The late Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell long ago predicted the coming of the “information society”, which he said would soon replace industrial society. Bell foresaw scientific experts driving government policy, services taking over from manufacturing and computers becoming the main mode of interaction between people. “What counts”, he wrote in his classic The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973), “is not raw muscle power, or energy, but information”. The new society, about which he was mildly optimistic, would be a reality by about 2020.
The coronavirus crisis has thrown into sharp relief the trends Bell and other information society thinkers identified. In fact, I believe we are undergoing the first real test of the “information society thesis”. Whole populations have now been driven online. Amazon, Tesco and our favourite takeaways are open while most factories and industrial plants are mothballed. Essential services have been protected. Teaching and marking have migrated to cyberspace. Meetings are now “virtual”. Scientists are indeed calling the shots – onscreen via their laptops.
Information technology is enabling people to read, play and communicate – and, now, help the government trace the path of the infection via an app. The elderly and other vulnerable groups are under electronic as well as human care. My mother, living alone 400 miles away and recovering from the virus, is buoyed up all day long with face-time calls. My wife’s mother has Alexa at her side in her care home.
Meanwhile, 3D printers in private dwellings are churning out protective equipment. Health messages are getting through. The mass media have been joined by social media in a never-ending supply of information and opinion. There is much to cheer about, then, and not just on Thursday evenings.
All of which begs the question: had coronavirus struck before the mass adoption of information and communication technologies, might we be seeing a much less “United” Kingdom? Who knows what bored teenagers – without Netflix, Playstation and Instagram – would be up to? Perhaps something along the lines of A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess’s deeply disturbing dystopian nightmare? So in many ways, the great information age test must be judged a success. The future is here, and it seems to work.