Mapping the Information Society Literature: Topics, Perspectives, and Root Metaphors
First Monday

Mapping the Information Society Literature: Topics, Perspectives, and Root Metaphors by Isabel Álvarez and Brent Kilbourn

This article concerns the Information Society literature and is set in the context of teaching and learning about it, particularly in educational technology settings. In spite of the infancy of the Information Society phenomenon, a large literature has emerged in recent years that discusses its nature. Not surprisingly, the literature does not present a uniform view; rather, there are differences of opinion as to the nature and significance of the Information Society. We argue that the literature constitutes an educational problem for those teaching and learning about this complex territory. The discussion visits the complexity by constructing a comprehensive map that charts 1) topics, 2) perspectives, and 3) root metaphors. Mapping the literature helps both teachers and learners find their way in a potentially confusing field of study. Special emphasis is devoted to root metaphors - philosophical views about the nature of reality that in turn help teachers and learners become more sensitive to critical, underlying features of the Information Society discussion. We argue that some root metaphors are more helpful than others for understanding literature about the Information Society.


Exploring the Sources of Fragmentation
The Literature as an Educational Issue
Mapping Topics and Perspectives
Mapping Root Metaphors
Navigating the Territory




As we move into the first decade of the second millennium few would question that societies throughout the world are in the throws of profound and rapid change. Increased dependence on computers, economic globalization, and the shaping of government policy by multinational corporations are only a few points on a landscape of change. Various efforts have been made to conceptualize the changes in terms that capture, succinctly if inadequately, the underlying character of the "Information Society". Regardless of the label, a considerable literature has emerged concerning the Information Society and it is that literature that we wish to address. Anyone who has struggled to comprehend this territory cannot help but be struck with the diversity of views expressed by authors such as, to name a few, Machlup (1962), McLuhan and Fiore (1997), Bell (1976), Masuda (1981), Naisbitt (1983), Toffler (1990), Negroponte (1995), Castells (1996), Majó (1997), and Fukuyama (1999), concerning the nature and implications of the rapid changes with which societies are grappling. We will argue that the nature of the Information Society literature should be viewed as an educational problem, one that has implications for how we construct curriculum and for how we teach about the Information Society, particularly in the field of educational technology. We will sketch a map that we anticipate will help learners make sense of the territory; in particular we will focus on the underlying metaphors used by various authors and show how an awareness of these metaphors can be an aid to understanding of the Information Society.



Exploring the Sources of Fragmentation

Our starting point is the commonplace observation that we are in a period of intense social change. Numerous writers have argued that the West is currently experiencing a profound shift from an industrial society to a post-industrial, Information Society. Some argue that the shift has affected people's ability to make sense of the rapid changes in which society is immersed. These changes contrast with commonly understood ways of seeing the world and with our taken-for-granted ways of understanding such familiar terms as "information", "location", and "knowledge". A number of writers have compared the Information Society to the Industrial Revolution in terms of its eventual impact on our world and, not surprisingly, a considerable literature has emerged, which ranges from classic insights (e.g., McLuhan and Fiore, 1997; Bell, 1976), to comprehensive scholarship (e.g., Castells, 1996), to popularized accounts (e.g., Toffler, 1990; Negroponte, 1995). The literature is varied and sometimes diffuse. In our view it is not uncharitable to call it fragmented. Exactly how problematic this is depends on the sophistication of the individual reader, of course, but the literature's fragmented quality does present difficulties to learners who are trying to understand the nature of the Information Society. Several writers have pointed to the problem in a more general way (Hargreaves, 1994; Castells, 1996). And, a little over a decade ago Toffler (1990) wrote of the problems inherent in fragmented data and the need for synthesis:

"Lacking a systematic framework for understanding the clash of forces in today's world, we are like a ship's crew, trapped in a storm and trying to navigate between dangerous reefs without compass or chart. In a culture of warring specialisms, drowned in fragmented data and fine toothed analysis, synthesis is not merely useful-it is crucial" [1].

A sense of fragmentation of the literature comes from at least three different sources. One source concerns the label. Given the potential significance of the Information Society, a mere label may seem relatively trivial; nevertheless, the plethora of labels can be confusing to a learner trying to make sense of the territory. As of a year or two ago at least 30 different labels have been given to the Information Society (Figure 1) [2]. Some labels appear merely to be different names for essentially the same phenomenon, while others are clearly emphasizing different features of the phenomenon. However, different labels can point to a more substantive aspect of the fragmentation of the literature because they are indicators of how the Information Society is conceptualized, and this is a second source of fragmentation.



