more in the nature of prophecies than of analysis.

The information society: An overly vague notion

The notion of an "information society" was coined to describe the type of society that would result from the expansion of communication technology, the generalization of digitalization technology, and the strategic importance of information and knowledge in modern economies. Its description often assumes lyric proportions. This society is the stuff of dreams, especially in the context of current difficulties. But, as we saw above, this notion lacks rigour due to a deterministic vision amplified by a naïve progressivism.

This notion is too vague to be of any use. The notion of information encompasses an overly vast range of objects, extending from current affairs to scientific inventions and entertainment products. To speak of an information society strikes me as being no more enlightening than to speak of an economic society, a political society, or a sociological society. It describes all societies. It is necessary to be more specific in the characterization of the phenomena. All societies are information societies. One must not confuse the "computerization of society" with "information society." We need to develop more rigorous typologies, such as sociologists have done in distinguishing primitive societies, traditional societies, and industrial societies, and as economists have done in distinguishing barter economies, market economies, planned economies, and so forth.

Moreover, it is necessary to be able to articulate the changes being produced in the world of communication in conjunction with other major trends in our societies in order to be able to claim to characterize them: population aging, the crisis of the welfare state, modifications of the family unit, demographic changes, ecological consciousness, globalization of the economy, and so forth. In a world that is globalizing and complexifying, there is, alas, little global thinking in the field of communication; one only finds globalizing discourses which proceed--as was taught in the methodology courses I took as a student--by way of unwarranted and hasty generalizations.

I doubt that you expect me to meet all these requirements and present you with a fully elaborated model. For the moment, I will settle for sketching the avenues of research we are developing at GRICIS.

For a change in perspectives

The eulogists of the information society argue that we must begin to conceive society and the economy essentially in terms of the production and circulation of information. In their view, information has become the most important production factor and product of economic life. The model places information and communication at the very heart of the functioning of societies. It is this new centrality of information that is the main characteristic of the changes affecting advanced industrial societies. Such a perspective leads to thinking of the information society as surpassing industrial society, as the advent of something completely different, obeying a new set of rules and opening horizons which have been unknown until the present. We have thus gone from a traditional rural society to an industrial urban society (which underwent a first, then a second, revolution), and we are now entering an information society. The importance of energy will give way to that of information, manufacturing will take second place to conception, and the secondary sector will drop behind the tertiary sector. Dynamic economies of the future will be based essentially on businesses producing and processing information. Traditional manufacturing activities will become the lot of second-order, if not underdeveloped economies.

It is true that in recent decades companies in search of cheap labour have tended to move their production activities to less-developed countries. It is also true that Western countries have been obliged to undertake painful restructuring of several underperforming sectors of their economies (iron and steel, textiles, pulp and paper, etc.). And it is true that the information and communication sector--production of informatics and telecommunications material, production of cultural contents, software, and so forth--has experienced remarkable growth and now accounts for a growing share of the gross domestic product. But between this and the conclusion that the future essentially resides in the reinforcement of this sector, there is a gap. It too quickly overlooks the fact that the most powerful economies--the United States, Japan, and Germany--are still the planet's greatest industrial powers, and that the new dynamic economies of Southeast Asia owe the greater part of their growth to industrial activity.

Before jumping to the conclusion that a radical change in the economy and society is taking place, it strikes me as necessary to consider other possible interpretations of present changes. The information society model claims that the new information hegemony is transforming industrial society. But, to the contrary, should we not ask ourselves whether it is not rather the expansion of capitalist logic, more triumphant than ever, that is transforming the world of information and communication? Is it not the case that the major change has to do with the increasingly greater integration of information and communication into the functioning of the economy and society, in the submission of information and communication to the operative rules of industrial society--in sum, in the commodification of information, culture, and communication. From this point of view, present transformations should be seen as a new phase of capitalism, as an extension of commercial and industrial logic to sectors which had previously eluded it. Rather than a "post-industrial society," the period of transition which we are experiencing consists more modestly in the shift from one mode of industrial organization to another mode of industrial organization, that is, from Fordism to Gatesism. This proposition is no doubt less exciting than the dream of a new society promised us by the prophets of the information society, but it raises no fewer significant changes in economic, social, and political organization.

