Digital Society – A New Hope? Comments on the assessment of contemporary culture in times of digitization

What differentiates our present society from other societal arrangements existing before? What is distinctive about the time and world we live in today? What characterises the mood of our time?

Digital technologies paired with well-worn modern notions of progress and rationalization. The focal point, it seems, around which many understandings of our present society unfold today. An apparent need and desire for new narratives guiding our futures. A desire for rest and existential protection. Sounds just like the good old times of early globalization that started losing the traditional decades ago (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002, Giddens 2002).

Well, I believe this obviously comes with little surprise. No society is distinct from the past upon which it emerged. Not distinctive but disjunctive societies. Like two spheres that partially overlap; still the same thing however slightly different at the same time. Yet still, how do we fully understand and grasp onto this blurry difference between yesterday and today?

The vital question here is how and where to make marks on the linear scale of time for comparison. Dirk Baecker (2018) does so in a media historical view, comparing modern societies and the invention of the printing press with contemporary societies and electronic media. What is decisive for our time is hence the move from an excess of critique that the printed word allowed to an excess of control that electronic media created. In this comparison, we realize that we no longer experience time as a clearly set arrow pointing towards the future, rather live in an iterative process of the future collapsing and attempts of building it up again. Reclaiming control over time hence becomes an exhaustive, political struggle. Where we once were integrated based on history, on our past and traditions, we are today based on an uncertain future.

Once a space of stability, today a field of contingency. We live in a constant state of nothing seeming to be impossible anymore while also nothing appears to be necessary. Everything could have happened otherwise. Our life taking place in what Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (2010, 2013, 2014) describes as broad present. The future a daunting horizon of ecological struggles and catastrophes coming towards us. The past unavoidably omnipresent with seemingly no new history coming about. Nothing moves except the ever broadening present. A present that breaks with linear conceptions of time.

We simultaneously live in two temporalities. On the one side, linear historical time (still the primary domain of politics or the humanities) in which we seek to learn from the past to in an imperceptible short present act towards and anticipate the future (that’s the historicist version of Rene Descartes’ I think, therefore I am). As Reinhart Koselleck (1985) outlined in his historical analysis of the period between 1780 and 1830, it is on the ground of the institutionalization of this linear historical time, which we confused with time itself, that modernity sat (see obviously Michel Foucault’s ‘Les mots et les choses’ here too). And it is such confusions that clouded our view from what really is or at last could be happening today that was not there yesterday.

This today, on the other side, takes place in the temporality of a broad present (the primary domain in which we live our everyday life). It is not, still following Gumbrecht here, an imperceptible short present, but rather an ever broadening one. This partial break with modernity hence gave rise to new experiences of time and accordingly our body (yet also new ways of trying to govern it). Where we once only needed to be wielders of symbols, we are now ever more often, in a perceptible present, reminded that we are also human beings of flesh and blood (Wacquant 2015). This is obviously the more formal and academic version of what started with 1960s counterculture movements and now has become integrated into the foundation of our cultures in imperatives of ‘live in the now’ and ‘be creative’. More broadly speaking institutionalized in a general aestheticization (Reckwitz 2017) and gamification of society (Sicart 2013). The creation of ever more objects whose main intention is to appeal to our senses and feelings (something which before was primarily left open to the arts).

So, how do we approach and understand this present and new human condition we, and this is important, hence caps, ALSO live in today? For instance, Andrew Abbott (1988, 2007, 2014) argued that the prevalence of general linear modelling techniques in the social sciences, the dominance of social theories based on the assumption of scarcity opposed to the one of excess, and the sociological persistence on narrative opposed to lyrical analysis hindered us to differently view and imagine the social process. Leaving us focused on a mess of ill applicable tools at hand to imagine and enact new futures for our human condition that today is a simultaneity of different temporalities.

This is not to say that we need to fundamentally reinvent the tools upon which we engage and understand our present times. Most of these tools already exist. Yet we need to arrange our methodologies, our analytical view differently. Tackling the task of understanding and imaging better futures, given the simultaneity that characterises our present human condition, requires a twofold movement. We need, again caps, because this is important, NOT ONLY follow approaches of for example Nick Couldry and Ulises Mejias (2018), who seek to learn from the past to imagine better alternatives to the capitalist exploitation and manipulation that arises through increasing datafication, BUT ALSO the ones of for example Sonia Livingstone (2018), who asks us to take seriously experiences people make within and beyond such contexts. We need to institutionalize, as Anna Tsing (2015) argues, not a new political economy but an arts-of-noticing. Sharpen our view to recognize and trace the associations that already make possible the emergence of new and desirable lifeways in our contemporary capitalist ruins.

An earlier version of this piece was published at blogs.ed.ac.uk

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Abbott, A. (2007). Against Narrative: A Preface to Lyrical Sociology. In Sociological Theory, 25(1), 67-99.
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Wacquant, L. (2015). For a Sociology of Flesh and Blood. In Qualitative Sociology, 38, 1-11.


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