Tuesday, March 20, 2007

How Unique or Radically New is Our Situation Today?

Thomas Friedman’s book The World is Flat has been widely reviewed, read, and discussed. The book provides an engaging perspective on the current situation of globalization, even if the metaphor of the world being flattened becomes tiresome after about the twentieth or thirtieth repetition. There is one element of the book that I wish to disagree with here. This is the sense (not original to Friedman but very much present in the book) that most of us have much of the time that we live in a unique moment in history (though who hasn’t), with much that is radically new transforming how human life and culture work.

There is much that is new about our current situation, with much of it discussed intelligently by Friedman, including the importance of the internet and world wide web, personal digital technologies, shipping containers and mega-ships, just in time production, outsourcing of jobs – at first mainly manufacturing jobs but increasingly digitally based “information” jobs as well, 24 hour cable news, etc. All these and more do have immense impact on all of our lives, and this gives us the sense that we live in a unique moment of radical transformation. It’s more that we live within a world that is being continually socially transformed, but this has been happening continuously for a good century and a half, with the sense of living in a uniquely transformative moment occurring to people throughout this same period of time.

Modern life is characterized by a number of things that make it different from other ways of living. Some of the most important features of modern life are fast (and global) communication, fast transportation, mass media, and the dominance of a capitalist mode of economic production. Each of these was taking shape between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth century. Today we are surrounded by phenomena that represent important quantitative developments of each of these themes, and developed to the point that it makes a qualitative difference – life today is different than in 1950, or 1900, but the most radical historical distinction, practically a rupture with the past, occurred for a generation in the mid to late 19th century when the beginnings of modern communication and transportation, large scale mass media in the form of what Benedict Anderson has called “print capitalism,” and the fully developed industrial revolution all came together.

Fast Communication

In Simon Winchester’s book Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883, one of the most interesting facts discussed is that the eruption and devastation of Krakatoa was one of the first, if not the first, events which people all around the world knew about within a couple days, thanks to a global telegraphy network by then in place.

Today, we take for granted near-instantaneous global communication, with nearly up to the minute news from around the world readily available. While this, made possible via all the communications technologies developed since the telegraph, is an important improvement over the flow of information around the world in a few days, the development and implementation of a world wide telegraph system was a far more radical transformation of communication. That is, the spread of information around the planet within a few days is quite rapid and even near-instantaneous, compared to the months it had previously taken for such global communication.

Fast Transportation

The most important recent innovations in modern transportation, as discussed by Friedman, are probably the standardized shipping container and mega-ships to carry them around the world, with these helping to facilitate just in time production, the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, and the low prices at Walmart. Still, while many around the world still can’t take for granted the use of fast personal transportation or jetliners, and while these are just becoming readily available to the masses in places like India or China, these have been largely taken for granted by many in more economically developed parts of the world for decades.

Further, the truly radical and new invention was not of the airplane or automobile, nor the shipping container and mega-ship, but the harnessing of effective steam engines for transportation, whether in the form of ocean-going steam ships, river boats, or railroads. Not to diminish the significance of planes or cars, but the steam engine was the first modern transportation technology and made the world “small” to a greater degree, cutting transportation times for people or goods from months or years to days or weeks.

Mass Media

CNN, the world wide web, email, online news, and the blogosphere are important and make our lives today different than that of a generation ago. Again, though, the absolute new-ness of such technologies and media pales in comparison to the first mass media.

In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson talks about the significance of early mass media in the form of “print capitalism,” i.e. newspapers which had increasing prominence from the mid-18th through the mid-19th century. As Anderson argues, such early mass media had an important role to play in shaping how people saw the world and their place in it, and in the process helped to facilitate the development of national consciousness and the modern nation-state. For the very first time, large numbers of people within a particular national context were exposed to the same news in the same form at roughly the same time, facilitating a sort of national “dialogue” and the “imagined community” of the nation.


Capitalism has roots that stretch back before the mid-19th century, but it is during that period that capitalist production became dominant alongside a matured industrial revolution in an increasingly global economy. It was also in this period that quite large numbers of people in northeastern North America and western Europe were being “proletarianized” for the first time.

Most today take free wage labor for granted. Workers might fear the loss of their jobs or desire a larger slice of the capitalist pie in the form of higher wages or better benefits, but most workers, at least in places that have been thoroughly capitalist in production for several generations (Michael Taussig’s book The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America presents the very different perspectives of workers just being proletarianized in Colombia and Bolivia), don’t experience wage labor as unnatural or alienating (enervating, perhaps, but not unnatural or alienating – where instead pulling one’s weight or doing an honest day’s work can be a source of great pride). The process of becoming proletarian, of going from being a largely self-subsistent farmer or someone who sold the products of their labor to someone who sold their labor, a bodily process, without any ownership or stake in the products of their labor, was experienced quite differently. Today, and for a century or so in the earliest thoroughly capitalist parts of the world, labor unions typically fight for a better stake within capitalist production for labor, where early proletarians saw their new position as a radical and alienating experience, often resisting not only their low place within the system, but the system altogether.

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