A second source of fragmentation concerns the different views about the nature of the Information Society. What are its boundaries? What sorts of things count as evidence of societies in change? Not surprisingly, accounts vary. Some writers, such as Negroponte (1995), focus narrowly on technological perspectives, and their accounts are saturated with discussions about advances in hardware and software with little or no acknowledgment of educational challenges or social consequences. Other writers, such as Castells (1998), conceptualize the Information Society in more encompassing ways by addressing the sociological, biological, technological, economic, and ethical features of the changing landscape. We will expand on this question of the nature of the literature later in this paper.

A third source of fragmentation concerns significance. If the labels and nature of the Information Society betray that there is less than consensus about it, that lack of consensus is driven home by the considerable debate as to how significant the Information Society actually is. Although few would argue that post-industrial societies are in a state of rapid change, there is a range of opinion as to the historical significance of the change. Some argue that the Information Society is more apparent than real - a chimera of futurists who make their living by predicting the unpredictable. For instance, Berger (1999) argues that

"Fukuyama's basic contention, that technological and economic changes since the 1960s - which he describes as representing a "momentous shift" from an industrial to an "information age" society - are responsible for the social pathologies of the late twentieth century, is shaky at best. First of all, significant economic changes in the past thirty years do not necessarily signal a transit from an industrial to an "information age" economy. Only a modest part of the complex history of the U.S. economy over the past thirty years has dealt with information technology (IT) or the rise of the information age per se" [3].

In an opposite corner of the map, others have argued that the Information Society is so profound, so far reaching, potentially so disruptive to our conceptions of self and society that even present language is inadequate for conceptualizing the phenomenon. Such a view is shared by Castells when he argues that:

"... categories from the era of the Industrial Revolution are not useful for understanding the new networked economy and that the latter is, logically enough, generating its own [categories]. Their dynamism is bringing about the phenomenal changes we are experiencing all over the world."

To sum, the Information Society literature can be said to be fragmented because there is a lack of agreement about its label, its nature, and its significance [4]. We want to sketch a map of its nature because we think that a map can help teachers work with their students.



The Literature as an Educational Issue

What we have said above about the literature is relatively non-controversial. That is, the state of this literature is well understood among workers within Information Society circles. Not only is it well understood, it is accepted with a degree of equanimity, if not sanguinity. The controversies, the debates, the confusion, are all typical of a developing field. Kuhn (1962) called such a state revolutionary science, as opposed to normal science; Schwab (1960) referred to fluid inquiry, as opposed to stable inquiry. It is a time when a field of study or an orientation to inquiry is in its infancy. Terms are not agreed upon. Guiding principles are not familiar. Research agendas are questioned and their significance disputed. It is a period of instability in a field and is usually reflected in the field's literature, which is why we called the Information Society literature fragmented. Such a state is also seen as natural - it is seen as a stage of development and the price paid for intellectual excitement and future promise. In spite of disputes about labels, nature, and significance of the Information Society, there is a sense for those in the field that none of this is severely problematic - it simply comes with the territory.

However, we want to stress that what is unproblematic for workers within the Information Society, is problematic for educators who are responsible for teaching and helping learners to become familiar with its literature. When it comes to helping learners find their way through a fragmented and complex territory, several commonplace curriculum and teaching questions emerge: What texts and readings should be selected? What sequence should they follow? What issues should be drawn to the learner's attention? What context would be helpful? To return to metaphors we used in the beginning, what sort of map will help teachers and learners find their way with this varied landscape? These questions concern the nature of the Information Society, and it is to that topic that we now turn.



Mapping Topics and Perspectives

With the aim of helping teachers and learners of Information Society find their way in unfamiliar territory, we will sketch a map. "Sketch" is the appropriate word. The map metaphor is a serviceable one but it is less than perfect, given the nature of the literature, and this has implications for both mapping and teaching. In the history of cartography the territory being mapped changed very little. The occasional atoll appeared but, generally speaking, the territory changed little over time while the maps themselves became increasingly accurate. Mapping the Information Society literature is not quite the same - change is measured in days, weeks, and months rather than geological epochs. Mapping the literature is to map an earthquake. Attempts at accuracy in this dynamic condition are bound to fall short, but we think that even crude sketches can be helpful for pointing the way - if nothing else, a crude sketch can show the sorts of landmarks to look for.

