Technology is an ever more important part of modern society. Indeed, technology is now so potent and pervasive it seems to be the main driver of social change. But we should not confuse the technological imperative with what is often ideological preference.
There are a set of basic principles in permanent tension that bedevil human society. They are the issues like the individual versus the collective, freedom versus responsibility, and equity versus excellence. The practical process of resolving these tensions forms the content of politics, and the valuation given to the various principles is determined by ideology. Generally speaking, the most successful societies get the balance most right most of the time. But these underlying tensions never go away.
So each time an important new technology comes along these contentious issues arise once again. Does the new technology promote one or the other of the positions within the spectrum of abiding tensions? Should it do so?
Recently the new technologies of the so-called information revolution have stirred up these tensions once again. Some commentators on the causes and impact of the information revolution have claimed that the changes are so basic that all social relations will be affected, and they have often proffered suggestions as to how this should occur.
One of the more controversial of these commentators is Ian Angell, Professor of Information Systems at the London School of Economics. His book of several years' back (2000) The New Barbarian Manifesto explicitly argues that fundamental change is at hand, that it will be messy, and that there will be definite winners and losers. He also seems to think this is no bad thing and claims to know how to be a winner - that is, a "new barbarian".
Angell clearly hates any form of collective action (such as trade unions), is scornful of democracy, and loathes politicians. He also thinks all these things are doomed by the tidal wave of information technologies about to swamp global society.
In fact this book is mostly a mix of the sort of changes that most commentators on the information revolution usually discuss (corporate reform, transformation of work, the rise of a global technical class, the pervasive character of the technology, and so on) shaped by Angell’s own ideological stance. This is an obviously partisan book, which is clear from the title ("manifesto"), and Angell has at least nailed his ideological colours to the mast.
From the evidence in this book, Angell is essentially an unreconstructed individualist who worships at the altar of Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand. Both espouse a philosophy of unfettered heroic individualism. He sees the new information technologies as ultimately working only for this kind of solitary creature, who is just as likely to be female as male but must be educated in a specific way. He makes no apologies that in the new world only a very few will flourish as the rest fall into a pit of failure, leading lives that will be nasty, brutish and increasingly short.
The main problem with this view is that the generation and use of technology is in actuality always negotiated within a complex web of social, economic, political, philosophical and other relationships. No matter how inherently potent the technology, it is fundamentally shaped by these things. Furthermore, all this techno-social activity occurs within the strictly defined parameters of the natural environment.
The rise of global terrorism is a prime example of how good old human politics can affect technological direction. The whole character of global development has been changed by the interconnected "global war on terror" and the war in Iraq. Military matters are back as primary concerns, and the previously ever-freer flows of people, goods, money and information which were at the heart of globalisation are being checked. These and other associated changes will have a dramatic impact on globalisation and thus on the nature of technological development.
Furthermore, as global environmental problems become better defined and acknowledged, technological development will increasingly shift to deal with them. The Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina are reminders that nature can still upset all our plans, as does the threat of diseases like bird flu.
Although these threats have become more prominent since Angell’s book was written, their relevance has been apparent for those with eyes to see for some time. They will undoubtedly affect the growth of a winner-takes-all, global information society of the sort Angell foresees. So would the revitalisation of collective social forms and processes - such as unions, community groups and even democratic politics itself - as people better understand the real choices and limitations of technology within the wider social and natural context.
Certainly Angell's contempt for current politicians as a class seems justified. They have manifestly failed to understand what is happening in terms of technological, social and environmental changes and give real leadership. But new kinds of politics and new kinds of politicians may arise to take a significant role in shaping future events. The alternative - Angell's high-tech, hyper-competitive 'dog-eat-dog' world – represents a failure of vision, with techno-commercial imperatives merely filling the void.
Ultimately, Angell's position is based more in his own desires than in a rigorous analysis of complex issues. Like many, he sees in the new technology what he wants to see. But given incentive, we can use the same technologies that Angell sees as creating a world of hyper-individualism to facilitate a new era of social cohesion and environmental responsibility.