Gone Are the Ties That Bind: We All Live in a Cut-and-Paste World

Photo by Gerard Romans Camps | CC BY 2.0

Business is the main driver of social change in the current period, and flexibility and agility are today’s catchwords, taking precedence over continuity. The marketplace puts a premium on short term relations in business since they favor the bottom line.  Innovations in management pioneered by large companies since the end of the Second World War, underwritten by advances in information, communication, and transportation technologies, have stimulated far reaching social changes. From the factory floor and office to the board room, switching – of employees, suppliers, partners, and all other business relations – has become standard operating procedure. This development serves as a model in all aspects of life, as we switch regularly between friends, spouses, partners, communities, organizations, and national allegiances. There has always been switching, but never before has it been so pervasive, regular and dominant.

Regular use of switching reduces an organization’s commitment to its staff and diminishes the loyalty felt by the individual. The thought of being replaced is not reassuring. This kind of insecurity triggers unhealthy competition between employees and intensifies badmouthing and backbiting. There are clear advantages to be gained by management in exploiting the ability to switch seamlessly, just as there were for early factory owners in harnessing detail division of labor, but the unanticipated consequences are at least as problematic for society now as they were in late 18th century.

Life and experience have become virtual. Blaming globalization for the decline of the middle class and the loss of traditional values is counterproductive, since the real culprit is virtual organization. Globalization may be supported by virtual enterprises but is not by any means the main consequence. The essence of virtual organization is the ability to switch between different elements or ways of doing things. It is a simple idea whose effects on our lives must rank with those of the factory as catalogued by Adam Smith at the start of the Industrial Revolution. This mode of organizing activities (call it “virtuality”) weakens affective bonds between actors and thus undermines trust. Fear of being switched out of a job is not conducive to trusting the boss or a coworker. Cooperativeness and loyalty soon evaporate.

Since the commercial advent of the Internet in the early 1990s we have all gone down a rabbit hole to a new wonderland where each of us is at risk of being replaced at any moment in whatever we do, just like text in a manuscript. We live in virtual houses (switching domicile about every six years) with virtual partners (lasting an average of eight years) working at virtual jobs (for less than five years at a stretch). Conservative insistence on preserving family values comes at a time of declining importance of the family as an instrument of production. The extended family was destroyed by the industrial revolution coincident with the coming of the so-called labor force. Now the nuclear family is dissolving because this reduced unit has a diminished role in the reproduction of knowledge, and because human knowledge itself has become devalued. Economic conditions have played a critical role in the “sanctity” of marriage in the past. As these supporting conditions evaporate, so does the resolve of couples to stay together. So, we have what some observers have called serial marriage. The Internet allows people to stay in touch with each other but more significantly it widens the network of possible acquaintances, virtual friends, thus making it easy to find new partners.

Developments since the 1950s have enhanced the control exercised on individuals by external influences, and the World Wide Web in particular has made it possible for individuals to be defined by consumer and other profiles. The apparent freedom afforded by the World Wide Web is illusory. Advertisers , marketers and propagandists have harnessed the power of computers and the Internet to pigeon-hole individuals by means of collaborative filtering and related techniques. Gargantuan databases with transaction data and related material – so called “big data” – are mined as raw material to create profiles and identify subgroups in the population according to buying or voting habits for the purpose of constructing ever more effective consumer or political marketing programs. The New Individualism trumpeted by some sociologists signals little more than the ascendancy of network marketing and nuanced profiling.

The World Wide Web has allowed for the creation of communities in cyberspace of every conceivable description to suit every possible taste and interest. Participation in such virtual communities influences behavior, calling in particular for compartmentalization of activities to a greater extent than ever before. It would seem that the organization of personality best adapted to the reality of compartmentalization is a kind of adaptive schizophrenia, managing multiple personas.

Virtual organizations, with their ability to exploit competitive economic advantage such as cheap labor and low cost materials wherever they may be found,  have for some time posed a challenge to national authority, using their financial muscle to exploit loopholes in tax laws; but until recently governments have failed to react strongly to that challenge. Under pressure of shortfalls in revenue and economic duress, this state of relative passivity is coming to an end, and a struggle for dominance is being joined; but national authorities are not going to win this battle. The main centers of power are the virtual corporations and related organizations whose resources and reach are worldwide. Managers who need not curry favor with any electorate, acting in the interest of these organizations, have far more power and effective resources than national authorities. If national governments impose import duties, virtual companies can counter by building facilities in regional markets, while continuing to obtain financing from sources around the world. Trade deals are not essential for business practices that support global operations.