Our map is three dimensional: topics, perspectives, and metaphors. Each of these can be seen as an axis on a three dimensional grid. Topics is the term we give one axis and it acknowledges that different authors tend to concentrate on different topics when they write about the Information Society. Although different authors will provide somewhat different categorizations (an issue discussed briefly below), at least five different topics normally discussed. Here are brief definitions:

  • Globalization refers to the general process by which processes (particularly, economic and social) happening in one part of the world are replicated in other parts of the world.
  • Location refers to the place of things, concepts, and people in space and time.
  • Interaction refers to the nature of the connections among people and things.
  • Individualization refers to the preservation (or disintegration) of the identity of people and concepts within the broader phenomenon of homogeneity and globalization.
  • Information refers to the multitude of ideas that are (or not) valued by people in different contexts and are the means of survival and/or satisfaction.

Not all authors discuss all of these topics. And, as is common to any categorization process such as this, a different author might give different labels to the topics, might collapse some of the topics, or might raise slightly different topics. It is in the nature of the rapid pace of change in the Information Society that some topics assume priority for a period of time and then recede into the distance as new topics and sub-topics come into view. Such variations contribute to a sense of fragmentation. But, in the spirit of sketching a map of the territory, these are five topics that surface again and again in the literature.

Perspectives lie along another axis of the three dimensional map and represent the fact that different authors may approach a topic from different points of view, which should come as no surprise. There are at least four perspectives: Technological, Politico-economic, Social, and Educational. Here again, it is part and parcel of the changing landscape of the Information Society literature that there are also different views about the number and nature of these perspectives. Some authors separate the Politico-economic perspective into separate domains, for example, and some omit the educational perspective altogether. We have taken Marin's (1997) lead with these four perspectives, primarily because he includes education. It can be appreciated that there is always a tension between comprehensiveness and simplicity in these matters. We have steered a middle-path with Marin's four perspectives because we think that they are comprehensive enough to deal with the vast literature and they are few enough in number to clarify rather than confuse. The two dimensions of the map now look like a grid (Figure 2).



A quick glance at this grid hints at the complexity of the literature. Any one of the topics can be addressed according to one or more perspectives. A sense of fragmentation derives from the fact that the literature itself is not written using such tidy labels and cells, and not all cells receive the same amount of attention among authors. In addition, as with topics, as time goes by perspectives wax and wane in importance. For instance, an "earlier" work such as Negroponte's (1995) is more likely to be written from a technological perspective because the natural excitement and hope surrounding new technologies tends to overwhelm consideration of long-term social consequences.

Before moving on, it is worth reiterating that, given the nature of the Information Society and the pace of its development, not only is lack of agreement normal, it is indicative of a healthy stage of a developing field of inquiry. Premature standardization and closure would likely kill useful ideas before they have a chance to flourish. Our attempt to sketch a map of the territory is not because we worry about the fragmented state of the literature for those who are on the cutting edge of a developing field. It is because we see such a map as an aid for teachers and learners who are struggling with this complex phenomenon.

However, the territory is more complicated than a two dimensional map suggests. As we have said, the names and the arrangement of topics and perspectives varies from author to author. Typical of any classification scheme, there are those who tend to "lump" categories and those who tend to "split" categories into sub-groups. We have sketched a "middle-complexity" in our map because we think that is what is needed by learners who are not experts. Even though a map may simplify the territory by lacking fine detail, it can be helpful for sensitizing a teacher or learner to the sorts of things to watch out for. Having said that, there is one aspect of a two dimensional map that is inadequate for depicting the complexity of the literature. It is missing an entire dimension. The third axis of our map concerns metaphor, and to that dimension we now turn.



Mapping Root Metaphors

To this point we have used a mapping metaphor as an aid to put forward our ideas. The metaphor has been a standard, literary sort, and it has been used to illuminate features of the argument and to provide a somewhat more relaxed and readable text. But, the metaphor is not essential for delivering the message. The points could have been made clearly, if dryly, without the mapping metaphor. However, now is an opportune point to introduce a very different concept of metaphor, one in which the tie to meaning is far more intimate. We want to shift the discussion from literary metaphor to philosophical or root metaphor. The third dimension is seen in Figure 3.



The move to root metaphor as a third dimension of the map comes from a sense that something deeper underlies the literature that concerns our taken for granted sense of reality or, in the language of Stephen Pepper (1942), our "root metaphors" and can contribute to the sense of fragmentation that makes it difficult for a learner to comprehend. We suspect that one of the reasons the literature can be difficult to understand is that the reader's intuitive sense of reality (his or her dominant root metaphor) may not be congruent with that being discussed in the literature, and consequently the reader might be unaware of shifts in underlying root metaphors. We believe that a general overview of root metaphors can assist learners as they try to find their way in the literature. Before we explore these issues further it will be helpful to articulate more clearly what we mean by root metaphor.

