There is indeed general agreement that the emergence of an "information society" has led to an explosion of new activities involving the search for information and ease of communication. Of information in the form of data, facts, news items in all forms, available at ones fingertips and stored in millions of books, articles, databases, libraries, websites, etc. Such new possibilities for data-mining and more information are not just leading to better informed judgements in commercial buying and selling but in all kind of activities. Some of these are essential for ones work, others are purely of the hobby type, and still others simply contribute to one’s personal general knowledge, or interest in democratic control and so on. On the other hand, the new opportunities for communication are not just limited to business or private family communication as in one-to-one ‘commercial’ telephone conversations, but in all kind of forms of one-to-many communications such as virtual video conferences, debating clubs, chat rooms, and so on, identifying people somewhere on the globe with similar work, leisure, hobby, personal and political convictions. Such forms of exchange do not appear to have any more commercial ‘value’ than is being paid for in terms of Internet access charge and telephone costs. Nevertheless, it is obvious that such electronic communication activities represent a large part of the increased welfare associated with information highways and that they indirectly contribute to economic performance and feelings of wellbeing.
It is from this perspective that limiting the discussion to e-commerce — the commercial exchange of the selling and buying of goods and services — appears so minimalist. It reduces the relevant growth and welfare parameters to only economically directly measurable concepts such as lower costs and larger markets. The new information and communication technologies provide a vast array of new access opportunities. The largest part of those contribute only indirectly to increased efficiency in economic production and distribution, but involve in the first instance increased consumer satisfaction, increased welfare and freedom of communication and exchange. It is in this sense that the notion of an Information Society emerging takes on its true value. A society in which the ease of communication and access to information and data are not just essential ingredients of economic activity — in the production, distribution and consumption, increasingly of digital goods and services — but also of leisure, of household and other so-called "non-work" activities, of social interaction and democratic expression. I would argue that the easy access to this variety of new "immaterial" goods and services, the largest part of which are not commercially traded, represent to some extent the new wealth of the 21st century.
First, it transfers power from owners to workers. As information becomes more important, the knowledge needed to understand and act upon information becomes key to adding value. That "asset" is not buyable or appropriable like a steel mill or a production line. It exists only in the minds of workers, and it gives those workers new bargaining power -- witness Microsoft, a company which, as I recall has granted share options equivalent to over 20% of its capitalisation.
Second, the rise of information work re-integrates production and consumption.
Marx talked about the alienation of workers as they accepted the fundamental
trade-off of the industrial age: submitting to the disciplines of the production
line in order to afford its products. Citizen, consumer and producer became
distinct. Because information work mixes learning, telling and deciding
-- and because increasingly creative work draws on all knowledge and experience,
the whole person -- it re-integrates those roles.