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CPSR Newsletter Winter 1995


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A Japanese Perspective on the Significance of the Information Revolution

by Shumpei Kumon
Center for Global Communications, International University of Japan

CPSR News Volume 13, Number 1: Winter 1995


I would like to take this opportunity to share with you my interpretation, as a Japanese social scientist, of the widely-discussed information revolution.

As I see it, the development of computer networks is at the origin of the digital or information revolution now in full swing. The web of open-data networks in the United States, with the Internet as its prototype, has doubled in size every year since 1989, putting it on course to achieve a thousandfold expansion in 10 years. Should this phenomenal growth continue over the next several years, there is no doubt that the United States will by the end of the century have elaborated a new-generation telecommunications network rivaling the television and telephone in terms of pervasiveness. The United States is also beginning to witness the explosive growth of network-oriented applications like the World Wide Web and of a myriad of data services and businesses utilizing these applications, including the American government's Interactive Citizens' Handbook and National Performance Review Toolkit.

Some five years after open-data networks took off in the United States, they have now finally started to show signs of doing likewise in Japan. Given Japan's advantages as a latecomer to the information revolution, however, it is not unreasonable to expect that networks will proliferate there at perhaps twice the speed at which they did in the United States of the early 1990s, resulting in a thousandfold expansion in a mere five years. If such momentum can be maintained, it is certain that open-data networks will come into wide use in Japan by the end of the century. On both sides of the Pacific. we find ourselves today confronting the prospect, only five or ten years down the road, of sweeping transformations whose significance is revolutionary in the most literal sense of the word.

The Three Dimensions of the Information Revolution
Three dimensions exist in the information revolution that is now changing the way we live and work.

The Third Industrial Revolution
The first of these is the third industrial revolution, which follows in the wake of the first and second industrial revolutions of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The third industrial revolution is being spearheaded by technological breakthroughs stemming from the development of computer networks.

The first industrial revolution consisted of a wave of technological advances based on the utilization of iron and coal. These spawned producer-oriented machines, which made possible the mass production of goods in factories. The second industrial revolution was triggered by a series of innovations incorporating new materials like plastics and powered by oil and electricity. These gave birth to passenger cars, electric household appliances, and other consumer durables, in other words, consumer- oriented machines which allowed services to be procured in the home.

In much the same way, we can say that the third industrial revolution of the late twentieth century is being spearheaded by technological breakthroughs stemming from the development of computer networks. As the American commentator George Gilder has put it, we are entering an era in which computing power and telecommunications bandwidth and spectrum, which were once scarce and expensive, have so become plentiful and cheap as to be available in abundance to nearly everybody. Networking will allow a quantum leap in the performance of today's workstations and personal computers, which as stand-alone machines already rival and will soon surpass in power previous generations of supercomputers. These networks of powerful machines have opened the way to efficiency gains in data processing and communications in the office and home as well as the factory. It has thus become possible to substantially raise the productivity of nonroutine office work and labor-intensive service industries, once viewed as bastions of low productivity.

In the world of computer software and hardware, it has long been taken for granted that each year will see meaningful decreases in price and increases in performance. Now, in the context of the third industrial revolution, the same "more for less" trend is starting to become visible across the spectrum of products and services. Even the costs of health care, welfare, and administrative services can be expected to fall. What this may mean in the front-running industrial countries, many of which must confront the graying of their populations, is that they can look forward to inflation-free growth and the eventual resolution of their budgetary woes, allowing them to steadily reduce the burdens of taxation and social-security contributions placed upon their citizens. If trade ties with the industrial latecomers can be further developed, this prospect will be even more significantly enhanced.

Indeed, the third industrial revolution has laid the foundation for a new era of complementary trade relations between industrial front-runners and latecomers. A striking characteristic of today's world economy is that while the third industrial revolution is rapidly unfolding in the United States and elsewhere, the nations of East Asia are one after another successfully achieving industrial take-off. These countries are developing by supplying the world with low-cost, high-quality manufactured goods produced using already proven technology. If U.S. Vice-President Albert Gore is correct in his belief that advanced telecommunications systems will engender sustainable economic development, these burgeoning centers of production will be able to furnish the world with manufactured goods of even better quality at even lower prices by importing advanced telecommunications systems and services.

So long as the information revolution continues to gain ground, therefore, the United States and other industrial front-runners should be able to export advanced communications systems and services to the industrializing nations of Asia and elsewhere for a considerable time into the future. Indeed, the American economy is already clearly moving in that direction. This development points to the strong possibility that the Asia-Pacific region is now heading toward an era of complementary inflation-free growth. The principal challenge facing the Japanese economy in the coming years will be supporting the creation of complementary trade and growth patterns and playing a positive role within this new structure.

In order to carry forward the third industrial revolution, it is imperative that government and business in Japan and the other industrialized countries rapidly take advantage of technological advances to date to realize still further innovations and sweeping productivity gains. I consider this the first item on the global agenda to promote what I call informatization.

The Information-Society Revolution
The second dimension of the information revolution is a social revolution comparable in scale and depth to the industrial revolution itself. With these far-reaching societal changes, modern civilization is moving into the third phase of its evolution: informatization, or the formation of an information society.

