THE POST-MODERN

(i) Post-Industrial Society

Which brings us to the present day, and the 'Third Wave' as it is sometimes referred to. The Modern, Industrial, progressing world of Man makes and explodes the Bomb, creates and runs Auschwitz, and the European order gives way to the American Empire. In the section which follows we shall take a detailed look at the post-war world, and ask how the cultural modes and norms which define us are changing. We shall see that Individual Subject has had its day.

Information and Meaning

If the first wave of the industrial revolution was driven by steam, the second by electrcity, then the third is the information revolution, or the Post-Industrial society. The Information Revolution has had several heralds. Its early expressions were the electric telegraph, the telephone, the gramaphone, film, radio and television. But the computer has marked its culmination. Prophets of the post-industrial society all agree that a third phase of technological change is upon us. As John Naisbitt summarises, "Computer technology is to the information age what mechanisation was to the industrial revolution."106

One of the most optimistic prophets of the new age, Marshall McLuhan, looked to television to bring into a being a 'global village,' but far more effective in linking the world has been the communications satellite. "The real importance of Sputnik is not that it began the space age, but that it introduced the era of global communications."107 The space race in fact was directly responsible for the development of the silicon chip, announced in 1977, a technology which, like the electricity grid, has created a technological enframement for post- industrial society. Everything today has a chip in it, from the washing machine to the watch on one's wrist, from the radio to the simplest child's toy. These artifacts, ripe with the political programmes of the post-industrial world, have, as Kumar asserts, "meshed the world together into a unified knowledge grid,"108 also commonly known as Cyberspace.

It is estimated that at least 65% of the working populations of the Western nations are employed in the information sector of the economy - more than all the other sectors put together.109 As Stonier argues, "information has upstaged land, labour and capital as the most important input into modern production systems."110 Now, the majority of the prophets of the new information age seem to think that this is a wonderful occurence. The emergent civilisation of the Third Wave can be made "more sane, sensible, and sustainable, more decent and more democratic than any we have ever known," effuses Toffler.111The Internet, in particular, in recent years, has been the focus of many utopian ideas.

As Richard Barbrook says, "Mesmerised by the rapid convergence of telecommunications, the media and computing, many people now believe that the 'information superhighway' will create the conditions for the direct participation of all citizens in political decision-making."112 (See especially the writings of Howard Rheingold.) This concept of an electronic agora gains support from techno-utopians both Left and Right, despite the difficulties, as Barbrook highlights, of making such a system work. "However good it is, new technology cannot solve fundamental social and political problems by itself." (Barbrook) Moreover, the technology itself already carries political programmes running to an entirely less democratic agenda.

Indeed, in the opinion of some commentators, it is in the nature of the technology to devalue such democratic discourse. There is, in the programmes contained within the new technology, a change in our culture so fundamental that as Talbott says, in his cautionary work, 'The Future Does not Compute,'113 "computers and the Net have become the most highly perfected means yet for the scattering of the self beyond all recall." There are, in short, profound implications for identity in the information age.

Citing the "arrogant nonsense" that instant availability of information the world over must necessarily be of paramount importance to researchers, Talbott comments, "That the latest information should have become such a shrill concern is itself evidence that efforts to grasp new and deeper meaning - to see the world more profoundly and with new eyes - are giving way to a mindless accumulation of data and opinion."114 It is a commonplace to those au fait with the Net that the hypertext button is little different from the remote control on one's TV set - easily pressed, and often, in a digital dash around the planet.

The main thrust of his argument hinges upon his explication of the distinction between information and wisdom. He cites an anonymous formula circulating on the Net as a part of the problem: "DATA organised is INFORMATION made meaningful is KNOWLEDGE linked to other knowledge is INTELLIGENCE granted experience is WISDOM." The lie in this 'Data to Wisdom Chain' is that "data and information are the raw materials of wisdom." Talbott's prose sizzles. "Only when, as knower, I confront the world itself, can I make its wisdom my own. I do not manufacture wisdom from bits and pieces; I call it down, out of the not-yet- comprehended, through an inner union with it." Though this might strike a post-feminist as rather metaphysical, as Edward de Bono says, "many people believe that if you collect enough information it will do your thinking for you and that the analysis of information leads to ideas. Both are wrong." 115

Perhaps we might concur with Talbott through the views of Koestler on the creative process. (Koestler, Arthur, The Act of Creation.) For Koestler creativity takes place at the intersection of planes of thought, where commonalities between disparate fields generate meaning in a spark of inspiration. Certainly it is more in keeping with a standpoint opposed to grammatical determinism to assert that 'ideas come to me', as against the production line factory in which 'I create wisdom from bits of data.'

