Towards a Global Sustainable Information Society (GSIS)?

  • Christian Fuchs ICT&S Center - Advanced Studies and Research in Information and Communication Technologies & Society, University of Salzburg
Keywords: sustainability, information society, knowledge society, information and communication technologies, ICTs, sustainable information society


The development, diffusion, and adoption of new ICTs doesn’t automatically result in ecological sustainability, it poses both new opportunities and risks. Embedded into the antagonism between capital and economy it seems like the logical of profitability frequently offsets ecological awareness and hence has negative effects on the realization of positive potentials of ICTs on the environment. Environmental problems are social problems, not technological problems, they are neither caused by science or technology as such, nor can they be solved by science or technology as such. The discourse on sustainable development shows a shift from the view of nature as an enemy that must be controlled to a view that considers nature as an important pre-condition of human existence that must be treated carefully. In the discourse on sustainability there has been a shift from a focus on ecological issues towards the inclusion of broader societal issues. It has now become very common to identify an ecological, an economic, a social, and an institutional dimension of sustainability. One can distinguish four types of sustainability concepts based on where in the nature-society-relationship they locate sustainability: ecological reductionism, social projectionism, dualism, man-nature-dialectic. Both nature and society are self-organizing systems in the sense that they permanently produce themselves. Ecological sustainability means that humans appropriate nature in a way that allows ecological diversity, i.e. the autopoiesis of nature can develop in such a way that nature flourishes, reproduces its subsystems, differentiates itself and produces new qualities, i.e. new ecological life forms and subsystems. Societal sustainability can broadly be defined as a good life for all. A sustainable society encompasses ecological diversity, technological usability, economic wealth, political participation, and cultural wisdom. Ecological sustainability is based on social sustainability and vice versa. The discourse on the information society has been accompanied by discussion on how to measure the transition towards this new social formation. Institutions such as the EU, the OECD, and the UN, US Census Bureau, the ASEAN, or WSIS are using and discussing various indicators for measurement. These indicators are classified according to various typologies. There are on the one hand indicators of sustainability that focus on ecological aspects and on the other hand indicators that besides the ecological dimension also take into account broader societal issues. The EU and the UN use a classification scheme that groups indicators according to environmental, economic, social, and institutional aspects. The discourse on sustainability has shifted from an early ecological focus towards the inclusion of economic, political, cultural, and social issues. The approach suggested in this paper argues that sustainability is a multimodal issue having an ecological, a technological, an economic, a political, and a cultural dimension. Existing sustainability indicators lack aspects of information and ICT, existing information society indicators lack aspects of sustainability. What is needed are indicators that measure the degree to which a sustainable information society has been achieved in the various societal dimensions.