The world is changing. At this end of the year, with Christmas coming up and a New Year just around the corner, I feel a need to gain some perspective on what is happening all around us, and how it is affecting our very ways of thinking, our very ways of living, our very conceptions of what is possible, our very expectations of where we are going, and most importantly, our very ways of imagining where we should be going.
Firstly we have seen the global ascendency of what, for lack of a better word, I will call neoliberal capitalism. I don’t mean to go into any deep analysis here, because I think most of us have a pretty good idea of what it is. Since the Thatcher/Reagan era of the 1980s, slowly but surely our minds have been taken over by the idea that everything in the world can be described in terms of “markets”, and that the only ultimate values are economic values. The result is a systematic reversal of the normal relation between means and ends. We used to think that money was the means to achieve desirable ends: you obviously needed money to create good systems of healthcare, you needed money to create good institutions of learning, and so on. Money was a means that served non-economic ends that we valued in and for themselves. That logic has been reversed. Healthcare and education (to stay with those examples) are now defined as products on a market. As such, they are no longer desirable ends that are considered intrinsically valuable, just for what they are, but have become the means to achieve a new and different end: that of maximizing profit. Healthcare and education are now sold for money. The internal logic of this system says that we do not really care that much whether people are actually healthy or well educated: what counts is whether they are buying healthcare or education, at minimal costs and for maximum profit. In short, health and knowledge are no longer basic values. The only true value left is monetary or economic value.
The second major change I observe in our world is information overkill. The information revolution has been gathering steam roughly since the early 1990s, in perfect parallel with the ascendency of neoliberal capitalism. Of course, the basic facts hardly need to be stated here: we all know how incredibly powerful the new information technologies are, how much we are benefiting from the miracles they accomplish, and how utterly dependent we have become on them. But while the benefits are very real (of course, like everybody else, I’m profiting from them every day and would hate to miss them) they come at a heavy price. In this case the problem is not the reversal of means and ends, but the ever-increasing impossibility of distinguishing between reliable, less reliable, and unreliable information. There is another way of saying this: it gets harder and harder for all of us to draw the crucial distinction between information and knowledge (in fact, I have found that more and more people respond with profound puzzlement to the very idea that there is a difference at all). We have unlimited amounts of information at our fingertips, but just cannot tell anymore what is true and what is not. This goes even for highly specialized fields of knowledge. There was a time when I could gain a reasonably complete and accurate overview of the scholarly literature on a given topic; but nowadays I am overwhelmed, even in areas that I know very well, by a daily tsunami of publications online (which, by the way, almost inevitably tend to be given preference over offline materials, simply because it’s already far too much to handle anyway). Nobody can keep up anymore, and the situation is aggravated by the fact that traditional selection criteria no longer have much of a bearing on the actual quality of publications: truly excellent stuff appears online for free, while too much that makes it into peer-reviewed “top journals” is of unremarkable or even mediocre quality. This in itself can be explained largely through the two developments under discussion here. The impact of neoliberal capitalism on academic publishing means that selling the product (in this case: getting your stuff published in a peer-reviewed journal) has become much more important than the actual quality of that product. And moreover, authors need to anticipate what the market seems to want from them: if your work is too daring, original, or creative, too “out of the box”, that may lessen your chance of acceptance. As for the dynamics of information overkill, it results in journal editors and anonymous peer reviewers receiving far too many requests, resulting in hasty and superficial reviews, processed hastily and superficially by journal editors, who do not have the time either – all in the context of an increasingly impersonal bureaucratic machinery of editorial decision-making. As a result of all this, scholars are no longer working the way they used to work. The really good ones among us used to be studying a given topic thoroughly and systematically, attempting to get to the very bottom of things because we still felt there was a bottom to be reached. But that illusion is gone, and so we find ourselves “mining data” instead, or just cherry-picking more or less at random. Too often we feel we just don’t have the time for deep and concentrated study of just one particular source, or one particular scholar’s work. For what about all those countless other sources? What about all those other scholars whose work is still waiting in line to be read too? Are we sure we are reading the right article at this moment? Perhaps we should be reading one of all those countless others out there… But how should we choose? How can we possibly know which ones deserve our attention and which ones are just a waste of time, if we haven’t at least “scanned” them first? And so we keep “mining”, hastily and superficially; or otherwise we resign ourselves to the inevitable and just start picking selectively, more or less at random.
