By Daniel Smith
Last night CCCU sociology were delighted to host Professor Lord Anthony Giddens for our second Engaging Sociology event, open to students, staff and the public. The lecture was entitled ‘Off the Edge of History’ and Lord Giddens spoke about the problems, opportunities and risks facing the world in the twenty-first century. These problems included and built upon Giddens’ concerns in his published works, notably The Consequences of Modernity (Polity, 1990), Europe in the Global Age (2009) and The Politics of Climate Change (Polity, 2009), illustrating his central thesis that the social processes put in place in modernity far outstrip human control and comprehension, as well as having huge unintended consequences that betray predication or rationalisation.
‘Off the Edge of History’ focused upon the theme of living in a world where there is no precedent for calculating and controlling the risks and consequences of our major social institutions: capitalism, industrialism and military power – key examples being climate change and nuclear war. The transformation of nature and our own bodies in the past century have been seismic, such to make natural processes increasingly unnatural and to reform biological processes through technological intervention. We live now in a world beyond nature and beyond localised risks and localised opportunities. Instead Giddens argued that we live in a world of ‘high opportunity and high risk’. On the one hand we have developed supercomputers so complex that human cognition and reason is being made redundant, the excellent example provided being that supercomputers can now not only beat the world chess champion but are developing intentionality and creativity. A supercomputer is now a stand-up comedian and not only do they tell jokes but write their own: ‘I went out with a Mac but she was too self-involved. She was all ‘I-this, I-that…’’. Supercomputers now make the human redundant. Robotics and automation also are increasingly replacing not merely service labour but developments mean white-collar, professional jobs are now looking to soon be redundant, also. On the other hand, the high risks put in place by nuclear war and the scientific advancements made in the name of war, as well as global pandemics such as e-bola, are calling into question the possibility of a future for the human species. Giddens encapsulated this binary with the evocative claim that we are ‘treading the path of the Gods’ in a world where ‘immortality and apocalypse’ are equally possible and within the sight of the current population’s lifespan.
Giddens built upon this diagnosis by giving sociology four central focuses for the future: (1) the need to understand the complexity of the digital on social processes, (2) the need to re-think the Enlightenment ideal of the colonisation of the future, (3) promote a defensiveness in our thinking about risks at all levels of experience and (4) take seriously how history comes back to haunt us in different guises. Work in sociology and the social sciences is being conducted in these areas and we can name a few here as illustrations. First, the impact of the digital in social life is a burgeoning field of study, the focus being how digital processes mean that sociology’s methods and tools of analysis are increasingly moving beyond the field of academic social science and into the world of web 2.0 products and large-scale corporations (Savage & Burrows, 2007; Burrows & Gane, 2007; Beer & Burrows, 2013). People today are metricised as they leave traces in the digital world: from Waitrose club cards to pornography consumption on video-sharing sites, the large-scale comprehension of aggregate patterns of social action and processes are beyond the world of social science. People leave traces of data far beyond the standard response rate of the traditional survey and interview. Second, the inability to think of a better future or predict the future is of central concern to the social theory of the left: the future-looking Utopias of communism, anarchist communes and global solidarity are increasingly called into question in the neo-liberal world. Thinking of alternatives to capitalism is no longer seen as possible, fashionable or even desirable to many. David Graeber’s anthropology is directly concerned with these issues, a theme found in his early analysis of the generational angst in Buffy the Vampire Slayer to his formidable tome Debt: the first 5,000 years (Graeber, 1998; 2011). What is also central to this lost ideal of colonising the future is the gradual falling away of morality and ethics in the neo-liberal world of calculation and accounting procedures: whether it be Laurence Wilde’s Global Solidarity (2013) which promotes a humanistic, virtue ethics of sympathy of feeling towards fellow people, or the Skidelsky’s aristocratic ‘good life’ promoted in How Much is Enough (2012), sociology needs to rediscover ethics, morality and traditions in a world of such high-scale risk. This follows onto the third concern for defensive thinking, the need to reassess and rethink all area of social experience. Fourth and final, the haunting of history clearly finds itself so excellently expressed in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the twenty-first century (2014) where we are given excellent visualisation of the ways in which capital accumulated in the past devours the present returns on income. A world of economic inequality reminiscent of the 18th century still haunts a society where immortality and annihilation are possible.
In short, we need to rethink a lot of things in social science and with his classic ability to draw together all these strands of concern and give them systematic coherence, Giddens helped situate these problems in a digestible and entertaining hour lecture. So what does the future hold for us? ‘Don’t know…’ says Giddens.
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Burrows, Roger & Beer, David (2013), ‘Popular culture, digital archives and the social life of data’, Theory, Culture and Society, 30(4):47-71.
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Greaber, David (2011), Debt: the first 5,000 years, (London: Melville)
Piketty, Thomas (2014), Capital in the twenty-first century, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press)
Skidelsky, Robert & Skidelsky, Edward (2012), How much in enough? Money and the good life, (London: Penguin)
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