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The pros and cons of the digital age

A man lays stretched over a big machine. "He died from an overdose of data", is the text of a cartoon by the Dutch cartoonist Cork from around the 1960s or -70s. Since that time, when computers filled large spaces, the machines have decreased drastically, they now fit into our pockets, while the amount of data has increased exponentially. It is a brave new world we're inhabiting that has turned many established structures and institutions on their heads, whole cultures are in flux. Doomsday prophesies and 'thanksgivings' compete in exclaiming the digital era. I belong to the latter category. Time and time again, I avow 'blessed digital age' when I have been able to make some great use of the internet. The algorithms that make so many things possible are like miracles. It doesn't mean that I would blindly assent to all that's going on. On the contrary! That's why I've started this blog. I want us to reflect on what all is involved, and differentiate the many-faceted phenomena facing us.

The issues I want to raise and wish to get feedback on, are a follow up my book Widening horizons … (2018). The book's message is that we need to rid ourselves of shackles that might have suited the industrial age but that now hamper the great potentials that the digital era offers. Art and civil society are spheres full of possibilities, whereas the economy and working life as we now have them need to be critically assessed and reformed.

For a dyslectic baby-boomer like me, who started with a manual typewriter with five silk copies that all had to be corrected separately, automatic spell checking is one of the simpler things that does not cease to delight me. Not to talk about all the sophisticated stuff we can retrieve with just a few keywords. At the same time, I'm intrigued by how quickly we get used to just googling as the most natural way of retrieving information. Here, I feel that many of us baby-boomers (born in the 1940s) take it as much for granted as the millennium generation that was born into the digital age. We live in exciting times, and we all partake in shaping a new culture that requires a rethink of much that the baby-boomer generation has grown up with.

Freedom is for me one of the great blessings of the digital age. I can be practically speaking anywhere and do what I have passion for doing, research and write. The internet is the single external prerequisite. With me, I have my laptop containing my e-book library, to which I've made a lot of new purchases for the research I need to do to be able to assess the pros and cons of our digital age. Also, I have my research as well as an endless number of topical books and articles that I've bookmarked, to activate with a click when I need them. With the touch of my fingers, I make use of algorithms that execute my intentions. I can't but applause this new world.

Do I miss out on something by making algorithms look for the things I've earlier been looking for in bookshops and libraries, such as that of the International Labour Office in Geneva that has been central to my research, or university libraries around Europe? Visiting a library has always been an enjoyable must back in the old days. And they have been great experiences; they are just different from the digital experience. One does not exclude the other. They are complementary.

Will this new digital setting foster individualism, as pictured by the 'scruffy nomad, unchained free-thinker, and post-modernist radical' Joss Sheldon, in his book Individutopia, a novel set in a neoliberal dystopia? I would say no. When pausing in my writing to clarify some thought or formulation, I go to Facebook, where I'm in touch with many friends that I wouldn't be without Facebook. Compared to cards and letters that mostly remain unwritten thoughts, a post on Facebook or an email will arrive instantly.

The digital age offers a bewildering picture that I want to explore. I can fancy a situation like that of Renee's in Joss Sheldon's neoliberal dystopia Individutopia, where no one looks at anyone else, people don't collaborate, they only compete. As we can access most things we need thanks to the internet and algorithms, there is reason to take Sheldon's warning seriously, about were present developments can lead us. This is not a prophecy this is a warning, he states (in capital letters) at the beginning of his book. The story is set in 2084 when Margaret Thatcher's (de)famous statement "There is no such thing as society" has become a reality. With these seven words, the Cult of the Individual was born, Sheldon says.

Sheldon tells us that to understand the world we'll live in tomorrow, in these times of unprecedented change, we need to look backwards, not forwards, back to 1979, and the election of Margaret Thatcher, the iron lady, as the British prime minister. Sheldon notes that those seven, tiny words, which weren't in the slightest bit true and had never been true, would become the only truth there was.

Well, is it so? I see so much cooperation at a grassroots level. True, there are horrendous threats ahead of us, but I think that thanks to the digital means, we have greater possibilities to counteract threats than ever before. We're all partaking in shaping a new culture, and that's the exciting thing! I've stumbled upon so many interesting analyses about central features of our time that offers a differentiated view of what surrounds us. Many of them I'll share in later blogs. For now, I say like Aristotle that investing reality is in a way difficult, in a way easy. No one can attain it in a wholly satisfactory way, and no one misses it completely: "each of us says something about nature, and although as an individual we advance the subject little if at all, from all of us taken together something sizeable results — and as the proverb has it, who can miss a barn-door." (Barnes, Aristotle, 2000)

It is evidently not only digital developments that have caused the tremendous societal changes we are surrounded by. With Margaret Thatcher's entry into the political scene, we got the neo-liberal economic policies – as the sole alternative – that started the dismantling of the welfare state. The flexibilisation of working life that has led to a growing precariat is here central, continuing as increasing impoverishment in the platform economy. The worldwide lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us what really matters. This should hopefully lead us to see that there are many and much better alternatives.

Books I referred to:

Jonathan Barnes, Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction, OUP Oxford 2000

Joss Sheldon, Individutopia: A Novel Set in a Neoliberal Dystopia, 2018

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