Network Society and the Futures of Modernity

I just spent the day at the Futures of Modernity Symposium in Munich, held in honor of Ulrich Beck, the grand sociologist and author of Risk Society (1992). The idea of the event was:

Throughout the world, contemporary societies are facing the challenges posed by a set of heterogeneous phenomena of social change which are not only placing existing convictions and interpretations in question, but are already creating new and multiple realities that escape the established categories of thought. The emerging outlines of a Cosmopolitan World Risk Society cannot be grasped in terms yesterday’s sociology which takes its orientation from industrial society in the nation-state and from the exclusiveness of European (i.e. Western) modernity. Nevertheless, the multitude of social phenomena which point to epochal transitions towards a new future open up novel horizons of critical analysis and discussion and pose a range of pressing questions that must be addressed today if we are to be ready for the challenges of tomorrow.

It was a great event, however, I was shocked that nobody spoke about the emancipatory potential or the totalitarian dangers of new forms of technologically mediated ideation, deliberation, and collaboration. New forms of collective action such as peer production, crowd-sourcing, and networked governance were completely ignored, as if all that had happened recently was the 40th anniversary of the landing on the moon and the 20th of the fall of the Berlin Wall. What about Twitter, the opening of the Facebook stream APIs, or the Open Government Initiative? :)

Ulrich Beck’s main thesis is that we live in a second modernity. Modernity for Beck is the move to instrumental rationality (ends-means rationality) as the main mode of thinking. This means during modernity (roughly 17th to the end of the 20th century) the aim was to control nature and human institutions to reduce risks to our societies.

Second modernity develops when we realize that we cannot control all risks because the complexity of institutions we created to control risks, states, the financial markets, insurance companies, nuclear energy, or genetic engineering, themselves create new uncontrollable and global risks.

Beck states that in second modernity we have left modernity, but cannot go back to premodern forms: all flavors of fundamentalisms (Christian, Islamic, or other) are modern responses to the challenges of our age not premodern uprisings. He also warns that post-modernity neither gives substantive answers to the challenges that risks confront us with, nor to the inequalities of our worlds. This means we are effectively living in a Gramscian interregnum.

This framework of risk society allows us to describe all types of phenomena from the injustice of the subcontracting in the global supply chain to the risk propensity of Wall Street bankers that show no remorse about their actions, explaing responsibility away by calling it “systemic failure.” Because these human manufactured uncertainties are of planetary nature, Beck calls for cosmopolitan Realpolitik as a response to the challenges of second modernity. He asks, how can national states re-conquer a state-political meta power vis-à-vis those economic actors – in order to force a cosmopolitical regime upon world-political capital that includes political freedom, global justice, social security, and ecological sustainability?

And here is where I would want to disagree. It is not by re-awakening early modern zombies that will save the planet.

The emancipatory power of concepts like radical transparency, open collaboration, and network governance stems from an emerging new paradigm in social theory. Unfortunately, at this point there is no enough political philosophy or social theory discussion on this important topic, which will probably shape human societies for the next 300 years.

Clearly, it is time to collaborate on this “beyond modern” planetary political theory and public policy project!

About Philipp

Philipp Müller works in the IT industry and is academic dean of the SMBS. Author of "". Proud father of three amazing children. The views expressed in this blog are his own.

24. July 2009 by Philipp
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