Can we make the Information Revolution better for society?

May 28, 2011
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It is easy to assume that access to massive amounts of information is good for society.  Perhaps we should also look at the role the move to an Information Economy is having on the reversal of generations of movement towards greater social equality.

It is easy to assume that access to massive amounts of information is good for society.  Perhaps we should also look at the role the move to an Information Economy is having on the reversal of generations of movement towards greater social equality.

The growth of the state between the early twentieth century and the 1970s brought with it higher taxes and a major a redistribution of wealth. In the UK the wealthiest 1% of the population saw their share of total wealth shrink from 70% in 1913 to 20% in 1980 (source: Deloitte Global Economic Outlook, 2nd quarter 2011).

What many people have not yet realised is that the trend towards greater equality has gone into reverse since the 1980s.  Also reported in the same Deloitte report, Credit Suisse estimates that today less than half of one percent of the world’s adult population owns 36 percent of the world’s private wealth.  The reasons in many countries for increasing inequality are complex but are significantly exacerbated by the shift to lower top rates of income tax around the world.

The reasons for this push to reduce the top rates are complex, but they aren’t purely economic, they also relate to the ability of those who are paying the top rates to make their case in the political arena.

Does the move from an economy of production to one that is driven by information change the make-up of business leaders?  Has something changed about the makeup of the most financially successful members of society?

Globalisation and industrial change has reduced the returns to unskilled labour.  Knowledge based industries such as finance and technology have emerged as major employers and value creators in the economy.  Their demand for highly skilled workers have increased the payoff to employees with a university education. Cognitive skills are especially valuable in a knowledge economy.

Paying an increasing premium for well educated, articulate, informed and connected (in a information rather than a power sense) staff changes the dynamic of those in the top tier of remuneration in society.  When owners of factories, large farming establishments and transport businesses were in this position, they might have complained about the rate of tax that they paid, but they were no more equipped than society as a whole to influence change.

While it has always been true that education and access to information positioned citizens well for a good rate of pay, the correlation with remuneration is much stronger than it has ever been.  In effect, those who cannot navigate the information age and its resources are at a great disadvantage

The solutions to this inequality are many and complex, but the information management profession have an important role to play.  First, we need to recognise that access to complex information is the right of all within a society and these resources need to be structured in a way that are broadly accessible rather than obscured through technology.  Second, we need to simplify complex roles in organisations that require significant skill to link together disparate datasets from across the enterprise (opening-up information roles to a wider workforce).  Finally, we need to explain to politicians the changes in business and its impact on the wider economy.

In the 1960s, in response to the United Nations “Development Decade”, the then UN Secretary General, U Thant, said: “It is no longer resources that limit decisions.  It is the decision that makes the resources.”  It was arguably becoming true in the 1960s.  It could not be more true in the twenty-first century.  Information management professionals can help enable those decisions to put more of the resources in the hands of as many people as possible.