A false dawn
It is no exaggeration to say that in the last three decades, communications technologies have gradually assumed a core role in the way our societies see themselves. The digital space is crucial for our understanding not only of the way we are, but also –above all– the way we could, wish to, and eventually should be. Technological ideology is increasingly modulating our economic, social and cultural aspirations, as well as our perception of the public sphere.
We see digital technology as the only sphere capable of injecting dynamism into a world that is mired down or in regression. There is a widely held idea that we are seeing a profound historic caesura associated to communications technology that affects our social relations, economic structure, cultural manifestations and ultimately, our own political and anthropological understanding of ourselves.
The hypothesis of technological rupture: 5 keys
- A generational change, popularized by the thesis of “digital natives”. The idea is in general terms that young people socialized in the digital culture are submitted to radically different environmental forces to those experienced by the “digital immigrants” of earlier generations, and therefore have fundamentally different skills, ways of relating and interests and ideas.
- Geographic disconnectedness. From this standpoint, the spread of digital technologies is leading to a disconnection with their immediate local surroundings for a large number of people who are conversely taking on a new global identity in which geographic distance and vernacular traditions are of little importance.
- Some theorists of communications technologies point to the technical characteristics of digital devices, such as the ease of anonymity or concealment, as justifying a sweeping transformation of the structure of contemporary subjectivity, a veritable discontinuity in personal identity. From this point of view, the dominant technological identity on the Internet and other social networks is inevitably fluid and clashes with classic Cartesian subjectivity.
- A fourth commonly accepted rupture has to do with social interaction. We have assumed that contemporary social relations are largely reticular thanks to the action of ICTs. Even basic sociology manuals tend to include a couple of chapters on the network society that describe how technologization has transformed and expanded a network-based bonding model that was peripheral until a few years ago. Many sociologists acknowledge the fact that the spread of digital technology has transformed the social networks into basic social units, and that this shift has critically affected the mechanisms of production and exchange, the distribution of political power and our intimacy.
- Finally, according to some thinkers, this series of historic discontinuities taking place in the sphere of geopolitics, the life cycle, subjectivity and social bonds will all converge in a fifth rupture related to the transformation and extension of deliberative democratic tools, and ultimately in the transition to some form of digital citizenship that will fulfill the enlightened promises of political progress.
Technology, society and politics
In my view, this central role of technology as a source of historical transformation is unrealistic. In fact, it may be only logical to understand the hypothesis of technological discontinuity as a form of adaptive preference to the reduction of our deliberative expectations. We seek consolation in technology for the loss of political legitimacy in Western democracies. We have used the digital dimension as a repository for our hopes for the domestication of globalization that does not demand major structural changes, for a progress that requires only a minor learning process or cultural adaptation. Internet facilitates the propagation of the type of weak social and elective bond characteristic of extreme mercantilization, because it gives it a friendly face. The social networks are a sort of moneyless market where organization emerges spontaneously, without an environment of common finalist rules, simply through the game of technical protocols.
So overestimating technology as the horizon for a shared future is a guarantee of suicide gifted by the entire field of real politics to reactionary movements. This is one reason that after the defeat of the Arab revolutions and in the current political doldrums in Latin America, the responses from around the world to the collapse of neoliberal globalization are predominantly tending toward the neocommunitarian and reactionary. Reactionary movements are not conservative –they are the other face of progressive revolutionary movements, and the wreck of the future. For the first time in the history of modernity, we do not have a shared enlightenment project with which to oppose the lure of the reactionary –only a deluge of advertisements for Mediamarkt that we have mistaken for human progress.
Universidad Complutense de Madrid