It seems to me that these two core developments are intimately related to four further new developments. These, too, are irreversibly changing our world at present. They might be seen as a second level built upon the first.
To begin with, we are witnessing a systematic disempowerment of citizens, resulting in a huge democratic deficit. Neoliberal capitalism has created a situation where international banks and corporations run by unelected CEOs and managers are much more powerful than national states, so that the results of democratic elections lose most of their relevance. Ordinary citizens feel in their guts that it doesn’t matter anymore what political party they vote for, because politicians have no other choice than pursuing “business as usual” anyway (see, for instance, the recent Greek Drama): what little power we used to have to determine our fate has been taken away from us. Deep resentment and frustration over this fact is then channeled towards convenient scapegoats such as “the immigrants” or “the Muslims”, diverting attention away from those who are actually responsible (for instance, although it is evident that the financial crisis is product of neoliberal capitalism, the Dutch neoliberal capitalists won the next election and remain in the driving seat!). This dynamics has been analyzed endlessly, but perhaps there has been less attention to the disempowering effects of the second element highlighted above: that of information overkill. Even where we still have something to choose, we no longer know what to choose, because we no longer know how to select reliable information from the staggering amounts of online disinformation, mythmaking, fear-mongering, propaganda, “spin”, and sheer nonsense.
A second and very different development could be described as brain change. The rise of information technology and its omnipresence in our daily lives – the fact that all of us are spending more and more of our lives gazing at computer screens or portable devices – means that we are using our brains to do things that are very different from what they used to be doing. We are continually training them to excel in those kinds of tasks that we need to handle our computers efficiently, but the flip side is that we are no longer training those skills that are needed for different but equally important tasks. We are especially good at switching our attention quickly from one thing to another, but we are losing our ability to concentrate on one single thing and stay concentrated for a long time. We are very good at “scanning” information quickly, but we are losing the ability of deep thinking and the sustained reflection required for converting data into actual knowledge. Having a lot of information available says absolutely nothing about how well we understand what that information really means. But such understanding requires muscles in the brain that are being trained less and less.
Which brings me to my fourth point. At the risk of sounding a bit dramatic, there’s no better way to describe it than as a fundamental evaporation of values. In a way, this brings me full circle, for I began by highlighting the fact that neoliberal capitalism recognizes no other values than those that lend themselves to economic calculation. The notion that something has value in and for itself – intrinsic quality, not measurable in terms of quantity – is literally impossible to consider or even imagine within the neoliberal/capitalist paradigm. It’s like asking a mechanic to take account of the color of a machine: he won’t see the point. He will tell you that it runs just as well, regardless of whether the cogwheels are painted green or blue. And he is right, of course. But colors do have value for us as human beings, and so do values. Color doesn’t matter to the machine, but it matters to us: we attach value to it. Now where will we get our values under conditions of historical amnesia? This is not a matter that can be figured out by “finding the right data, getting the right information”. Beyond some very basic values grounded in animal biology (e.g. “pleasure = good / pain = bad” – but even those can be reprogrammed, as anyone knows who has studied the history of martyrdom), we basically get them not from information but from culture and memory: values are literally “cultivated” from one generation to the next, on the basis of what is remembered. We used to pass on values derived from European culture, notably classical antiquity, Jewish and Christian religion, Enlightenment rationality, and modern science; but instead of living traditions, these have all become mere options of consumer choice, available to us as a bewildering mass of unassorted data that come without criteria or guidelines for selection and evaluation. Please note: none of this implies that values are necessarily good. For instance, Islamic State is currently cultivating a set of values that not just condone but actually advocate the murder, rape, and torture of “infidels”. But horrible as they may be, these are values, part of a much larger and functional valuation system for which these people are willing to sacrifice their lives. So we have no reason whatsoever to sentimentalize “values”; but we should recognize their incredible power of motivation, of bestowing a sense of meaning and direction, of telling people what things are worth living and dying for. What I’m claiming here is that our reigning paradigm of neoliberal capitalism combined with rampant information overkill and historical amnesia leaves us clueless in that regard. We are deeply insecure about our values, because neither “the market” nor “the data” can provide them. This makes us incredibly weak in the face of cultures or ideologies that know perfectly well why we are here and where we should be going.