For individuals, a critical consequence of the practices and policies of global businesses operating as virtual organizations is the loss of continuity in employment. Limited contracts are preferred by these organizations to long term employment engagements. As a result, the sources of income and traditional benefits are much less secure than in the past. This forces people to take on more debt than they can reasonably service. New forms of indebtedness are creating an underclass tending to the position of serfs in a neo-feudal system. Mortgages, auto loans, revolving consumer credit, student loans all work to enslave individuals bullied into assuming these forms of debt.

The signs of a divide between rich and poor, powerful and weak, influential and disenfranchised, etc., are unmistakable, as shown by wealth and income gaps, serial employment, etc., as well as by polarization and extreme partisan politics in government. The middle class has been gutted, so there exists only two classes, rich and poor with gradations within each one. Survival for the poor calls for a strategy of attaching to the rich, just as the serfs of old were attached to the lord of the manor as serfs or retainers, and signals a new form of subservience. The governments of nation states fashioned in the 19th century are effectively unable or lack the will to control the movement of capital resources outside their boundaries and increasingly lack the revenue to fund adequately internal social programs. Slowly, individuals are learning not to count on government but to hitch their fortunes to the virtual enterprises that control the world’s wealth.

Economic changes in the information age pose a multifaceted challenge to the traditional family. This derives in part from the ability of information technology to replace humans in many situations. Computers have made significant inroads into the age old human monopoly on knowledge and skill. Computer programs today are used in all areas of the economy to support the production of goods and services. The skills realized by these programs run the gamut from the simple to the complex. Robots are extensively used in manufacturing, computer programs control inventory in retail trade as well as in production operations, and robots are used to perform surgery; computers diagnose illness, provide litigation support, and teach college level courses.

As human knowledge and skill are systematically replaced by computer programs, the need for human participation in the economy diminishes. The key traditional role of the nuclear family – raising the next generation – is thereby reduced in economic importance. Demographic evidence of change is given by the altered condition of marriage, suggesting weakened social cohesion in the family.

The links between economic top (aristocracy) and bottom (peasantry) may become ever more attenuated. The most telling countervailing forces take the form of opting out of the global economy. Movements encouraging self-reliance and self-sufficiency are adaptive responses to the economic roles assigned to the peasants of the new order. Virtual organizations know no loyalty to employees any more that they do to suppliers and others with whom they do business. So, most jobs (for those fortunate enough to have them) are intrinsically insecure, and individual employees must look out for themselves. The experience of erstwhile marginal groups like survivalists is becoming more common, as trust and confidence in government decline. Locally bound activities will dominate the lives of the peasant class while the aristocrats partake of a global existence. This state of affairs will lead to a form of feudalism in which only the elites have the right to individual personality.

The Internet could have served to empower individuals and enhance democracy, but what has actually happened is that powerful actors have used it to further their own selfish interests. The Internet has been hijacked by the usual suspects. The venue of greater freedom initially offered by the Internet has been replaced by a conventional marketplace dominated by hucksters peddling products and services; ideologues selling propaganda; marginal types and alternative media spreading lies and hate messages; and wannabe entrepreneurs offering porn. As with every new medium, those with power and resources are best able to make effective use of the Internet to advance their own aims. For the rest, the Internet is the modern equivalent of Imperial Rome’s bread and circuses replete with virtual gladiators.

It’s ironic that collective social action should come to the fore just after the fall of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of communism and socialism. Networking is introducing these ‘subversive’ ideas through the back door, but individual and collective effort need to be balanced. New tools and capabilities have swung the pendulum to the collective side of the scale. Material, intellectual and spiritual development may be impeded by continued drift in this direction.

The ubiquitous cell phone or personal digital assistant is the symbol of the networked society. People in invisible cocoons forever speaking with unseen presences. The here and now is abolished. Little children learn from their mothers that people and activities elsewhere are more engaging than what is near at hand. What remains of the here and now are micro observations like “I’m on the train to Grand Central” reported to remote parties. No time for self-reflection because of the insistent link to unseen presences. The link will not be denied. One answers whenever the cell phone rings, and the past is obliterated along with the here and now. The past is something we construct and reconstruct by selecting bits and pieces of memory. With the advent of new recording media for images, sound and text, a virtually complete record of events can be maintained in rewritable storage. This allows for constructing endless versions of the past, reinventing history according to various biases and ideologies. But who has time to check validity or to second guess the fact checkers, and who cares anyway, since we are all just temporarily in place pending the next cut and paste operation. It would appear that survival in the 21st century depends on our learning to love virtuality, to cultivate adaptive schizophrenia, and to accept vassalage to the new virtual enterprise robber barons.

Abbe Mowshowitz is a professor in the Department of Computer Science at the City College of New York.