The concept of root metaphor (philosophical metaphor, world view) comes from Stephen Pepper's World Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence (1942). Pepper sought the origins of philosophical systems and he argued that in the history of philosophy at particular times certain concepts became increasingly useful and used for making sense of the world. For instance, the concept of a simple machine gave rise over time to a mechanistic worldview - to view the world as a machine allowed people to think and do things that could not be done by those who saw the world as a complex classification of relatively static forms, as did the early Greeks. Pepper treated six different root metaphors: Form, machine, context, organ, insight, authority (Figure 3) [5]. He concentrated on four. As Kilbourn (1998) comments, Pepper

"... articulates the root metaphors and central categories of what he argues are the four most adequate world views in occidental philosophical history. He shows the world views at their best; his aim is to demonstrate the way in which the central categories of each view are connected and can be seen to emerge from its root metaphor. The connections are of logical entailment rather than contingent association. Consequently, the rigor of Pepper's account and of the world hypotheses themselves comes from the logical relationships among the categories. For instance, our ability to notice different types, forms, categories, genres, and so on, is predicated on the root metaphor of similarity/difference; it can be said that the concept of "type" logically emerges from the root metaphor of similarity [or, form]" [6].

Form is a root metaphor that focuses on categories. A formist view of the world is fixated on conceptual and physical types, kinds, and genres. Formist thinking is less concerned with the immediacy of experience or with how things work or with how they are connected than it is with seeing that similar things and ideas are grouped within their appropriate category. It is a world preoccupied with making sense of experience in terms of fitting things into their correct boxes, so to speak. Pepper regarded "similarity" as the root metaphor of Formism, but as with the other world views, other terms would also work, such as "form". Indeed, our ability to distinguish the form of one thing from another is dependent on the intuition of similarity and difference. Although this view of the world was initially attributed with early Greek thought, it still is alive and well in the grammar of languages, classification systems and, generally, our ability to discriminate between one thing and another whether it is an idea or physical entity. Bureaucratic systems typically engage in categorical or formistic thinking and our frustration with many bureaucracies stems from their allegiance to grouping similar forms of things regardless of the context of a situation.

A machine is one of the more recognizable root metaphors of our times. The pre-occupation of this way thinking is on how things work. Cause and effect explanations are paramount and are usually expressed in terms of the constituent parts of a machine. In a mechanistic world view, the reality of any phenomenon is in terms of the efficient, causal working of parts, whether the "machine" is an actual machine or an organism. Qualities that are not essential to a machine's primary function tend to be regarded as secondary and somewhat less real. In this worldview things are real by virtue of their location in time and space. The ability to precisely locate (actually or metaphorically) something in time and space is dependent on the ability to quantify and, consequently, an additional pre-occupation of a mechanistic root metaphor is on counting amounts of things.

Context is a very different way of viewing the world. Contextualist thinking is preoccupied with the immediate, fused experience of the here and now or, as Pepper [7] calls it, the "historic event" - "the event alive in its present". Contextualists view reality, not as ultimate forms or causal machines, but as our experience of what is happening to us in the moment with its threads into the past and into the future. Contextualist thinking avoids a search for absolute truth and notes how any sense of reality about things is always dependant on changing context. Change and novelty are extremely important concepts in this view. Unlike mechanism or even formism, contextualism tends to interpret phenomena in terms of synthetic wholes rather than analyzed parts. It is a world view that focuses on change, intensity, and vividness of experience.

A different holistic root metaphor is organ with its emphasis on integration. Organic thinking stresses the connections within and among processes, abstractions, and entities. Organicism seeks integration; the more integration, the more reality. Organicism is holistic, as is contextualism, but while a contextualist stresses the immediacy and fused quality of experience, the organicist is less pre-occupied with the active present and is more interested in seeing integrative links among the various aspects of a phenomenon. Organic thought is perhaps most easily understood when we think of art. The organicist will note that a work of art is great because of the high degree of integration in it. As with the other root metaphors, organicist ideas are matters of emphasis. An organicist would not deny the importance of categories and forms or causal mechanisms or the quality and context of immediate experience, but she would argue that these are not the most important things to consider when we wish to understand any phenomenon-what is important is the degree of integration.