This perspective recentres the problem. Information and communication technologies are neither pushed aside nor classified as secondary factors, but they are no longer the only factors that need to be taken into consideration. This re-orientation of the problematic requires an understanding of communication phenomena, including technological development, in terms of interests, power, and the conflicts resulting from their affirmation.

A working hypothesis: From Fordism to Gatesism

Without ever having expressed the desire, Henry Ford gave his name to a form of production and a form of consumption which came to characterize a form of capitalism. Bill Gates readily admits his ambition to become the Henry Ford of informatics and new communication technologies. Will his name become synonymous with a new norm of production and consumption, characteristic of a new development in capitalism? No doubt, Gates would not object.

Fordism refers, of course, to a mode of production and organization of work: mass production, the assembly line, a Taylorian conception of work. But this model also entails a mode of social regulation and a norm of consumption. Collective bargaining, a certain type of unionism, and the development of the welfare state have become its main mechanisms for resolving conflicts and antagonisms, managing growth and recessions, and framing needs and social demands. It also fostered the development of purchasing power and the creation of a consumer market for mass-produced goods. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal institutionalized this mode of organization, not only in economic terms, but in social and political terms as well.

The diagnosis proffered by numerous economists is confirmed daily by current events: Fordism is in a state of crisis. The modes of production and consumption and the organization of work are being transformed. And the development of information technologies and products is a non-negligible factor in this reorganization. But this simple observation, with which we are all too often satisfied, does not constitute an explanation. It is not enough to identify a product or a technique. One must show how work is being reorganized, how new modes of social regulation are being established, how new uses develop and create a new consumer market. In this transition period, it is difficult to visualize the end result with any degree of precision. At most, we can identify a few trends and formulate several questions.

The reorganization of work.

This aspect of the crisis is well known. Faced with deficits and accumulated debts, the State is deregulating and privatizing. Faced with competition, business is rationalizing. The result: a high rate of unemployment that is giving no indication of reducing itself. Computerization and improvements in telecommunications are part of this process. They permit savings and foster rationalization. Our leaders assure us that they will be sources of new jobs. They are indeed responsible for new job creation, but not at the same rate as layoffs. Is this the normal lag experienced in transition periods? Perhaps, but there is no guarantee. In past industrial revolutions, the agricultural and the manufacturing, the freed-up labour force was always eventually re-absorbed. Laid-off workers in the primary sector shifted to the secondary sector, and those in the secondary sector moved on to the tertiary sector, after often long and painful transition periods. But there are no more sectors. Where will laid-off tertiary sector workers turn to? The construction of new communication networks will provide employment for a certain period of time. But what will these workers do once these networks have been put in place? The demand for new products will also create opportunities, but will they suffice to absorb the available labour force? What exactly does the quaternary sector mentioned by some authors consist of?

This leaves us with work sharing. It looks good on paper, but runs into many problems and resistances, as much from management as unions. For the moment, rationalization entails precarious job security, an increase in the rate of unemployment, and greater workloads for those who keep their jobs.

It is curious that eulogists of the information society either do not take these problems into consideration or give them short shrift by reminding us that past technological revolutions always led to improved working conditions. One would like to believe them, especially since, for once, they are telling us that nothing has changed under the sun and that things will go along as they did before.

In reaction to these new conditions, the number of independent workers is on the rise. It now appears as if one must create one's own job without, however, either permanence or job security, privileges acquired in industrial society. This is no doubt the prosaic version of working at home, free from transportation and disciplinary constraints. If this is what the future holds, it effectively represents a dramatic change from industrial society which took workers out of the home and put them into factories. If, however, it works, with good salaries and improved working conditions, then there is cause to rejoice. But the reality depicted by current studies is something else entirely.

At present, the transition induced by the crisis of Fordism, created and nourished by developments in communication technology, has not resulted in significant gains for workers. Rather, it has led to a deep crisis marked by a decrease in job security and a high rate of unemployment. The leisure society, such as it is characterized by Dumazedier (1967), is one of forced leisure for those without access to the labour market, and heavy workloads for those who manage to remain.

