#03 Is the information society an operating system?

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#03 – Is the information society an operating system?

by Alessandro Cozzutto 
Creative content & digital strategy @ Slash_Prod
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes + videos


Is something new ever going on?
Does everything changes so that everything stays the same?


This post explains why society never stops describing itself and its own transformations, since way before G.W. Leibniz has claimed that we live in the best world possible.

After all, people have one life and no choice: we all want to live in a meaningful historical period.
Anarchy in the UK (Love is all you need)
Duration: 0:54 minute
Society describes itself
  1. Society can give itself a tautological description that defines social order: i.e. what a society is (“we live in a free society”) and should remain. 

  2. Society can give itself a paradoxical description that defines social change: i.e. what society is not (“we live in a society that is not free”) and, as a consequence, should become [Luhmann, Paradox and tautology in the self-descriptions of modern societies].

But do these descriptions grow on trees or what?

According to German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, modern societies observe themselves with the help of social theories and media practices,
which drive public attention to trending topics:
“be it German refunification or the living conditions of the Pandas, the size of the universe or the increase violence in Rio de Janeiro or in Los Angeles” [Luhmann, Deconstruction as second-order observing].

If only trending topics attract global attention, though, the question about the origins of these self-descriptions take a sociological turn: “what kind of society describes itself and its world in this way?” [Luhmann, The reality of the mass media”].

Since the end of World War II, for instance, western societies start predicting the arrival of a new paradigm of societal and economic relations, called post-industrial [Bell, The coming of post-industrial society].

So, what kind of society describes itself as a post-industrial society?
Smart economics
Duration: 3:10 minutes
A different description of society…
The celebration of a new post-industrial age overlaps with rising conflicts between blue-collars and their bosses.

This conflict enables welfare before that international agreements (Bretton Woods, GATT, Uruguay Round, up to the Washington consensus) let industries outsource production in Asia and wealth off-shore.

The prefix post-industrial certificates that Fordism is dead and we do not live in an industrial society any more.

What kind of society is this, then? One that is “organized on the basis of information and knowledge, rather than material goods” [Ibidem]. 

Such a description sounds tautological, as these same social theories argue that every society is, in its own way, an information society [May, The information society” a sceptical view; Castells, The rise of the network society]. 

In “The Leopard” (Il Gattopardo), 
the famous novel by Tomasi di Lampedusa and then a film by Luchino Visconti, the creation of an Italian unified kingdom (things change) means no power to the people (so that they remain the same).

Similarly, from Gutenberg onwards, modern liberal society develops tools for massive and continuous self-descriptions (i.e. information society) that strengthen social order by promoting social change: a mechanism of steady upgrade and debugging (the information society is, of course, better than the industrial one) that contributes to systemic stability.

This is why, if the spirit of capitalism is a Turing machine and the modern state is a computer, it is consistent to adopt a second-order description of this society [i.e., a description of the society that describe itself as an “information society”] as an operating system, which enables and regulates the circulation of information in modern computers.
School of the Future – Cyber Security Day
Duration: 1:34 minutes
…makes a different society.
The core component of every operating system’s architecture – technically speaking – is called kernel.

In the case of modern societies in general, as seen in BS #02, the right to own both physical integrity and material security (property rights) is the kernel that regulates the basic structure of social life.

Take that away and society – as we know it – will fall apart: this is why Karl Marx indicates the abolition of private property as the necessary step to end with the capitalistic society and its inequalities. 

The kernel of the information age are patents and copyrights, because they protect the established social distribution of knowledge.

Of course, any social order reflects an equal desire of social change: doesn’t the Open Source movement act like industrial socialist movements in balancing the fairness of capitalistic economies? 
The point is that words change, 
so that they can target the same power relations. 

The more paradoxes arise, the more society continuously renew the descriptions of itself to fill more and more logical inconsistencies, whether they are:

  1. youngsters that join the Jihad online to destroy the corrupted web-civilization; or
  2. companies that build digital monopolies thanks to the same Open Source methodology that was supposed to defeat Microsoft’s monopoly; or 

  3. traditional media’s websites that warn people about how dangerous new media can be. 

In conclusion, society describes itself with the help of rhetorics, like the one from “The Leopard,” in a hetero-directed attempt to manage this ongoing political tension between “new” and “old,” between social order and social change [Hirschamn, Retoriche dell’intransigenza].


The adoption of IT concepts such as algorithm, computer, or operating system, aims to explain the historical function and logical connection among big ideas (capitalism, modern state, information society), which scholars have debated to the point that their political meaning has now completely faded away. 
This theoretical background will inspire the posts that follow.
Can’t wait to know more, right? Of course, you cannot.

Read more aboutBretton Woods http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bretton_Woods_systemGATT http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Agreement_on_Tariffs_and_TradeFordism
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FordismOperating system http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operating_systemKernel http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kernel_%28operating_system%29

Cited works 
– Bell, d., The coming of post-industrial society, New York, Basic Book inc. publishers, 1976
– May, C., The information society: a sceptical view, Cambridge, Polity, 2002.
– Castells, M., The rise of the network society, vol. II of ‘The information age: economy, society and culture’, Oxford, Blackwell, 1996.
– Luhmann, N., Paradox and tautology in the self-descriptions of modern societies, in “Sociological Theory”, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Spring, 1988), pp. 21-37.
– Luhmann, N., Deconstruction as Second-Order Observing, pp. 774, in “New Literary History”, Vol. 24, No. 4, Papers from the Commonwealth Center for Literary and Cultural Change (Autumn, 1993), pp. 763-782.
– Luhmann, N., The reality of the mass media, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2000.
– Hirschman, A., Retoriche dell’intransigenza: perversità, futilità e messa a repentaglio (1991), Bologna, Il Mulino, 1991.

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