Credit: Graeae Theatre Company and Prometheus Awakes Rehearsals.
25 years ago Stuart Hall and others, with remarkable prescience, published “A Manifesto for New Times” in Marxism Today. In it they described a post-Fordist age, in which workers and their bosses were moving away from a production line mentality and entering a time of greater freedom of expression, but at a cost to our ability to control markets and our place in them. When the Berlin Wall came down later that year, big business celebrated.
At the same time, on the other side of the Channel, Tim Berners-Lee was laying down the first protocols for the world wide web. Neither Stuart Hall nor Gorbachev could have anticipated how the liberation symbolised by German reunification would combine with new technologies to change our world.
Today the internet is the great mediator of our lives, carrying not only practical information through traditional vertical structures - editing who should and should not see what is relayed - but the most highly personal and social information through horizontal structures of friends and peers. We now live through infinitely complex virtual networks, barely able to trace where our information is coming from or going to.
Is this a good thing? Traditional media tends to focus on our increased vulnerability: the possibility of isolation caused by too much screen time, the easy exposure to porn, gambling and other peoples’ bad behaviour on Youtube. Many on the political left emphasise increasing surveillance of our personal lives by both government and business, arguing that this is a clamping down on our freedom.
Add the success of IS in seizing the global news agenda by posting short horror films online and you can understand why people feel overwhelmed rather than empowered by the internet.
But Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell’s invaluable work on what we need to survive gives us plenty of clues about why we have been such such willing partners to technological advances. They help us get our needs met.
Apart from more obvious physical needs, like food and protection, Griffin and Tyrrell describe the emotional needs that contribute to good mental health, listing them as follows:
• Security — safe territory and an environment which allows us to develop fully
• Attention (to give and receive it) — a form of nutrition
• Sense of autonomy and control — having volition to make responsible choices
• Emotional intimacy — to know that at least one other person accepts us totally for who we are
• Feeling part of a wider community
• Privacy — opportunity to reflect and consolidate experience
• Sense of status within social groupings
• Sense of competence and achievement
• Meaning and purpose — which come from being stretched in what we do and think (Human Givens Institute)
If positive mental health depends upon meeting these needs, then it’s not hard to see why depression, as the most common form of mental illness, has become the most prevalent disability in our society. A work dominated culture marginalises many of these important requirements, particularly for those in badly paid, long hours employment, or unemployment.
Is it any wonder that people would reach out for the latest must have object to give them status, or fall under the spell of media scaremongering in their quest for security?
So in what way are these New Times? Despite our mainstream media’s fear of online culture, being able to transmit and receive on so many different levels to such a variety of audiences may be rewiring us for better emotional health. Contrast the many ways that a neoliberal capitalist society has conspired to shrink our interactions to measurable, monetised transactions, to the way the internet has enabled the open and imaginative exchange of both practical and emotional information.
How much easier is it today, to get instant hits of status, meaning, connection, community - even intimacy, via Skype or Facetime - by posting and responding on line? Yes, many will be short lived, but the possibilities arising from them may not be. Joining a social enterprise or hobby driven sites for example lead directly to new networks of activity. But even commentary or friendship sites create ongoing value. It’s easy to deride the weak ties of friends on Facebook, for example, yet this is social capital which can be accumulated over years, supporting us as we go through life.
Getting easy responses to projects, strongly held opinions, birthdays makes for a community life of the mind where possibly none exist in the neighbourhood. Even if, at the outset, the internet serves only to amplify the status quo: as Katherine Thorson rightly argues, it offers a training ground. A person of low self-esteem for example, may well reflect their anxiety in their posts and get like responses at first. But it helps awaken their inner observer: we become concious of our behaviour and impact, and can develop our personas at arm's length.
Of course, it is not a simple switch from one culture to another, but a gradual development, a period of transformation. And its significance lies not only in how we change our behaviour to get our needs met, but in how that scales up to give us connections and agency on a much bigger scale.
We can now instantaneously reach a million people with an image, a message or an offer. And they can reach us. The Arab Spring was not simply a distant uprising, it was a direct encounter online, led by people seeking freedom from oppression – and those in other countries could demonstrate their solidarity. Through platforms like Avaaz or 38 degrees we can register our opinions by a click of the mouse. If we see a gap in governance, we can begin a social enterprise, crowdsource funds and find our constituency fast.
The corollary is that collaboration of all kinds becomes more than an institutional or corporate strategy, but something closer to holding hands across time and space. Scattered artists can record albums without the expense of travel and hiring studios; scientists can instant message each other with real-time breakthroughs; Occupy was able to co-ordinate an uprising in 951 cities without a rule book. Of course, face to face meetings bring irreplaceable rewards of their own: but if they are restricted by time-allocations and protocols, can be less of an exchange than these virtual, open ended exchanges for free.
Perhaps the most important of these revolutionary liberations, has been the freedom to mediate our own news. While we are still restricted in our access to global, national and even local events, we can now speak directly to power, whether elites or masses, with a tweet, email, blog, video, podcast or all at once. We frame our own stories and craft our own agendas, with less formality, more humour and often - depending on your community of interest - with more emotion, care and compassion than is available in the more abstract rhetoric of party politics. The sterile, disconnected language of politics, built on age old, barely questioned narratives about work, jobs and economic growth increasingly take second place to the running commentary online.
Even as technology evokes a cold connection, empty of human interaction, it is giving rise to a new world of relationships, both real and virtual. Through the networks we now live in we can feel each other’s presence as never before. Increasingly, we are able to rehearse what the left has always referred to as ‘the good society’ - one that facilitates the fulfilment of human potential for the benefit of all. This could be a moment in which the forces of optimism, hope, compassion, love and humanity triumph.
Is it unreasonable them, to expect that broader change will follow? Given the playful nature of net-life, it is much easier today to find communities willing to experiment with new social and political structures that will undermine the old establishment. Witness the flowering of new political behaviours and formats during the Obama campaign, the Scottish Independence referendum and most recently Podemos in Greece - all signs of more confident, grass roots politics.
The real worry is not that people will over-invest in the possibilities of these New Times, but that they will under-invest and miss out on this very potent moment of opportunity.
Indra Adnan and Neal Lawson have recently published New Times: how a politics of network and relationship can deliver a Good Society on www.compassonline.org.uk.