With developments in informatics, production cannot only be automated, but mass production can be replaced by production on demand. Distribution can be made "just-in-time," and inventories can be managed much more efficiently. No doubt there will be profound changes to production norms. But the organization of work will also be turned upside down, and little is known about how to deal with the consequences. For some time now, Taylorism has ceased to set the standard for the organization of work. Judging by the profusion of management models put forward in recent decades--from "small is beautiful" to the re-engineering of business processes and total quality--one is justified in asking what its replacement will be. Either we are still in a transition period that continues to make it difficult to identify it or the future will see a plurality of production norms.

There have been several empirical studies of the introduction of new information technologies into the workplace. And many more will be needed to come to a satisfactory understanding of the reorganization process still in progress. But one thing stands out from these studies: one must take care not to make hasty generalizations. The impact of NICT introduction varies according to activity sector, business type, implementation strategy, and so forth. In other words, we are still a long way off from predictions of automatic and uniform effects flowing from the virtues of technology.

Modes of social regulation.

The welfare state is also undergoing a crisis. Confronted with important budget deficits and an accumulated debt that in many cases has reached alarming proportions, states, too, have begun to rationalize: privatization, reductions in services and programs, and reductions in personnel. Not all governments share the same ideology, but they are all adopting measures aimed at limiting government spending and action and are increasingly relying on the market and civil society to ensure social regulation.

Internationalization and the resulting increase in interdependence reveal the limits of nation-states. Policies and regulations are increasingly obliged to adjust to one another. Governments which stray too far from general trends are quick to suffer the consequences and are obliged sooner or later to realign themselves.

Once again, the notion of the information society is of little use in understanding what is taking place. Visions of a global village, the possibilities of the rapid interconnection of all points on the planet, and the virtues of electronic democracy shed little light on the real processes of social regulation currently being redefined. To mention only one problem, will the information society ensure the integration of individuals, ethnic groups, and diverse cultures? At a time when the traditional mechanisms of integration have broken down in most countries throughout the world, and when all manner of conflicts can erupt into violence, a global vision of society cannot ignore these issues.

Over the past few years, in the wake of the privatization and deregulation movement in the field of communication, a number of strategic international alliances between the most important players in the various theatres have begun to take shape: telephony, cable, producers and publishers of contents, satellite operators, software manufacturers, generalist and specialized programmers, and so forth. The advantage of such alliances is that they permit the coverage of all potential development sectors and ensure a diversified expertise while sharing risks.

It is these few large groups or consortiums that will take the lion's share of deregulated national markets which have been opened up to competition. Concerned about protecting their interests, they exercise considerable influence over the public agencies responsible for redefining the rules ordering the lifting of barriers--public service ones in particular--that hinder their access to markets and the development of their activities. They can regularly be seen confronting one another at CRTC public hearings, for example. It is through these confrontations and subsequent decisions that new modes of social regulation in the fields of culture and communication are being progressively defined.

It is for this reason that it is important to conduct a detailed and rigorous analysis of the evolution of the industrial structure as well as the strategies adopted by the main actors with a stake in the introduction of NICTs: the various public agencies, as well as the major private groups. We would be wrong to assume that they all have the same interests and pursue identical objectives. In fact, in this transition period, the horizon is still quite hazy and the dust is far from settled. Public service is regressing and the welfare state is being questioned, but, for the moment, we are hardly in a position to identify its replacement model.

Uses and consumption.

"Those who claim to know where we are headed with all this business about information highways are peddling fantasies!" This quotation is not from a Marxist sociologist but a senior executive of a major informatics and communication company owned by General Motors. It neatly summarizes the reality of things. Notwithstanding all the megaprojects and all the hopes invested in the construction of information highways, it is impossible at present to predict consumer reaction. History teaches us that uses for new communication technologies are constructed slowly and involve a series of factors, of which the characteristics of the technology is only one element. Uses are the result of a long process of social construction, and they often contain surprises for the initiators of the technological supply.