Modernization can be interpreted as a process in which individuals or groups compete with the immediate objective of acquiring and amassing the means to control others in order to better attain their ultimate ends. Since ancient times, three kinds of actions have been used to control others: (1) threats and coercion, (2) trade and exploitation, and (3) persuasion and inducement. Viewed in these terms, modernization can be divided into three phases, according to the means of control sought most frequently.

The first phase of modernization was one of militarization and nation-building, beginning with the feudalism of the early middle ages and moving into its heyday around the end of the fifteenth century. During this period, the sovereign states of Europe, which had arisen as the result of innovations in military technology and viewed national sovereignty as supreme, started to play the "prestige game," competing in the international arena under a set of common rules for the abstract, generalized means of threat and coercion, namely state prestige.

The second phase of modernization was characterized by enterprise-building and industrializing. It opened with the revival of commerce in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and hit its peak around the end of the eighteenth century, the dawn of the age of industrialism. At this time, private enterprises, which had arisen as a result of the industrial revolution and viewed property rights as supreme, began to play the "wealth game," competing in global markets under a set of common rules for the abstract, generalized means of trade and exploitation, namely wealth.

Now, in the waning years of the twentieth century, we find ourselves nearing the crest of the third phase of modernization, a phase that had its origins in developments of the thirteenth through the seventeenth centuries, namely the Renaissance, the invention of the printing press, the Reformation, and the scientific revolution. This is the age of information, of reason, of the "wisdom game." Today's key players, who have grown out of the ongoing information revolution, are perhaps best described as "intelprises." These organizations are now championing a new set of socially ordained information rights, consisting fundamentally of the rights to information security, priority, and privacy. Intelprises may well eventually compete within the arena of the global "intelplace" under a set of common rules for the abstract, generalized means of persuasion and inducement, namely wisdom. At present, however, these competitive games for the acquisition of wisdom are still in their infancy. Indeed, the task of establishing information rights and properly balancing and reconciling them with the interests of national sovereignty, private property ownership. and other rights, not to mention the task of drawing up a set of common game rules, are all challenges that lie ahead.

The second item on the global agenda to promote informatization thus consists of hammering out as rapidly as possible a set of viable information rights, an undertaking that will require balancing these rights not only against each other but also against national sovereignty and other fundamental interests.

The Rise of the Netizens
The third dimension to the information revolution is political. The second phase of modernization, to which I alluded previously, created an urban citizen bourgeois that engaged primarily in commerce and industry. This emerging middle class became the driving force not only for popular democratization movements in the modem sovereign states but also for the industrial revolution itself. In a similar manner, the third phase of modernization would appear to have created a class of' netizens," individuals or groups who dwell within the virtual world of computer networks and engage in the task of sharing information and knowledge.

Netizen is a coinage that appeared on the Internet just this year. Today's netizens can, however, trace their roots back to the literati and scholars of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries who began to pursue artistic and scholarly undertakings in the framework of "virtual communities" devoted to the exchange of knowledge and information. In the same vein, it might be more appropriate to consider as "netizens' groups" rather than "citizens' groups" the nongovernmental and/or nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups that have amassed such enormous power in the last few years

Indeed, the percentage of such groups that readily utilize computer networks to conduct their activities on a global scale is growing by the day. Ultimately, this new class of netizens could become a leading voice for direct, participatory "electronic democratization," as well as the vanguard of the information revolution. In other words, both an information revolution paralleling the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century and a netizens' revolution paralleling the citizens' revolutions of that turbulent era are beginning to unfold around us today.

Actually. it might even be possible to maintain that the Clinton-Gore duo, themselves active users of modern communications and networking equipment. have already carried out, at least partly, a netizen- backed "Bloodless Revolution" in the United States. Indeed, the fourth of the five principles recently put forward by Gore as guidelines for the national information infrastructure--open access appears to be aimed at ensuring members of the netizen class freedom in their information-related activities, and the fifth--universal service can be construed as a position intended to preempt any rifts between the new classes of the "information-rich" and "information-poor." (Incidentally, Gore's first and second principles, which emphasize private-sector investment and competition, might furthermore be seen as responding to the industrial-revolution dimension of the information revolution.)

In Japan, the emergence of a class of netizens, both within the ranks of government and business and among the public at large, has occurred at a much slower pace than in the United States. This may account for the negative attitude of corporate Japan toward multimedia technology: It is widely maintained that the future of multimedia is hazy at best and that there will probably be little demand for home use of this budding technology, regardless of its business applications. It is precisely the members of Japan's nascent netizen class, however, who can be expected to make use of high-capacity communications links and high-performance computer networks as they seek to broaden their access to information and information-related services and to develop active channels of communication

Ultimately, this new class of netizens could become a leading voice for direct, participatory "electronic democratization." and collaboration. This suggests that netizens may create a demand for large-scale telecommunications services that represent a bridge between business and home uses. It is thus incumbent upon government and industry not to hamstring the rise of netizens but rather to cooperate with them, giving them the freedom to pursue their information-related activities. This constitutes the third item on the global agenda to promote informatization.

