The Heaviness of a Weightless Society

I found it quite telling that in his analysis of the new “weightless” economy in Theories of the Information Society, Frank Webster felt the need to remind us how the phrase “living on thin air” was “once a familiar admonition given by the worldly wise to those reluctant to earn a living by the sweat of their brow” (Webster 15). And even though he immediately goes on to relegate such advice as “outdated,” I couldn’t help but sympathize with the good old-fashioned logic it represents. After all, it is in fact still impossible to live on thin air. And yet that is precisely what an “information” or “post-industrial society” (PIS) feigns to do. The reality, of course, is a far less tidy one—a world inconveniently occupied by sweatshop labor, polluted rivers, credit default swaps, melting polar ice caps, etc. etc.—those familiar yet often sanitized casualties of the “more for less” ethos of a “post-industrial” society. But I digress.

In evaluating Daniel Bell’s claims about PIS, Webster highlights some of Bell’s oversimplifications and persistently questions the extent to which such a society represents a “novel” break from the past. Webster eventually concludes that “the growth of service occupations and associated developments highlight the continuities of the present with the past” (59, italics original). While Webster’s ambivalence toward Bell is evidenced in his characterization of the author’s best-known work as a “good bad book,” I found myself feeling much more uncomfortable with some of the pillars of post-Fordism Webster discusses in Chapter Four (35).

For one, I couldn’t help but cringe every time I read words and phrases like flexible specialization (62), jobless growth (77), outsourcing (78), competitiveness (78), and contingency workforce (81). While these attributes might be beneficial to the upper echelons of an increasingly globalized hyper-capitalistic “more for less” society, they certainly do not bode well for anyone who still has delusions of eventually landing a stable living-wage job with decent health insurance and a retirement plan. I find it difficult to imagine the average “flexible” employee—no matter how lucrative his or her short-term “projects” might be—realizing and/or sustaining the typical American Dream of, say, paying a mortgage, feeding and buying shoes for 2.5 children, and maybe even getting to take a road trip to the Grand Canyon every once in a while. But perhaps this is precisely the point. Webster characterizes post-Fordist society as one fraught with “upheaval and ephemera” and a “lack of fixity in everything that we do” (93).

Manuel Castells foresees in this “lack of fixity” the demise of the traditional working class (112). Herbert Schiller points to the vast population of those “overlooked” in the information society, namely “the poor, the disadvantaged, the nations outside Europe and North America” as a way to temper the uncritical enthusiasm of information society cheerleaders (125). Rather than functioning as a democratic public resource, Schiller voices concerns over the ways in which “information is increasingly being commodified” and thus it must “be treated like most other things within a capitalist order (143).

This conflict over the commodification of information comes to a head in Theodor Adorno and Jürgen Habermas’ observations regarding any society in which capitalism is victorious: “the autonomy of individuals is radically reduced, the capacity for critical thought is minimal, there is no real space for a public sphere in an era of transnational media conglomerates and a pervasive culture of advertising” (167). Webster makes a somewhat feeble attempt to mitigate this undeniably gloomy de facto death of the public sphere by citing the success of “public service institutions” like the BBC, public libraries, and museums and art galleries, but in addressing some of the challenges faced by these institutions he concedes “there is strong reason to concur with Habermas’ pessimism: the public sphere is being denuded by professionalized ‘opinion management’ and the partisan forces of commercialism” (198).

Regardless of the specific label ascribed to our current and/or future reality, there are some pretty serious consequences to our “information” or “post-industrial” or “post-Fordist” society. It might be that the recent financial crisis has had somewhat of a sobering effect on much of the enthusiasm over our “weightless” information society, but I still have my doubts. One only has to listen to some of the campaign rhetoric (on both sides) championing unbridled “growth” and “competition” to realize we have more or less collectively ignored the myriad critical perspectives Webster offers in Theories of the Information Society.

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