According to Pepper (1942), each root metaphor gives rise to a slightly different interpretation of evidence in the understanding of a particular phenomenon. Formist evidence relies heavily on the sanctity of categories; mechanist evidence is usually in terms of quantifiable aspects of a phenomenon; contextual evidence frequently is in terms of the intensity of fused qualities; and organicist evidence is in the guise of integration. For instance, the notion of "circumstantial evidence" comes primarily from organicism, whereas the notion of "hard (quantified) data" comes primarily from mechanism. Two additional root metaphors discussed by Pepper (1942) lie outside the realm of conventional Western assumptions about the importance of evidence. Pepper noted that the very nature of a mystical experience is "non-evidentiary" because it is not "mediated" by anything. A mystical experience is an unmediated, intense, insight; and when someone attempts to describe the nature of a mystical experience in language it seems peculiarly inappropriate to ask for "evidence". Similarly, an animistic world view, as described by Pepper (1942), is mediated, not by evidence, but by authority. Certainty in animism comes from authority rather than direct insight as in mysticism. In animism our understanding of a phenomenon is according to what authority tells us rather than according to evidence. And authority is absolute [8]. The following table provides a handful of terms that show the flavor of the emphasis of each view. Obviously, the meaning of these terms needs to be understood within the context in which they are used; nevertheless they do indicate the sorts of terms that one might find within each of the views.


Let us now return to issues concerning understanding the literature of the Information Society. Pepper (1942) wrote about root metaphors to explain the rise of different philosophical systems. Each of the root metaphors carries a very different spirit and captures a very different understanding about reality. It was undoubtedly for this reason that Pepper insisted that the various world hypotheses not be collapsed into one grand theory but be given the integrity of their own set of internally consistent categories. Although Pepper's work was focused on the development of each of the world hypotheses, it is not hard to see that in a general way the ideas that people formulate will tend to emanate from (or assume, or reflect) one or more of these world hypotheses. That is to say, regardless of whether writers are consciously aware of their own philosophical positions (or have ever heard of Pepper and his world hypotheses) whatever they have to say will undoubtedly reflect one or more of these philosophical positions in one way or another. But Pepper went on to make a point that we think has tremendous educational significance. He argued that, although in theory it was important to recognize the integrity of each world view, in practice it was important to be eclectic. Pepper's (1945) view was that each of the root metaphors contributes a unique lens for seeing reality and that any particular phenomenon will be better understood if it is seen in light of all of the lenses. As Toffler (1990) has said,

"Even the most powerful metaphor, however, is capable of yielding only partial truth. No metaphor tells the whole story from all sides, and hence no vision of the present, let alone the future, can be complete or final" [9].

Of course in practical affairs eclecticism comes rather naturally. We construct and interpret our ongoing realities with concepts and links that are useful for making meaning at the time; seldom do we pay attention to whether our thoughts are philosophically consistent. While this may be true, it is not the sort of eclecticism that we have in mind. Educationally, an "informed eclecticism" provides the scope needed for understanding a complex phenomenon like the Information Society because it allows us to examine it from different root metaphors. Now then, let us return to the three dimensional map (Figure 3) and show the way in which it helps us navigate the Information Society territory.



Navigating the Territory

Our argument at this juncture has two points implicit in the map. One point is that we frequently have a sense of fragmentation when we do not see the whole picture on any issue - the 3D map offers such a picture. An awareness of the various root metaphors provides a comprehensive picture of the landscape of world views and allows us to see where we are positioned when navigating the terrain. Each of the root metaphors offers a window onto the phenomenon of the Information Society. Our general understanding is enhanced to the extent to which we can view it from the different root metaphors. For instance, within the Information Society discussion, one aspect of technology always treated is the Internet, and its nature can be understood by looking at it through the lens of each of the root metaphors. Let us begin with the root metaphor of a biological organ.

The root metaphor of organ with its emphasis on integration, interconnection, and wholeness is particularly powerful for understanding the essential spirit of the Internet. The word "Internet" itself is an indicator - interconnection and integration are the whole point of the Internet and what makes it different from other ways of getting information. The flexible, decentralized, interconnected, and adaptable quality of the Internet are better understood if we think of biological or organic systems that are able to adapt to a variety of conditions and are self regulating. An organicist view tells us very little about how the Internet actually works, but it does help us comprehend a vital aspect of its spirit.

A mechanistic root metaphor is strong for understanding precisely how the Internet works, even though a mechanistic explanation on its own would miss its spirit. Mechanists focus on how things work and on cause and effect. What actually happens at the level of electrons and electrical waves that allows us to tap into the Internet? How does that work? A mechanist will explain the nature of those interconnections in terms that ultimately reduced to the interactions of discrete particles located in time and space. The mechanist view illuminates one important aspect of the Internet, but it sheds little light on the immediacy of experience.