The Politics of Information Technology

So what exactly are the programmes hidden inside the artifacts of the information age? As the latest wave of new communication technology in the twentieth century, computers, Schiller notes, display at least two characteristics of their predecessors: "the overblown promise greeting its appearance...and the rapid assumption by corporate custodians of the new instrumentation and processes for commercial ends, ie. profitmaking."116 So, as Talbott argues "the real meaning of the world's wiring is in fact little more than the exploitation of commercial opportunities." With such an imperative as profitmaking in place, we have, after all, in the two decades since the introduction of the silicon chip, lost no time in "restructur[ing our] environments to meet the operational demands of technology."117

In just such a spirit, the corporate world - all those bourgeois states in miniature, each one an end in itself - has begun to redefine what we mean by community. As Rheingold effuses: "the WELL [the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link-an online 'community'...is] a bit like a neighbourhood pub or coffee shop. It's a little like a salon, where I can participate in a hundred ongoing conversations with people who don't care what I look like or sound like, but who care how I think and communicate."118 But as Clifford Stoll exclaims: "what an impoverished community! One without a church, cafe, art gallery, theatre or tavern. Plenty of human contact, but no community."119 Indeed, as far as Callinicos is concerned, all talk of post-modern culture and post-industrial society is missing the point: that the information age is merely the latest and most advanced form capitalism.120

Cyberspace and Interaction

The experience of the world of cyberspace is one of a screen world, with one human sitting facing it, engaging with it. There may be other humans out there somewhere doing exactly the same. Indeed on Internet Relay Chat (IRC) or via a Multi-User Domain (MUD) (like one of Rheingold's 'communities') one might see text appearing on one's screen generated by other people and sent in real-time to your screen in answer to the text you just placed there yourself. In Video Conferencing you may even be able to see in a small window on your screen a pixilated video representation of the face(s) of the person(s) with whom you are 'conferencing,' with a digital remastering of the sound of their voice(s) coming from the speakers by the screen. In a short time this technology will be like a trip to the cinema.

Yet, returning to Goffman's terminology, in none of the above will you get anything more than what an individual wants to give of himself. What he gives off - that crucial extra asymmetrical element of social interaction, will be largely missing. There will be only one setting - the extremely limited milieu of the computer screen - your computer screen. There will be little or no clues to 'appearance' (even a DCC picture sent to you by an IRC pal is a chosen, controlled given image, as will be the video conferncing image.) There will be only a studied text based or television interview styled 'manner' given over from your real-time correspondent. (Even when you are 'flamed' in real-time over IRC there is an almost surreal detachment to it all. As Bill Gates himself has said "Email is not a good way to get angry with someone, because you can't interact"121[my emphasis]) There will be no body language (beyond perhaps some few scant facial clues with video conferencing.) There will be no immediate physical presence.

Is there, indeed, any real human-to-human interaction going on at all, as defined by Goffman? Despite the often gushing and excited opinions of many writers on this topic,122 it is my opinion that, just as with the great majority of human engagement with cyberspace, where there is no real-time exchange of text (or imagery) between users, there is, in fact, little or no Goffman defined social interaction going on.

A simple model of the human-computer interface as it has developed in recent years will help to illustrate the point.


The circle is the human, the square is the computer, and the central block is the interface software, the operating system or software programme designed to make the computer user- friendly.123 The model shows how human-to-human communication attempted through cyberspace must be mediated by something which is not human, which must wear a 'user- friendly' mask, present a front, play a role that is to our liking.

Computer Mediated Communication, (CMC) is a contested area. Looking back, for a moment, at the development of technology over the past century, from the telegraph to the internet, there are perhaps some important lessons to be drawn. As Mark Slouka reminds us, "the initial users of the telephone (grandmothers and fathers) had to personify the receiver and speak to it rather than through it."124 Such naivety is almost touching, nowadays. But the idea of machine-mediated communication was quite alien until only very recent times. The mediation of a computer in human-to-human communication can and does, in fact, do more than mediate. Intermediaries after all, are notoriously unreliable (cf. the Chinese whisper.)

The reciprocal co-development of Self in the ongoing interaction between social actors as described by Goffman simply breaks down in a world dominated by CMC. "Screen events are not characterised by such reciprocity: the screen bypasses the intractable nature of reality, and it seems to put us in control of our world."125

In short, the Modern identity is under attack from the post-industrial world. New technological enframement by computers is challenging the way we relate, changing the parameters of our social situations, defining situations for us in ways that technologies have perhaps never done before. The cultural codes and norms that we cite within this new frame are necessarily also changed. Indeed, it is here that the parallels with the Baroque really begin to reveal themselves. The elements of the Middle Ages that seem to repeat themselves in our day are sometimes quite stunning.

Take, for example, the iconic nature of the computer interface, as redolent and meaningful as the pictures in a mediaeval manuscript; or the transnational corporations as dismissive of state power as the robber barons; the new plaques as threatening and as devastating as the Black Death; and the fundamentalist religions as militant as any counter-reformationary or Puritan movement.

But the similarities go much deeper, to the very heart of our postmodern identities.

CONTENTS

NEXT: THE POST-MODERN (ii)SOCIETY OF THE SPECTACLE