Whatever the case, big capital, desperate for new niches in order to accrue its surplus value, has decided to invest in the fields of culture and communication. In this regard, technological progress offers significant possibilities. I am convinced that the electronic highways megaproject must be interpreted in light of these major interests. The industrialization of culture and communication began a long time ago. Despite its catastrophic visions, the Frankfurt School should be given its due for having foreseen subsequent developments. The major stakes involved in the information highways pertain to the creation of both a professional and a mass market that will foster the redeployment of our economies. What has until now been offered free of charge, that is, inscribed in a public service logic, will henceforth be offered in a paying mode, that is, inscribed in a commercial logic.

Scientific and technical information has always had a certain economic and strategic value. One only need think of patents and military secrets to validate this claim. At the same time, however, it obeyed a logic of diffusion and sharing that rendered it accessible and kept it largely sheltered from market logic. Scientists who were not bound by military or industrial contracts hoped for the widest possible diffusion of their works. The goal of those promoting information highways is to extract payment for this access, if only for the telecommunications link.

The same is true for literary and artistic work. Reproductions and copies are now accessible by telecommunications. The extent to which creators will benefit from this will depend on copyright legislation and agreements. One of the major issues that will be a source of tension in international conflicts and negotiations in the coming decades will no doubt be the copyright issue. We saw it emerge recently in trade discussions between China and the United States. Other indicators can be found in the race by large corporations--Microsoft, among others--to acquire ownership of or access to the world's large image and data banks. Moreover, while Canada managed to exclude culture from its free trade agreements with Mexico and the United States, it should not be forgotten that copyright fees are an integral part of these agreements, as is the case with the GATT agreements.

With respect to this major issue of intellectual property, the development of communication networks exacerbates the always latent conflict between distributors and producers of content. The interests of the latter reside in the highest possible copyright payments. The former, to the contrary, seek a reduction of these payments to a minimum as a means of reducing their costs and offering consumers maximum use of their networks at the lowest possible price. In this context, two legal traditions are opposed to one another: the French tradition, which accords greater rights to creators, and the American tradition, which concedes these same rights to producers.

The same tendency is having an effect on mass market cultural productions. The service logic model of supplying television products is being demolished. What was once free, that is, financed by government funding, licence fees, or advertising, will increasingly be offered in discrete units, on a pay-per-view basis. It is unlikely that generalist broadcasters will disappear, if only because of the needs of the advertising market, but the pay-per-view and remote commercial transaction markets will no doubt experience sustained growth over the coming years--at least that is what corporations willing to invest billions of dollars in the development of information highways are gambling on (Tremblay, in press; Lacroix, Tremblay, Wilson, & Ménard, 1994).

If we are still uncertain about the shape of the future reorganization of work and social regulation, we are even more so about future uses of NICTs. We are beginning to get a glimpse of the implications of privatization, deregulation, and rationalization. But we are still completely in the dark with respect to consumer responses to networks which have yet to be installed or to multimedia products not yet available on the market. One hardly need add that in the area of predictions, the prophets of the information society are even less credible. The general public will not be fooled as easily as the experts by the sirens of technology. The real utility, available time and income, ease of use, the pleasure felt, and needs satisfaction will ultimately count for more in the success of a given technology than its theoretical potential.

In this respect, allow me a brief return to the notion of interactivity. We are told that the new technologies are revolutionary in that they allow for, facilitate, and promote interactivity. Users replace receivers. This is actively entailed by NICT use. Over and above the theoretical rediscovery of the effective participation of interlocutors in all communication situations, should we not interpret the recurrence of this discourse, which is almost presented in the form of an injunction, as a fundamental requirement of the new form of consumption being established? Does interactivity not require the development by consumers of new skills and competencies? I suspect that the notion of servuction, which refers to the effective participation of consumers in the reception of services, might be useful in conceptualizing this phenomenon (Eiglier & Langeard, 1987). Consumers must not only choose from among the various services offered to them, but they must also actively mobilize a knowledge and perform a number of operations in order for them to receive a desired service. Is this not the underside of the computerization of production processes? From this perspective, interactivity and the user's mandatory participation that it implies represent much more than technological possibilities or theoretical rediscoveries. They would constitute the conditions for the elaboration of the new norm of consumption under Gatesism: While computerization would require less activity on the part of human service providers, it would inversely require a greater participation on the part of beneficiaries of these services.

Gatesism: A useful notion?

