Information networks and the social imaginary

Graeme Kirkpatrick, University of Manchester, UK

As the semantics of ‘information’ have become expanded, even diffuse, so the idea of ‘society’ has been in retreat. As recently as 1947, Maurice Merleau-Ponty could write, “If a man of a capitalist society looks back to its origins, he gets the impression that he is witnessing the ‘realization of society’. Throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries the social seemed to be immanent in this way: social change might be difficult and contradictory but it pointed towards greater integration, more sense in our collective lives. Perhaps the high tide of this movement was the late 1960s and early 70s, when benefits specifically thematised in social terms were regularly invoked in support of all kinds of reform proposals, from Ivan Illich’s de-schooling society to the creation of personal computers. 

What we have seen since then has been the absorption of many of these investments in the social by information technology and the socio-technical hybrid construct, ‘network’. In their study of the ‘new spirit of capitalism’, which has been in the ascendant since the 1980s, Boltanski and Chiapello show that key discourses – they focus particularly on management science – manifest a shift in focus away from co-ordinating the activities of categorized groups of people with allocated functions and onto control of people’s work through action on their “internal dispositions”. Those who organize work no longer think their activity in terms of the solution of social problems; rather, it is a matter of harnessing subjective inclinations in such a way that individuals supervise themselves and one another in choreographed performances that serve the interests of the organization. The latter is increasingly construed in quasi-natural terms of the organism and its environment, or ecological niche. 

This displacement of the social in our thinking involves a corresponding change in the way that people think the technical. No longer alien to the human, informational and networked technology is part and parcel of what we mean when we think of another person. Society here remains present in our inter-personal world orderings but in a new way. This has been construed as ‘post-human’ by Bruno Latour and others but might actually be the basis for a reformulation of the human, even for a new statement of the humanist position on history and its trajectories. This paper will attempt to think through some of the strategic openings that present themselves for such a position. How can humanist critique work in a situation where social concepts won’t bear the weight they used to and in which technology moves to the centre of the imaginary basis of collective existence?