In 1994, an earnest but prescient manifesto entitled “Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age,” heralded the arrival of the “Knowledge Age.”
On the one hand, it offered a (basically correctly) warning of new difficulties to be found in the emerging information society (e.g. who controls intellectual property, how privacy can be protected, how misinformation will become disseminated).
But it also gushed how the new networked society would emancipate us from the industrial capitalism of the past. Knowledge Age periodizes post-industrial society, the end of major industrial capitalism in the West. The emergent economy pivots around the new knowledge sector, industries of new media, information and communication technologies, rather than physical commodities. In its poetic moments, the manifesto proclaimed our human elevation above the burdensome material and natural world: “The powers of mind are everywhere ascendant over the brute force of things.”
Almost twenty years later – an eon in the evolution of computer technology – the effects of this transformation are starkly manifest and evermore transformative. Social relations, rituals and etiquette are being redrawn by social media and online networks, for example. And an elite class of knowledge workers has become the new industrial labourers.
Yet the significant characteristic of the Knowledge Age is surely not that humanity has been released from the material burdens of industrial capitalism. The burdens were merely traveled to countries with cheaper, less-protected labour markets. And through the deep-pocketed efforts of globalization fanatics those burdens landed with all of the incumbent nasty, material problems (environmental pollution, legalized labour abuses, deadly factory fires). Even within the tech sector, the examples are easy to recall: suicides by employees at Apple’s Foxconn manufacturing plant near Hong Kong, or the ecological devastation of excavating for rare earths needed for iPhone hardware.
In the West, digital technology created a new economy as a bubble. It’s an economy marked by heavy subsidies, and an expanding array of problems, needs and desires spun out as commercial opportunities. But the the demands of technology on the knowledge worker has brought on regressive trends with material consequences.
Anyone in the knowledge sector (I include myself) can attest that information may not exert, but clearly induces a brute force upon things. I think it’s accurate to say the classic problem of alienated labour in capitalist society has been joined by an equally troubling problem of the alienated mind. Alienating the mind by subjugating its creative powers to commerce forms the employment standards of our present age – though without the hard-won benefits, job security and livable income of classic unionized labour. We now work on different machines – not ones that produce and move products, but control and manipulate data, and ultimately people.
We need a manifesto on how we can get out of this mess.