Sunday, 25 April 2010

Introduction to Social Acceleration Blog

The purpose of this blog is to provide a forum in which to explore the phenomena of social acceleration, technological change, globalisation and effects of all these upon cultural and personal identity.

Given how slippery all of these terms are, I’m aware that such a bold introduction effectively says very little. So what am I interested in?

Firstly, following Marshall McLuhan, I’m interested in the way that human beings are shaped by the technologies that they use. That is to say that as well as fashioning the tools that they use, humans have, in equal measure, been fashioned by their tools and thus by technology generally. Of course, to some extent all this depends upon what you define as a technology. A convincing argument can be made that written language is a technology, and I’m interested in the development and use of writing and the transformative effects of literacy on oral cultures whether through its initial appearance within ancient Greek culture or its imposition as a consequence of colonialism. (Ong, W. 2002; McLuhan, M. 1997; Goody, J. and Watt, I. 1963).

While the issue of orality and literacy is one that remains alive and crucially important in understanding current technological changes, I think that it is the introduction and dissemination of print in the 15th century which can show us most clearly the role that media plays generally in shaping our consciousness (McLuhan, M. 1997).

Whilst there is clearly an empirical distinction between the technologies we use and ourselves as bodies occupying space, the effect of these technologies is clearly to transform the social body and, in spite of what neo-liberal politicians would have us believe, the individual is an instance of the social body. For proof one need look no further than the social nature of language.

Consider some of the effects of the development of print technology in Europe.

Suddenly the ideas of the Romans and the Greeks, which had, hitherto, been contained within monasteries, became readily available to an increasingly literate population. People started to bemoan the relative backwardness of their society in comparison with that of the ancients, who were, to make matters worse, pagans. Ideas spread far and wide and became consolidated, now that they could be contained in an objective format (the book) and not simply in the body of the one who knows. A cannon of knowledge appeared and being learned meant internalising a proportion of this cannon, and synthesizing it into some sort of world-view, which then came to define who you were. In relation to this 'body of knowledge' (an interesting metaphor when you contrast it with the literal body of the knower which is the receptacle of knowledge in oral cultures) notions such as civilisation, and progress started to gain currency, defined principally in relation to one's literacy and learning. We are impressed by the capacity of the Internet to provide an external database of knowledge- but it was print that acculturated us to this externality. The rupture of authoritative canons of knowledge brought about by the Internet may actually put an end to the possibility of consensus as knowledge is disseminated via increasingly introspective and self-serving networks (Castells, M. 2004).

The development of print was, of course, just one of a plethora of synergistic transformations that were taking place during the Renaissance, laying the foundations for such modern phenomena as capitalism, colonialism, science and eventually electronic communications all of which have had a decisive role to play in shaping the particular form of globalisation that has subsequently emerged.

It is the latter, electronic communication, which has dominated the reconfiguration of the social body, and the shift in its metabolism over the last 100 years or so and I am interested in exploring the nature and ramifications of that reconfiguration. Authors who I have found particularly insightful in this include Manuel Castells, David Harvey, Thomas de Zengotita among many others. It is in order to try and capture that sense of a shift in social metabolism that I have borrowed Hartmut Rosa’s term ‘social acceleration’.

We have instantaneous access to an extraordinary quantity of information presented not only in text, but also in just about any medium imaginable from anywhere in the world. News, music, film, art, science, friendships, porn, clubs, the hotel situation in the town you're thinking of visiting in Florence at Easter, the price of second had garden gnomes on Ebay. You name it and it's instantaneously available as are all the people you know and, with Facebook, all the people you have ever known.

All of which is not a bad thing, but is it any wonder that people have difficulty finding the time- hence acceleration as our restless minds, grown accustomed to saturation, demand increasing stimulation. And this stimulation is increasingly external (to the extent that it does not form a part of what we consider to be an integrated part of ourselves- like our having read Dickens would be, for example). We are increasingly dependent upon external stimuli that can offer instant gratification and this is positively encouraged by an economic system which, in order to guarantee growth must either expand the market (through globalisation or innovation for example) or accelerate our rates of consumption (built in obsolescence, disposable everythings and channel surfing). Hence we enter an accelerating feedback loop in which an economic system which seeks to maximize turnover in order to guarantee growth offers us an ever increasing array of options designed to provide us with instantaneous (but definitely not permanent) gratification and we, like the fools we are, seize upon these passing goodies (be they the latest ipad, must-have trainers or reality TV show) as a temporary relief from a much more settled and deeply-rooted sense of dissatisfaction.

I found David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity (Harvey, D. 1990) particularly useful in thinking about these issues and became interested in the Marxist analysis of capital through his online series of lectures (Harvey’s not Marx’s) Reading Marx’s Capital. Whilst I remain wary of economic reductionism, I do believe that neither social acceleration nor globalisation can be understood without reference to the unconstrained capital accumulation that was first theorised by Marx.

As a counterpoint to the reductive tendencies of Marxist analysis, I find Baudrillard consistently interesting and provocative and have been particularly influenced by his capacity to develop a analytical approach which is revealing of phenomenological aspects of our media saturated lives and managing to avoid getting bogged down in theory (Baudrillard, J. 2008).

As well as exploring the areas that I have outlined above, I would like to use this blog as a resource for articles and links as well as a forum for discussing these themes.

Baudrillard, J. 2008, Simulacra and Simulation, University of Michigan Press

Castells, M. 2004, The Power of Identity, Blackwell Publishing

Goody, J. Watt, I. 1963, The Consequences of Literacy, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 5, No. 3

Harvey, D. 1990, The Condition of Postmodernity, Blackwell Publishers Ltd

McLuhan, M. 1962, The Guttenberg Galaxy, University of Toronto Press

Ong, W. 2000, Orality and Literacy, New Accents