Why speak of Gatesism instead of the information society? Am I not committing the same sin that I criticized at length earlier? Is Gatesism just another label in the long series of propositions employed in characterizing change? Perhaps. I admit to succumbing to the temptation of wanting to be provocative in using the term "Gatesism." But my other reason for doing so stems from the parallels with Fordism. And this is much more fundamental. Fordism identifies a form of capitalism, along with a norm of production, a norm of consumption, and a specific system of regulation. Bill Gates is another symbol in our contemporary society. He is not only the wealthiest man in the United States and the most recent model of the self-made man. He also incarnates success in the cutting-edge domain of informatics and telecommunications. In addition, he heads up one of the sector's most powerful and ambitious corporations. As was the case with Henry Ford, his name could be used to synthesize the changes currently underway. Ultimately, however, the term chosen makes no difference. I am not particularly interested in promoting the image of Bill Gates. It is the implied perspective that counts, meaning:

that the changes accompanying NICT development should not necessarily be interpreted as auguring a radical rupture with industrial society, but, to the contrary, they should be understood within the framework of a dynamic specific to capitalist industrial societies.
that these changes nevertheless translate into a shift from one mode of organization to another, from one production and consumption norm to other production and consumption norms.
that the search for new modes of social regulation is part of this process of change.
that the computerization of society, a transformation process currently underway, is not necessarily tantamount to the information society, a utopian model of society, the realization of which is more than unlikely.
that it is necessary to conduct meticulous studies of the organization of work, modes of regulation, and social uses before making globalizing claims about the "information revolution."
(f )
that we must rid ourselves of technological determinism and restore the importance of social, economic, legal, cultural, and political factors if we want to be able to provide a global explanation of current phenomena.

If a Gatesism phenomenon--or whatever we choose to call it--does exist, it has yet to be described and explained. In any event, this strikes me as a hypothesis worth exploring, one that is as rich as, if not richer than, that of the "information society."


I can already hear certain individuals asking me: "But the perspective you are proposing contains nothing specific to communications. Where is the theory of communication in all this?" The question is not without relevance. However, I would reply: "Neither do the theories of the `information society' that I discussed. Rather, it is the thinking that generalizes about the future of our societies on the basis of a reductive technologism." Communication studies has a globalizing ambition. I have nothing against this ambition. It represents a challenge that we are as well suited to meet as our colleagues in the human sciences. But if this is our goal, then let us rise to the requirements, difficulties, and complexities of the task.

With regard to important transformations in the organization of work, modes of social regulation, and consumer practices, as well as the concrete problems they engender, one is constrained to admit that communication theory has contributed little. Too often, we remain at the level of McLuhanesque determinism. We make too many prophesies and analyze too little. We are either too enthusiastic or too depressing, but we do not theorize enough.

I cannot tell you what the world of tomorrow will be like, but I can assure you that it will be nothing like the one predicted by the eulogists of the information society. They provide us with a globalizing but ultimately simplistic model. If communication theorists wish to participate in the effort to understand society as a whole and the transformations traversing it, they will truly have to come to grips with its complexity and propose something other than a determinist vision centred only on technology and its effects.

To be sure, immense progress has been made in informatics and telecommunications in recent decades. But the spread of these technologies and models of implementation and use are the result of complex social, economic, and political processes, themselves not determined only by the features of technologies. Attentive observation of the definition and evolution of electronic highway projects shows this to be the case. Huge economic interests are at stake, interests that are calling for a redefinition of the rules regulating broadcasting and telecommunications in the countries concerned. The objective is to create and exploit a new cultural and communication market, both professional and domestic. The barriers to the attainment of this objective must be brought down. This is what the industrialists interested in these new markets are demanding, as they clearly made known when they met at the Brussels G7 conference last February.

In order to take the pulse of current changes, communication research must undertake a systematic analysis of the transformations taking place in production and distribution modes, the organization of work, social uses, and modes of social regulation. It is after these meticulous studies have been completed that we can theorize the importance of current changes. Perhaps we will conclude that a radical rupture with a past situation has taken place. But we will also be obliged to ask ourselves whether recent technological achievement is not rather the apogee--for the moment--of developments begun with the invention of the electric telegraph in the middle of the last century, of which electronic highways are merely the most recent metaphorical formulation.


