The noughties are a new decade, century and millennium – the changes happening with technology and their impact on identity, culture and society really are this momentous.
One way to see these changes is with a straight historical contrast and you can see my rough work on twitter here.
The 20th century can be seen as the peek of traditional ways of doing things that really do stretch back to the dawn of humanity – familiar things extrapolated to the extreme with mechanisation and automation and with extreme consequences to the environment we have now come to understand. I covered much of this in 20th Century Industrial Processes: Culture, Identity and Information
I characterise the past era as one of “concrete” thinking” – thinking and activity that is rooted in and characterised by a predominance of physical objects and events. Thinking that books are literature, newspapers are journalism and CDs are music. Thinking that schools and colleges are education. Thinking that the office is the workplace.
“Concrete” thinking goes deeper though – I also describe the past era as the era of “pyramids” – the design and construction of hierarchical, elitist and stable structures – the standard organisational model often manifest and symbolised by top floor executive offices.
I characterise the 20th century as an era of super large scale manufactured production and personal consumption – the extreme end of the application of tools from the stone axe to the modern production line.
I characterise the 20th century as an era of mediation, privacy, secrecy and obfuscation – a consequence of the elitist pyramid model to maintain stability and equilibrium and a Marxian interpretation of culture.
Technology developments are for the first time I think providing the opportunity to transcend traditional “concrete” ways of thinking and acting – my main focus is on Information technology but radical developments are taking place in all the sciences, leading new applications of technology and “unthinkable” effects and opportunities for humanity, culture identity and society.
I characterise the 21st century as an era of “networks”, indeed the internet symbolises and facilitates “network thinking”. It’s an era of flat, integrated, dynamic, and emergent structures. The 21st century is already and will be increasingly fast, complex, chaotic, uncertain and “organic”.
The 21st century will be increasingly open, public and participatory – it will be an era of personal production where large organisations may consume the output of individuals but there will be increasing disintermediation and scope with individuals transacting directly.
In a nutshell I see the 21st century as an era of software.
This blog is intended as the basis of a series exploring associated ideas, technology, cultural, educational themes etc.
Please add your comments.
This blog takes a brief look at how industrial processes have shaped our culture, identity and our ideas of information.
The defining factor of the 20th century was fossil fuel (especially oil) which today provides an energy equivalent to 22 billion slaves and allowed an exponential extension of 19th century industrialism to do things faster, bigger and more. The 20th century as an industrial age was dominated by material things, materialism and industrial processes – manufacture, distribution, consumption, disposal and the identity, political and power structure consequences of this.
Fossil fuel became abundant and cheap and 20th century systems could afford to be energy intensive – the globalisation of material things became possible – the earth became a global factory. China for example could manufacture from raw materials transported from multiple countries using oil transported from multiple countries and then transport manufactured goods to multiple countries. Transportation is present at every stage – the energy and pollution costs are now apparent.
Politics and economics became focused on production and people’s identities became focused on consumption – we have become defined by what we have – the things we buy rather than the things we do or make. The consequences of political and economic power can be read from this.
Information is intangible and must be represented in some way and given that the Internet didn’t exist through most of the 20th century then information was by necessity locked up in material forms of representation and the necessary 20th century industrial systems associated with material things – energy intensive manufacture, distribution, consumption and disposal along with the political and power structure issues that result.
The 21st century Internet provides a new perspective on 20th century information – the energy intensive manufacturing and transportation costs involved and the advantages pertaining to those who own the means of production and distribution. Consider what is required to produce a magazine – from the felling and processing of trees to make paper to the printing and distribution and the eventual disposal and waste.
Information was constrained and limited by its physical embodiment in objects – it was expensive, scarce, difficult to change and to share. You may need to travel to a bookshop or library to get a book – there would only be a limited number of books, you couldn’t easily make and distribute your own book or comments on a book. The same issues apply to other forms of information such as audio and visual information – consider the industrial processes involved in the music business to manufacture and distribute CDs.
Embodying information in physical objects slows it down and freezes it – in the same way that paper is a dead tree you could regard a book as dead information – there is no interaction. It seems a bit extreme but you could regard a library like an information graveyard where you can go to read inscriptions on the tombstones – the books as tombstones – dead information.
Computers and software as information technology have themselves also been part of the 20th century industrial production-consumption dynamic. Mainframes were born in the middle of the 20th century and naturally created a centralised information and control model. Punk music and the personal computing trend both started in the late1970s as an attempt at personal production – both were eventually assimilated by the very mainstream industry processes they were a rebellious response to. Personal computing is dominated by major industry businesses. Software “production” is still dominated by manufacture, distribution and installation – it is partially “dead” software. Computers and anything digital are subject to rapid produce and consume cycles – we need ever faster machines to run ever bigger software. The irony is that the machines of the information age had become the epitome of the industrial age.