Hyperindustrial vs. Postindustrial Society
by Frank Elwell
Rogers State University
Are we living in a "postindustrial" society? According
to many contemporary social scientists industrial society has been transformed
by the introduction of new technologies that have profoundly changed our
relationship to our environment. This new mode of production, they
assert, has profoundly affected all sectors of society, transforming our
work, politics, family life, education, and values. As a result of postindustrialism,
the true believers assert, we are more egalitarian, more democratic, less
hierarchical, more powerful, less stratified, and information has become
the dominant form of wealth. While many social scientists reject the more
utopian pronouncements of post- industrialism, most do believe that American
society has moved beyond industrialism into a qualitatively different mode
of production. Many date the transition from industrial to postindustrial
at about the middle of the twentieth century.
The case for postindustrialism is seriously weakened,
however, by a failure to offer any agreed upon explanation as to what this
new mode of production entails. Variously described as a mode of
production based on information, services, knowledge, computers, and more
recently biotechnology, the postindustrialists simply paper over this lack
of agreement by labeling their vision as "postindustrial," that is "after
industrialism." The lack of definition is an excellent indication
that the term is almost devoid of any real meaning.
While postindustrialists can point to an explosion of
new technologies, they fail to specify how these technologies have changed
our social-technological relationships to the environment. We still
take our energy and material needs from the environment through extractive
activities. We still practice agriculture with industrial machinery
and the liberal use of oil. We still engage in mass production, we
still do the bulk of our manufacturing within the factory system.
While new technology is employed to make all of these industrial processes
more rationalized and efficient, such use of technology has been part of
the very definition of industrialism from the beginning.
One of the main reasons given in support of the idea that
we are now a postindustrial society has been the recent changes in the
occupational structure of modern societies. In the 1950s the number
of service jobs in the U.S. economy had actually overtaken the number of
manufacturing jobs. Since that time, the service sector of the American
economy has remained the dominant source of employment. Another rapidly
growing sector of employment has been in what the postindustrialists like
to refer to as the "information sector." Concurrently, the number of manufacturing
jobs in modern society have remained stagnant or have actually been in
decline. Since industrial society is closely identified with manufacturing
in the popular imagination, what occurs after 1950 must be some new form
of society, something after industrialism.
What many failed not note, however, is that growth in
service and information occupations has been a part of the industrialization
process from the beginning. Service jobs have been growing at a faster
rate than manufacturing jobs in the United States since the 1860s (Kumar,
1978). The growth of services in industrial society is related to
the decline of the extended family and community as a provider of such
services as child care, counseling, and social security. "Information sector"
jobs have also been part of industrialization from the beginning, such
jobs being closely associated with the growth of both public and private
While it is true that the number of manufacturing jobs
in this country have not experienced significant growth in recent years,
the amount of goods manufactured in this country has been steadily increasing
every year. The virtual stagnation in manufacturing jobs has been
due to the integration of ever more sophisticated technology into the manufacturing
process or, if that is not economically feasible, shipping these jobs to
third world countries where labor and environmental restrictions are less
costly. The integration of technology into work processes to make them
more efficient is part of the very definition of industrialism. Surely
no one would seriously argue that globalization, or the spread of industrialism
around the world, is a sign that industrialism is in decline?
Not realizing that the growth of the services and bureaucracy
are an integral part of the industrialization itself, many "futurists"
seized on these trends, extrapolated them into the future, and forecast
a society based on services and information. Calling their vision
a "service society," or an "information society" futurists failed to recognize
the continuity of the present with the past. Identifying what they
took to be new trends, they extrapolated these trends into the future without
any regard for system limits. They wrote as if a society could be
based on the provision of child care, medical services, managerial consultants,
and education, apparently forgetting that people working in such industries
still eat food, live in homes, drive cars, buy stereos, and consume resources.
With an imperfect understanding of history, futurists
posited an industrial society some 200 years old that was on the verge
of transforming itself into a society based on something other than industrialism.
In fact, while the industrial revolution is some 200 years old, industrial
society--a society that is "fully" organized around industrial production--is
a relatively recent phenomenon. Krishan Kumar (1978) argues that
the first real industrial society did not appear until about 1900, when
Britain had slightly less than half of its population involved in agriculture.
It could even be argued that the first true industrial society did not
occur until 1945, when the United States emerged from World War II.
Since the beginnings of industrialism, at ever increasing
speed, American institutions, values, and ideology have been undergoing
change to accommodate the needs of an ever intensifying industrial mode
of production. Since the 1950s the pace of industrial change has
been massive, economic growth has been averaging 3 percent per year, effectively
doubling the industrial infrastructure every 23 years. Social and
cultural change to accommodate that growth has been both rapid and severely
disrupting of traditional institutions, norms and values. Post- industrialists
have mistaken this rapid change as the beginnings of a new type of society
when it can be more readily understood as as an massive intensification
of past trends and processes, as "hyperindustrialism."
Given the weaknesses of postindustrial "theory," some
important questions to ask are why has it gained so many adherent; why
has it become an almost unquestioned assumption on the part of many business
and political leaders; why is it a staple in introductory sociology books,
a cliché in almost every graduation speech of the last 30 years?
There is no doubt that Western civilization is presently
undergoing profound change within industrial infrastructures. No
doubt this change is affecting our social structure and culture.
By viewing recent changes as the intensification of industrialization itself,
as hyper- industrialism, we have a wealth of social theory and historical
experience to help us understand and guide these changes. Much of
this theory and history urges us to be skeptical of progress, to consider
the environmental, social, and human costs to industrialization.
But viewing recent changes as the emergence of a new form of society has
very different consequences. It gives us a new vision and a new ideology
of technological and social progress.
As people in the West began to lose faith in the ideology
of industrial progress, postindustrial theorists began to sell us on the
idea of a glorious society based on a different mode of production.
This new society would not have huge disparities in wealth. This
new society would be much more democratic, less bureaucratic, much more
productive, and provide a multitude of life-style choices and rewarding
careers to its inhabitants. All we need do to achieve this future,
they claim, is to put our faith in the new technologies and let social
development take its course.
Rather than a social theory, postindustrialism can be
understood as an elaborate ideology developed to justify the status quo,
capitalism and the path we are presently on (or as Bill Gates would have
it, The Road Ahead). It is a simple update of the idea of
progress and a paean to technological development. As such, it is
a modern expression of the technological world view, the idea that technology
can be relied upon to solve human problems. It is by positing a new
mode of production--a qualitative break with the past--that post- industrialists
disconnect our future from our past. It is by ignoring human history
(as they often ignore ecology and social organization) that they can herald
their brave new world.
©2002 Frank Elwell
Four Great Social Theorists