Thinking Beyond Continuity

Author: Nick Couldry, London School of Economics
June 2018

When I was an undergraduate, we used to make fun of boring history articles with titles such as ‘change and continuity in XYZ’. Certainly ‘change and continuity’ makes for a rather lame title (apologies to anyone who has had to resort to it). It was the ‘continuity’ part that we particularly objected to: who after all, we felt, would want to study continuity?

But when much later I became a doctoral researcher, and in spite of my predisposition to study urgent change, I realised that insisting on the need to grasp underlying continues could be disruptive. When everyone in the mid 1990s was saying that the emerging internet (briefly then called ‘cyberspace’) would disrupt our relations to our bodies (briefly then called ‘meat’),i it was invigorating to assert that we were going to keep our bodies and that the matrix of habits around the institution of television was not going to suddenly disappear. Both those predictions have proved correct, defeating the well-fuelled hype of1990s academic fashion. The crash of the dot-com boom may have played a part in this demise, but more likely the sheer force of grounded reality.

Today among scholars I sense a very reasonable instinct to resist claims of sudden and drastic change in the field of communications, and economic and social life generally. Yes, there were precedents for social networking sites in earlier periods of history (how after all could something like sociality and networking be invented anyway?), and for much else in the era of Big Data besides.

But I am increasingly convinced that now the world is entering a period of epochal transformation that requires a different frame of analysis. This transformation does make earlier analytic skills irrelevant in the wake of, say, coding, network analysis, and a grasp of platform dynamics: believing so is just the latest version of the familiar hype of technology’s disruptive effects. But it does suggest new questions about what sort of social order is now emerging, what forms of radical politics are needed to address it, and what new elements of ethical living are now required.

It was in March 2015, as Andreas Hepp and I were half way through writing our book on The Mediated Construction of Reality that I suddenly realised, for all the theoretical niceties and novelties we were working on, the underlying trend that drove all the detail was
alarmingly simple. That we are already well advanced in an era when the largest goal of corporate capitalism is not just the making of profit and the exploitation of resources in general, but the construction of a social reality that is optimally configured so as to generate profit.

In formulating this idea, I realised that I was probably rather late to grasp this. Writers like Mark Andrejevic had been pointing urgently in this direction since his 2007 book iSpy and his second major book on the topic had also come out (Infoglut 2013). By then I was already working in detail on the relation between data processing and social order. But it wasn’t until March 2015 that for me at least the overall issue came fully into view. I tried this line out in a talk at Helsinki university and the audience seemed to like it, which was nice, but I realised that something had shifted in my intellectual baggage, a shift that would have consequences for me at least long after that speech was forgotten. I realised that I wanted to focus all or most of my energies on confronting this issue, as a genuinely new challenge for social theory and communications research. Subsequent years, climaxing with the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal in March 2018 have only confirmed the insight, or so it would appear.

But when, as I often do, I share this ‘insight’ – hardly, as I said, my own insight – with other audiences, I often get the reaction that this is something that was already grasped long before Cambridge Analytica, or even Facebook, were conceived. Didn’t Gilles Deleuze predict the ‘control society’ when power would be so supple as to fit the human body like a well-fitting mould? Didn’t the autonomists declare the emergence of the ‘social factory’ in which capitalism dominates the whole of social life? And of course, this is correct, those major thinkers did make those predictions.

But it is one thing to sense a direction of change and gesture towards it, and quite another to analyse it at work in detail, through precise and interlinked mechanisms, that have the banality of everyday routine and acceptance. And it is one thing to point to the unshaped future and describe it in general terms, and quite another to explain how particular discourses and practices today enact that description, and through tools that have been theoretically explained and unpacked.

My sense is that neither Deleuze nor the autonomists predicted the ways in which capitalism is now embedded in the social order.ii A gesture pointing at the future is not an analysis. And the mechanisms that have emerged were not predicted. There was no way, more than a decade ago, of predicting the extraordinary web of linkages between multiple everyday habits and the everyday collection, processing and storage of data. No one predicted a world where advertisers would talk of the ability, through chips or other embedded devices of being able to sense when a body is thirsty and send it a well-targeted ad for discounted water from a nearby retail outlet within seconds, and yet where this dream provokes often not horror, but acceptance, even welcome.

The actual form that earlier dreams of a capitalist take over of social life would take, when enacted, throws up new questions that were not implicit in those dream-like formulations. Questions which for me are urgent today for older and younger researchers alike, in the Brestolon network and everywhere else where a serious attempt is made to keep critical research alive, under precisely these conditions of corporatization:

Let me list some of the questions which seem to me most urgent, as they point to possible futures that need to be resisted, indeed their very possibility challenged and rejected:

  • Does today’s data-driven grid of convenience in highly ‘connected’ societies, when considered overall, create conditions of life which are well oriented to satisfying human needs, or rather life conditions in which important needs will become more difficult to sustain, such as mutual recognition, respect, security, and above all freedom?
  • Whatever the benefits or risks of that new grid of convenience, how does power work differently in this connected world, and who are the beneficiaries, and who are the losers of that shift?
  • What are the implications of that power shift, aside form its details, for the very idea of government, including democratic government?
  • As an aspect of the last question, how are the relations between corporations and governments (between private and public interests) changed in the new forms of governance/government that are emerging?
  • Do these potential new changes in order, power, and governance require new normative frameworks beyond liberalism and whatever other political norms we have inherited, and if so, where can we turn for starting-points in formulating them?
  • If an era of normative innovation is under way, is it possible that communications and social theory are at the centre of this impetus of innovation, rather than at the margins?
  • And if our work in communications is more central than we might have expected to reinventing the critical edge of social science, what responsibilities does that place on us to communicate directly and effectively to wider audiences beyond our academic allies?

These are some of the thoughts that the title ‘Possible Futures, Impossible Futures’ prompts in me. I am really looking forward to the debate that the Brestolon call provokes.


Notes:

i For a terrific early essay see Kevin Robins, ‘Cyberspace and the World We Live in’ in Mike Featherstone and Roger Burrows (eds.) Cyberspace/ Cyberbodies/ Cyberpunk, London: Sage (1995), pp. 135-156.

ii This is an argument that I will elaborate in the book I am currently writing with Ulises Mejias: Colonized by Data: the Capitalization of Life without Limit. See https://colonizedbydata.com/

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