The contextual focus is on experience and change. Ever changing context is the contextualist root metaphor, and there are at least two important insights the contextualist can offer to our understanding of the Internet. The first concerns experience. Contextualism is strong on experience. It is the opposite of mechanism; in mechanism everything is explained in terms of the primary categories of the great machine, which are at the level of atomic and subatomic particles and electrical waves. For a mechanist, everything that we as humans experience through our senses are secondary, they are part of the secondary categories. Reality for the mechanist lies in the "unseen" primary categories. All of this changes for the contextualist. A contextualist argues that reality lies in human experience, and so the secondary categories of the mechanist become, roughly speaking, the primary categories of the contextualist. The contextualist focuses attention on the nature of the experience of using the Internet - to the immediacy of the experience, for instance. She would note the frustration we feel when things do not go well, or how good we feel when things do go well. Contextualist thinking focuses on immediate, experiential context. All of these qualities are not dismissed as tangential to the task at hand when using the Internet; rather, they are seen as essential aspects of what we are or become when we use this medium. The second contextual insight concerns change, and this is another valuable contribution of this way of thinking. A contextualist observes that nothing is totally static, which is certainly one of the underlying characteristics of the Internet.

Formist thinking is opposite to contextualism, but in a different way from mechanism. If dynamic change is fundamental for a contextualist, static form is the hallmark of formism and this goes back to Plato's desire to find truth in ideal forms. As we said before, our ability to distinguish one form from another logically depends on a concept of similarity/difference. A formist tends to interpret any phenomenon in terms of its characteristics. Categorizing, labeling, and arranging things into classes and hierarchies are favorite activities of a formist. Going back to the organic "spirit" of the Internet, formist thinking does not take us far in understanding the phenomenon. But, the strong intuition of form and similarity/difference leads to the activity of comparison of the Internet with other ways of getting information, and comparison is one of the ways we learn. Although formism may not tell us much about the essential spirit of the Internet, we do often learn by comparison and contrast and so this way of thinking about the Internet can be helpful for learning.

Let us shift now to a second point of our argument for the educational merit of a map that includes root metaphors. Here we recognize that frequently the issues being discussed by Information Society authors concern the shift from one root metaphor to another, particularly the shift away from a mechanistic root metaphor. Again, we would argue that our ability to navigate the literature is enhanced to the extent that we can detect the different root metaphors that underlie the terrain. Clearly, some of the cells of the three dimensional map will be emphasized more than others, and some of the cells will be nearly empty. The literature does not strongly reflect formism, mysticism, or animism, for instance, but for purposes of teaching and learning, seeing what is "not there" in the map is as helpful as what "is there". As with topics and perspectives, root metaphors are a dimension of the landscape teachers and learners need to be aware of. Generally speaking, understanding the Information Society literature requires a shift from the root metaphors of form and machine to those of context and organ. This shift is from parts to wholes, from linear time to fluid time, from concerns about location to an emphasis on simultaneity and connection. As Álvarez (2000) has pointed out,

"Pepper observed, first, that the world hypotheses tend to group or cluster according to whether they looked at phenomena according to parts or wholes. For instance, formism and mechanism are views of reality that tend to look at phenomena and experience in terms of parts, even though they are preoccupied by different aspects of parts. Formism is interested in parts as types, whereas mechanism is interested in causality among parts. But in either case there is an analytical tendency to reduce or explain phenomena in terms of its parts. Similarly, contextualism and organicism are world hypotheses that tend to see things in terms of wholes, even though they are preoccupied with different dimensions. An organicist focuses on the nature of integration, whereas the contextualist focuses on fusion-in either case, they are holistic" [10].

For instance, the following examples show the shift from one metaphor to another. The following quote from Negroponte (1995) illustrates elements of this shift. He is discussing the difference between our taken for granted understanding of location (being at a specified, geographic place, which has a traditional, physical address) and the virtual location of the Internet. Notice the over-ridding concern with location, which is characteristic of a mechanical root metaphor:

"When you have an account with America Online, CompuServe, or Prodigy, you know your own e-mail address, but you do not know where it physically exists. In the case of America Online, your internet address is your ID followed by anywhere in the world. Not only do you not know where is, whosoever sends a message to that address has no idea of where either it or you might be. The address becomes much more like a Social Security number than a street coordinate. It is a virtual address.

In my case, I happen to know where my address,, is physically located. It is a ten-year-old HP Unix machine in a closet near my office. But when people send me messages they are sending them to me, not to that closet. They might infer I am in Boston (which is usually not the case). In fact, I am usually in a different time zone, so not only space but time is shifted as well" [11].