The World Social Order as the Third Axis of the Post-Cold-War Order
The information revolution under way in the United States is now sending ripples around the world. In late 1993, on the basis of collective experience to date.

Vice-President Gore enunciated five principles for the development of the national information infrastructure, or NII. The following March, these five principles were adopted for the eventual creation of a global information infrastructure, or GII at a world development conference held in Buenos Aires by the International Telecommunications Union. At this conference, Gore delivered an address in which he expressed two convictions which I will refer to as the 'Gore Doctrine." First, he asserted that the GII would be key to future economic growth at both the national and international levels. Second, he maintained that the GII would be instrumental in bringing about democratization.

I subscribe in large part to the Gore Doctrine and the five specific principles that he enunciated. I am not entirely convinced, however, that they are applicable to global society in its entirety. At least in the front-runners of the industrial world, their applicability seems reasonably adequate. Quite a few Japanese have been saying that the five principles ought to be applied in Japan without modification. But as made manifest by the ponderous way deregulation has recently been discussed and implemented there, agreement in general does not mean agreement on all the particulars. When the reform process gets down to that level, attempts to impose limitations and make exceptions are bound to arise from the bureaucracy and the business world.

In nations now gearing up for industrialization, disagreement is to be expected even on the broader concepts. For instance, it is hard to imagine that Singapore's present rulers will accept Gore's second doctrine endorsing the use of advanced telecommunications systems to promote democracy, and they will not be easily persuaded that either open access or universal service is a necessary principle. And when we come to those countries with forms of civilization and culture that differ radically from modern industrial civilization, we may find that resistance to Gore's doctrines and principles is fiercer yet.

With such circumstances in mind, I would underline the following points. When modern civilization began to flower in Europe, a loose but common foundation of a shared sociocultural order was already present. As a result, the Europeans had no need to devote exhausting efforts to the construction and maintenance of the third axis of modern society. In fact. conscious recognition of the very existence of this third axis did not become essential until, on the one hand, a number of Asian countries began to take off independently on industrial flights and, on the other, informatization began progressing, leading to the rise of social groups sharing new systems of social meanings and values.

The second point is that within modern society, especially twentieth-century industrial society and, above all, the post-Cold War society of the United States, opinions on the desired world political and economic order seem to be converging upon the thesis expressed by scholars like Francis Fukuyama. According to this general view, the best global political order is one that uses democracy as the tool to achieve peace while placing constraints on dictatorships, and the best global economic order is one that uses economic liberalism as the tool to realize prosperity while placing constraints on monopolies. To put this concisely, the international community has in the twentieth century pinned its hopes on achieving peace and prosperity by means of democracy and the free market economy. Such is the order that has been seen as ideal.

Today, however, quite a few peoples and regions possessing cultures that differ from Western culture have become members of modern civilization. Particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, which is shaping up as the new growth center of the twenty-first century, we must now give careful thought to the following three issues:

First, what political and economic order should we seek for this region'? Should it be based squarely on the Western style of democracy and liberalism? Is it not possible to devise some sort of variation that incorporates the fundamental features of Western-style democracy but that adds modifications suited to the conditions in this region'?

Second, do we not need to build a broad agreement on the necessity for supplementing the political and economic order with a third axis, an order for the social sphere?

Third, if a social order is to be built in this region, with its far greater sociocultural diversity than in the West, what should its contents be'?

My own thinking is that in constructing a social order to supplement the political and economic order that seeks peace and prosperity rooted in freedom and democracy, we will most probably have to strive for an order that promotes mutual comprehension among cultures and makes possible the "coemulation" of civilizations with the aid of communication and collaboration This does not of course mean that all societies should espouse a single culture, that is, a single system of social meanings and values. What is important is that we strive to understand each other's cultures. Even if it is desirable that political and economic regimes be harmonized to a certain degree in order to facilitate interaction, the freedom of each society in accordance with its own circumstances and history to maintain and develop different systems and customs of civilization must be respected.

The kind of integration currently most needed in the Asia-Pacific region is not, of course, political integration, nor is it the unification of economic systems and policies, at least for the time being. I would suggest instead that it is a loose and simple form of integration based on a shared social order that allows free communication and spontaneous collaboration. And if we adopt this perspective to reexamine global conditions in the aftermath of the Cold War, I think we will find that the Asia-Pacific region is not alone in this respect, and that conscious endeavors to construct a social order are required in almost all of' the world's regions.

To conclude, the significance of the ongoing information revolution and especially the construction of the GII as a global expression of that revolution lies not only in its obvious role in providing a foundation for the development of world political and economic orders, but more importantly in its potential contribution to the elaboration of world social order. We will need to create a shared recognition of this dual significance to work together to make the GII a reality.

This article can be found on the Web at URL: Professor Shumpei Kumon presented this paper to the U.S.-Japan Telecommunications Roundtable in Washington, DC on November 21-22, 1994. Professor Kumon is Executive Director of the Center for Global Communications at the International University of Japan. He can be reached at


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