The transformation of modern societies into knowledge societies continues to be based, as was the case for industrial society, on changes in the structure of the economies of advanced societies. Economic capital – or, more precisely, the source of economic growth and value adding activities – increasingly relies on knowledge. The transformation of the structures of the modern economy by knowledge as a productive force constitutes the “material” basis and justification for designating advanced modern society as a knowledge society. The significance of knowledge grows in all spheres of life and in all social institutions of modern society. The historical emergence of knowledge societies represents not a revolutionary development, but rather a gradual process during which the defining characteristics of society change and new traits emerge. Until recently, modern society was conceived primarily in terms of property and labor. While the traditional attributes of labor and property certainly have not disappeared entirely, a new principle, “knowledge,” has been added which, to an extent, challenges as well as trans forms property and labor as the constitutive mechanisms of society.
Knowledge may be defined as a capacity for action. This definition indicates that implementation of knowledge is open, that it is dependent on or is embedded within the context of specific social, economic, and intellectual conditions. Knowledge is a peculiar entity with properties unlike those of commodities or of secrets, for example. Knowledge exists in objectified and embodied forms. If sold, it enters other domains – and yet it remains within the domain of its producer. Unlike money, property rights, and symbolic attributes such as titles, knowledge cannot be transmitted instantaneously. Its acquisition takes time and often is based on intermediary cognitive capacities and skills. Despite its reputation, knowledge is virtually never uncontested. Scientific and technical knowledge is uniquely important in modern social systems because it produces incremental capacities for social and economic action that may be ”privately appropriated,” at least temporarily. Knowledge has of course always had a major function in social life. Social groups, social situations, social interaction, and social roles all depend on, and are mediated by, knowledge. Power, too, has frequently been based on knowledge advantages, not merely on physical strength.
The emergence of knowledge societies signals first and foremost a radical transformation in the structure of the economy. What changes are the dynamics of the supply and demand for primary products or raw materials; the dependence of employment on production; the importance of the manufacturing sector that processes primary products; the role of manual labor and the social organization of work; the role of international trade in manufactured goods and services; the function of time and place in production and of the nature of the limits to economic growth. The common denominator of the changing economic structure is a shift away from an economy driven and governed by material inputs into the productive process and its organization, toward an economy in which the trans formations of productive and distributive processes are increasingly determined by symbolic or knowledge based inputs.
The transformation of modern societies into knowledge has profound consequences aside from those that pertain to its economic structure. One of the more remarkable consequences is the extent to which modern societies become fragile societies. Modern societies tend to be fragile from the viewpoint of those large and once dominant social institutions that find it increasingly difficult to impose their will on all of society. From the perspective of small groups and social movements more uncoupled from the influence of the traditional large scale social institutions, however, modern societies are not more fragile, in the first instance. For such groups and social movements, the social transformations underway mean a distinct gain in their relative influence and participation, even if typically mainly in their ability to resist, delay, and alter the objectives of the larger institutions.
Knowledge societies (to adopt a phrase from Adam Ferguson) are the results of human action, but often not of deliberate human design. They emerge as adaptations to persistent but evolving needs and changing circumstances of human conduct.
Modern societies are also increasingly vulnerable entities. More specifically, the economy, the communication and traffic systems are vulnerable to malfunctions of self-imposed practices typically designed to avoid break downs. Modern infrastructures and technological regimes are subject to accidents, including large scale disasters as the result of fortuitous, unanticipated human action, to non-marginal or extreme natural events that may dramatically undermine the taken for granted routines of everyday life in modern societies, and to deliberate sabotage.
Present day social systems may be seen to be fragile and vulnerable entities in yet another sense. Such fragility results from the conduct as well as the deployment of artifacts designed to stabilize, routinize, and delimit social action (e.g., the so called ”computer trap” or, more generally, the unintended outcomes of intentional social action). In the process of evermore deeply embedding computers into the social fabric of society, that is, redesigning and reengineering large scale social and socio technical systems in order to manage the complexities of modern society, novel risks and vulnerabilities are created.
The fragility of modern societies is a unique condition. Societies are fragile because individuals are capable, within certain established rules, of asserting their own interests by opposing or resisting the (not too long ago) almost unassailable monopoly of truth of major societal institutions. That is to say, legitimate cultural practices based on the enlargement and diffusion of knowledge enable a much larger segment of society effectively to oppose power configurations that turned out or are apprehended to be tenuous and brittle.
Among the major but widely invisible social innovations in modern society is the immense growth of the ”civil society” sector. This sector provides an organized basis through which citizens can exercise individual initiative in the private pursuit of public purposes. One is therefore able to interpret the considerable enlargement of the informal economy, but also corruption and the growth of wealth in modern society, as well as increasing but typically unsuccessful efforts to police these spheres, as evidence of the diverse as well as expanded capacity of individuals, households, and small groups to take advantage of and benefit from contexts in which the degree of social control exercised by larger (legitimate) social institutions has diminished considerably.
The future of modern society no longer mimics the past to the extent to which this has been the case. History will increasingly be full of unanticipated incertitudes, peculiar reversals, and proliferating surprises, and we will have to cope with the ever greater speed of significantly compressed events. The changing agendas of social, political, and economic life as the result of our growing capacity to make history will also place inordinate demands on our mental capacities and social resources.
- Bell, D. (1973)The Coming of Post Industrial Society. Basic Books, New York.
- Stehr, (1994)Knowledge Societies. Sage, London.
- Stehr, (2001)The Fragility of Modern Societies: Knowledge and Risk in the Information Age. Sage, London.
- Webster, F.(2002)Theories of the Information Society,2nd Routledge, London.
Back to Sociology of Knowledge