This book is spectacular. Written by Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Professor of Social Anthropology at the Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture at the University of Oslo, and published in 2000, it becomes obvious that the book is not simply an observation of the way things are, but a personal longing to overcome the fragmentation, confusion, and rootlessness that has come to characterize life in the developed world. Eriksen points to information as the engine that has driven humankind to this point in history: the availability of information, the breadth of it, the speed at which it comes, the diversity of sources providing the information, and the overwhelming saturation in information that we experience. In the preface, Eriksen offers one of his many irresistibly quotable phrases as he assesses the situation: "there are strong indications that we are about to create a kind of society where it becomes nearly impossible to think a thought that is more than a couple of inches long."
Eriksen introduces the term "information lint," which refers to the countless pieces of random information that fill all of the gaps in our lives - what some would call "down time." This constant inundation of information produces a breathless society filled with anxiety. "Indeed," Eriksen notes "even the `here and now' is threatened since the next moment comes so quickly that it becomes difficult to live in the present."
Eriksen starts out with a brief overview of the Information Age, stating up front that he is not an anti-technology Luddite. His is not a rejection of technology or even speed for that matter, but a cry for balance in our lives and in the world. Interestingly, he points to the fall of the Soviet Union, which ended the cold war and ushered in an era of USA democratic values being unchallenged around the world, as the point at which the Information Age kicked into high gear. Individualism and freedom (including free markets) spread unabated throughout the world, aided in a kind of mutual admiration society by the technological reifications of those values. Eriksen states that "the bipolar world has been replaced with a unipolar world. That pole is called market liberalism and individualism, and it beats the drum with catchwords like flexibility, freedom and openness."
One helpful concept offered by Eriksen is that people need freedom from information. We obviously have more information than we know what to do with, yet it keeps coming at us from every direction. Eriksen asserts that "a crucial skill in information society consists in protecting oneself against the 99.99 per cent of the information offered that one does not want (and, naturally, exploiting the last 0.01 per cent in a merciless way)." He points out that where information was once empowering - and in one sense still is - now the key to achieving one's educational goals lies in the proper filtering of information. If filtering is a priority, then the logical question is how does one determine what to hang on to and what to filter out? Eriksen asks a poignant question: "How can I sleep at night knowing that I have filtered away 99.99 per cent of the information I have been offered; how can I be certain that the 0.01 per cent that I actually use is the most relevant bit for me, in so far as I haven't even sniffed at the rest?" More to the point, he states that "today, the jungle has become so dense that one needs to be both stubborn and single-minded in order to be well informed about anything at all."
Eriksen talks a lot about the compression of time. He uses lots of different words, referring to the density of time, stacking of time, the loss of time, even the end of time. The key component of compressed time is that all of the gaps are filled. The multitude of information sources vying to occupy whatever gaps might remain on our mental landscape recognize that the most in-demand commodity in this new economic climate is the attention of others, and they will go to almost any means to capture that attention.
The author writes quite a bit about the unexpected side-effects of technological changes. Socrates famously stated that writing was going to produce forgetfulness in our souls, crippling our capacity for learning and wisdom. Of course, he was completely wrong and completely right, depending on your perspective. Eriksen points to a more modern, and therefore more appropriate, example of the impact of technological change. He informs us that some commentators believe Nietzsche adopted a more terse style of writing later in life when he began using a typewriter due of poor eyesight. This is debatable, but in fact Nietzsche himself stated in a letter in 1882 that "the writing implements affect our thoughts." Eriksen considers the development of writing as a key component in cultural history. Writing is the externalization of thought and, as this externalization has become more complicated and sophisticated, so has life. As Eriksen says, "writing made it possible to develop knowledge in a cumulative way, in the sense that one had access to, and could draw directly on, what others had done." The accumulation of knowledge that began with the advent of writing has reached a place that Socrates, Gutenberg, or even Neitzche could never have imagined. As the knowledge pool of any society is broadened and deepened (reflected by the development of a written history), they move from a concrete society to an abstract society. The wholesale movement from a concrete to an abstract framework in modern life paved the way for the Information Society. Here is a good summary from Eriksen of his thoughts on the movement from concrete to abstract:
"The transitions from kinship to national identity, from custom to legislation, from `cowrie money' or similar to general-purpose money, from internatised music to notation, from local religions to written religions of conversion, from person-dependent morality to universalistic morality, from memory to archives, from myths to history, and from event-driven time to clock time, all point in the same direction: from small-scale society based on concrete social relations and practical knowledge to a large-scale society based on an abstract legislative system and abstract knowledge founded in logic and science."
A big part of what Eriksen seems to be saying is that many technological advancements initially brought about wonderful accomplishments for mankind, but as these advancements have spiraled upward and outward - our lust for them never satisfied - the subsequent results are increasingly dubious. Though we might acknowledge, for instance, the importance of print capitalism in the development of nationalism and democracy, we cannot know for certain the end result of the domination of Internet and satellite television in our day. Over and over in history, positive advancements have led to unintended and undesirable consequences. We would be wise to keep this in mind.
In the chapter on speed, Eriksen states that "our history is the history of acceleration." He quotes Paul Virilio, who says that "we now live in an era with no delays." He is speaking of communication delays, whether you are talking about cell-phone use, satellite television, or email. Virilio hearkens back to McLuhan's insights, but much more pessimistically speaks of a "global mega-city characterized by anonymity and disintegration, where everybody communicates with everybody else, and where nobody - for that reason - really speaks with anyone." The key to the "virtual city" that Virillo bemoans is real-time communication, ie no delays. While acknowledging that all epochs can claim change that seemed earth-shattering and community-destroying, Eriksen maintains that our current era is unique. Though clearly the electronic revolution is simply the continuation of an endless pattern of technological advancements, the elimination of time as a factor in communications is unique in the history of mankind, with consequences we can only speculate about:
"All of these contributed to liberating, as it were, communication from its immediate context; writing made knowledge timeless and cumulative, the clock made time mechanical and universal; money made values comparable. Whether one is in Canberra or in Kanpur, a dollar, an hour and a news headline mean pretty much the same. The circumstances continue to vary, but the common denominators link places together."
Eriksen continues throughout the remainder of the book to unpack the ramifications of the increasingly information-filled, placeless, breathless world in which we live. All of this may sound pretty dire, but the thing I most enjoyed about Eriksen's approach to the subject is his relentless optimism. In his final chapter entitled The Pleasures of Slow Time, he points to practical steps that he is taking; simple lifestyle choices such as only responding to emails once a week, weekly fishing outings, not turning on the radio or cell phone during his half hour commute to work, reserving 4:30 - 8:30 every day for family, and monthly trips to orchestral performances. These are just a few among numerous suggestions made in this hopeful and practical chapter on how to swim against the current. In the end, Eriksen says our lives "must consist in finding balance, that is creating a world which is spacious enough to give room for a wide, inclusive both-and (as opposed to that Protestant principle, either-or)."
I highly recommend this book; it is filled with brilliant insight, reams of useful information, and a hopeful vision for a life well lived. And it is all shared by a man who sees the challenges ahead, but has managed to keep his sense of humor. Quite an achievement.