Of course, Negroponte is illustrating the nature of this virtual reality by contrasting it with the mechanistic one with which we are so familiar. Indeed, the title of the section from which the quote is drawn is "Place Without Space." We take to mean that in the Information Society, things can have a location, but the sense of location is not the three dimensional coordinates that we associate with our everyday corporeal world. This is pointedly seen in the last phrase, "... so not only space but time is shifted as well." In this way, Negroponte is pointing to a different way of understanding from a mechanistic root metaphor [12]. In the next quote, he seems to be more clearly concerned with the traditional mechanistic root metaphor because of the emphasis on how things work mechanically (even if the explanation stops short of the details):

"When you send an e-mail over the Internet the message is decomposed into packets and given headers with an address, and pieces are sent over a variety of different paths, through a variety of intermediate processors, which strip off and add other header information and then, quite magically re-order and assemble the message at the other end. The reason that this works at all is that each packet has those bits-about-bits and each processor has the means to pull out information about the message from the message itself" [13].

Although one can find mechanistic root metaphors under the surface of Negroponte's writing in places, as seen in the previous paragraph, taken as a whole, his work takes pains to show the shift away from this very familiar "industrial" metaphor. In the following quote from McLuhan and Fiore (1997) we can see that the shift is towards more holistic root metaphors (characteristic of organ and context):

"The critical anxiety in which all men now exist is very much the result of the interface between a declining mechanical culture, fragmented and specialist, and a new integral culture that is inclusive, organic and macroscopic. The new culture does not depend on words at all. Language and dialogue, in fact, have already taken the form of interplay between whole areas of the world" [14].

Again, one would not want to put too much weigh on the analysis of a small handful of concepts taken out of context, but the concern about fragmentation and the terms "integral culture", "inclusive", and "organic" are indicative of a root metaphor of organ. Returning to Negroponte for a moment, recall that a mechanistic root metaphor places emphasis on location - things are "real" by virtue of their location in geographical coordinates and linear time. The following passage (Negroponte, 1995) is significant because it hints at a more contextual image of time. That is, time is conceptualized according to the context of focal events (whatever they might be - in this case it is the "manufacture" of information) rather than according to a linear, mechanistic clock. Also, note that in this passage there is a shift in emphasis away from standard mechanistic conceptions of geographic place:

"The industrial age, very much an age of atoms, gave us the concept of mass production, with the economies that come from manufacturing with uniform and repetitious methods in any one given space and time. The information age, the age of computers, showed us the same economies of scale, but with less regard for space and time. The manufacturing of bits could happen anywhere, at any time, and, for example, move among the stock markets of New York, London, and Tokyo as if they were three adjacent machine tools" [15].

In the following Castells (1999) echoes Negroponte with regard to the move away from mechanistic conceptions of place. As with the other passages above, it is important to interpret what is being said within the context of the overall work; nevertheless, the last sentence has a clear organic flavor because of its implied emphasis on interconnections between and among the elements of the Information Society (such as a different "spatial logic", division of labor, and the world economy).

"The perspective presented here starts from the assumption that traditional location theory fails to deal with the novel technological and economic conditions of the new industrialization process. ... I argue, with other scholars, that the specific characteristics of the new industries lead to a new and original spatial logic, whose development will reveal itself even more clearly in the future as the organization of knowledge-based production continues to expand in our societies. In turn, this distinctive spatial logic has implications for the inter-regional and international division of labor which affect the world economy, and ultimately, the world itself" [16].

Finally, earlier in the paper we quoted from Castells in the context of discussing the controversy about the significance of the Information Society. We would like to return to that passage because we think it is more easily understood from the view of root metaphors. Castells argued that

"... categories from the era of the Industrial Revolution are not useful for understanding the new networked economy and that the latter is, logically enough, generating its own [categories]. Their dynamism is bringing about the phenomenal changes we are experiencing all over the world."

With Pepper's map in view, it is clear that the "categories from the era of the Industrial Revolution" are essentially mechanistic categories. In such a world view things are real by virtue of location in time and geographic space and time is linear. Causality is in terms of a relatively simple reductionist notion of one discrete part acting on another. These concepts coming from the mechine root metaphor are inadequate for making sense of the fused, interconnected, ever changing context which is characteristic of the Information Society and which emerge from contextual and organic root metaphors. One reason there is a controversy about the language used - industrial revolution, post-industrial revolution - is that the old terms lock into our minds old root metaphors, particularly those of mechanism, and they are inadequate on their own for making sense of the Information Society territory.