An earlier version of this article was presented as the Southam Lecture keynote address to the Canadian Communication Association Annual Meeting, Montreal, Quebec, 1995. I would like to thank Juan Carlos Miguel de Bustos, Marc Ménard, and Jean-Guy Lacroix for their interesting comments on the first draft of this paper, and Richard Ashby for the translation of this paper.


In this regard, see Lacroix & Lévesque (1985a, 1985b), Lacroix (1988), Salter (1988), McFadyen, Hoskins, Finn, & Lorimer (1994).
An analysis of the social function of this dominant discourse is provided in Lacroix, Miège, & Tremblay (1994).
See, for example, Lévy (1987, 1990).
Will the rise in independent workers supplant wages as the main mode of work remuneration?
In particular, see several issues of Technologies de l'information et société (Paris: Dumont).
In this connection, see Carlos de Miguel (1993).
Liberal translation of remarks made by John R. Harris, head of EDS's communications division, quoted in El Pais, May 25, 1994.
A more nuanced analysis of the situation requires that one distinguish between the interests of creators and those of production companies.
In this connection, see the excellent analysis provided in Carey (1989).


Bell, Daniel. (1973). The coming of post-industrial society: A venture in social forecasting. New York: Basic Books.

Carey, James W. (1989). Technology and ideology: The case of the telegraph. In James W. Carey (Ed.), Communication as culture: Essays on media and society. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Carlos de Miguel, Juan. (1993). Los grupos multimédia, estructuras y estrategias en los medios europeos. Barcelona: Bosch Communicación.

Cloutier, Jean. (1973). L'ère d'émérec. Montreal: Presses de l'Université de Montréal.

Dumazedier, Joffre. (1967). Vers une civilization du loisir. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.

Eiglier, P., & Langeard, E. (1987). Servuction. Le marketing des services. Montreal: McGraw Hill.

Flichy, Patrice. (1991). Une histoire de la communication moderne, espace publique et privée. Paris: La Découverte.

Innis, H. A. (1972). Empire and communications. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. (Original work published 1950)

Innis, H. A. (1968). The bias of communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. (Original work published 1951)

Lacroix, J.-G. (1988). Les études sur les médias au Québec: État de la question. Communication, 9(2), 59-84.

Lacroix, J.-G., & Lévesque, B. (1985a). L'émergence et l'institutionnalisation de la recherche en communication au Québec. Communication, 7(2), 7-32.

Lacroix, J.-G., & Lévesque, B. (1985b). Principaux thèmes et courants théoriques dans la litérature scientifique en communication au Québec. Communication, 7(3), 153-211.

Lacroix, J.-G., Miège, B., & Tremblay, G. (Eds.). (1994). De la télématique aux autoroutes électroniques: le grand projet reconduit. Montreal: Presses de l'Université du Québec et Grenoble: Presses de l'Université de Grenoble.

Lacroix, J.-G., Tremblay, G., Wilson, K., & Ménard, M. (1994). L'autoroute électronique, plus qu'une métaphore? Interface, 15(5), 12-25.

Leiss, William. (1982). The information society: A new name for some old tricks. 1982 Annual Departmental Colloquium, Department of Sociology, University of Calgary, March 24-26.

Lévy, Pierre. (1987). La machine univers: création, cognition et culture informatique. Paris: La Découverte.

Lévy, Pierre. (1990). Les technologies de l'intelligence. Paris: La Découverte.

Martin, James. (1981). The wired society. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. (Original work published 1978)

McFadyen, Stuart, Hoskins, Colin, Finn, Adam, & Lorimer, Rowland (Eds.). (1994). Cultural development in an open economy [Special issue]. Canadian Journal of Communication, 19(3-4).

Porat, Marc U. (1977). The information economy. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce.

Salter, L. (1988). Les études en communication au Canada: un état présent. Communication, 9(2), 31-58.

Tremblay, G. (in press). Hacia la sociedad de la información o el mercado electrónico? Una perspectiva critica. Comunicación, Valencia.

  •  Announcements
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Current Issue
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Thesis Abstracts
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo

We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.