We have argued that the literature of the Information Society can appear fragmented to a neophyte who is trying to learn about the territory, and we have argued that this sense of fragmentation is an educational problem, particularly for those who are teaching in the context of educational technology. The sources of fragmentation are several, as we pointed out. Different authors use different labels for roughly similar concepts. Different authors have differences of opinion as to the significance of the Information Society phenomenon. And, different authors conceptualize the character of the Information Society in different ways; they may emphasize different topics and may treat those topics from varying perspectives. These factors alone go some distance toward understanding how a learner could lose the way, and we developed the two dimensional map to illuminate the Information Society territory. But we went on to argue that the territory is a bit more complicated than a flat map can show. The Information Society is a three dimensional phenomenon, at least. (A flat map may be fine for getting from A to B, but a topographical map will be useful if we want to know how long it will take.) The topography of the Information Society literature is also shaped with issues concerning world views. Indeed, a considerable portion of that literature is devoted to discussions about how we must move from our present reductionist, mechanistic ways of seeing the world to more connected, holistic, inclusive ways of thinking. Day to day, many if not most of us live in a formistic and mechanistic world. On the formist side, we are daily concerned about categories of things and with respecting form of one sort or another-types, kinds, habits, rituals, and so on. On the mechanistic side, we are driven by issues concerning mechanistic time, location, cause/effect, amount, and efficiency. Living in a mechanist/formist world of parts we may not be sensitive to ideas that emerge from an organicist/contextualist world of wholes. As learners we are in a better position to understand the underlying threads of, for example, an organic point of view if we have some sense of the categorical integrity of that root metaphor and can see it in relation to the other points of view about truth, evidence, and reality.

We believe that a comprehensive map of the sort we have sketched can be an aid to teaching and learning. Finding a way through the Information Society literature is made easier if one has some sense of the general shape of the territory and Pepper's root metaphors help us see it. Pepper is not the only possible framework, of course, but it does have the advantage of historical scope and a degree of precision, which is necessary if a map is to illuminate a territory. All the same, we repeat that our map is a sketch, a sketch which we would argue is appropriate given the ever changing nature of the Information Society terrain. A map is needed that helps point the way but is broad enough to allow for shifts in direction. Variation in any body of literature is a normal and healthy stage of a developing field of inquiry. Mapping root metaphors helps integrate (rather than fragment) the Information Society literature by enabling learners to locate the discussion. The sorts of issues we have raised about topics, perspectives, and root metaphors should be brought to learner's conscious awareness. The precise manner in which that should be done is beyond the present discussion, of course, but the map provides a preliminary guide for teachers to work with learners in educational technology settings. Our map begins to show the sort of terrain we are navigating. End of article


About the Authors

Isabel Álvarez teaches courses in educational technology in the Department of Didactics and Educational Organization at the University of Barcelona, Spain.

Brent Kilbourn teaches courses on the analysis of teaching, curriculum, and qualitative research in the Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning at the University of Toronto, Canada.



1. Toffler, 1990, p. 2.

2. We have used the term "Information Society" because of its frequent use and because we agree with Kumar's (1995) view that, "the concept of the Information Society fits in well with the liberal, progressivist tradition of western thought. It maintains the Enlightenment faith in rationality and progress. Its current exponents belong generally to the center of the ideological spectrum" (p. 3).

3. Berger, 1999, pp. 12-13.

4. In passing it should be noted that the empirical significance of the Information Society is something that historical distance will help determine and that the diverse opinion about significance derives in part from the difficulty of assessing a dynamic phenomenon of which we are currently a part.

5. We have used the following terms for the root metaphors (form, machine, context, organ, insight, authority) instead of Pepper's terms (similarity, machine, historic event, integration, love, man) because we think that they are a bit clearer in the present context.

6. Kilbourn, 1998, p. 28.

7. Pepper, 1942, p. 232.

8. Fundamentalist sects rely heavily on the certainty of unquestioned authority, although we would not commonly call such sects "animistic" - in spite of the label, the significant point is that their underlying epistemology is unquestioned authority.

9. Toffler, 1990, p. 6.

10. Álvarez, 2000, pp. 259-260.

11. Negroponte, 1995, pp. 166-167.

12. A recent article by J. Koppell in the Atlantic Monthly (August 2000), entitled "No 'There' There: Why Cyberspace Isn't Anyplace" concerns our sense of physical place on the Internet.

13. Negroponte, 1995, pp. 180-181.

14. McLuhan and Fiore, 1997, pp. 64-65.

15. Negroponte, 1995, p. 163.

16. Castells, 1999, p. 32.



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Editorial history

Paper received 11 December 2001; accepted 27 December 2001.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2002, First Monday

Mapping the Information Society Literature: Topics, Perspectives, and Root Metaphors by Isabel Álvarez and Brent Kilbourn
First Monday, volume 7, number 1 (January 2002),

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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