Winning Big in the Information Age

“Have you heard anything along that line?” Rajaratnam asked Gupta. “Yeah,” Gupta responded. “This was a big discussion at the board meeting.” -The Associated Press, May 12, 2011

We are, unfortunately, never informed by the past either as a warning in regard to a present course of action, or as a model to which we aspire. This seems an odd thought to many in our Information Age propelled at gigabyte speed in the seemingly infinite domain of cyberspace. This seems a very alien thought, in fact. Have we not a Google search engine to which we can address all our questions and a Wiki Oracle that can answer them? And is the past – albeit your past 24 hours – not “updated” on Facebook? This seems a contrarian thought at the very moment when a Tea Party Brigade is making it crystal clear that we must make every effort to whittle and restrain our politics historically, that is, within the model of our own 1787 Constitution. Nonetheless, there is all manner of evidence to support this contrarian perversity, evidence sufficient to suggest that we, as is so often the case, conceal the absence or erosion of something we value and cherish by loudly and persistently declaiming its presence. We are rhetorically disposed to affirm the very opposite of what is the case.

Think of “Right to Work” in which workers' right to unionize is denied. Think of “Work Not Welfare,” which focuses on a choice to work when the unavailability of work is the issue. A globalized capitalist environment that has outsourced and “creatively destroyed” home industries and, therefore, work opportunities are not an issue in this brand of welfare “reform.” The problem lies with workers who choose welfare rather than work. We have here a telling example of the reversal of the true state of affairs. Think of the efforts to “reform” Medicare, Social Security, public education, copyright, the tax code, Amtrak, NPR, PBS, welfare, the military, warfare, government bureaucracy, the prison system … “Reform” in every case here means take apart, dismantle, discard what impedes or prevents profit to shareholders and privatize what can lead to profit to shareholders.

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Think of “No Child Left Behind” instituted when a widening wealth divide was already leaving middle-class children along with working-class children behind. A neoliberal politics dedicated to leaving Losers behind as a necessary consequence of “Winning” had already pre-empted the “No Child Left Behind” grandiloquence. Think of “Yes We Can!” shouted out as if we were all Oprah's audience and fully endowed with an empowering will that could override any worldly obstacle. “Yes We Can Within the Constraints of Time and Place Which at This Time Are Magnified by the Illusions of Self-Empowerment” comes closer to reality at ground level, though it is highly improbable as a T-shirt logo. We speak of “self-correcting” markets when we mean that these markets are not to be regulated, not to be corrected. We speak of a “level playing field” when all we see around us are the highs and lows of Have More Each Day, Have Less Each Day and Have Zip.

Presidential candidates whose lives display a questionable moral sense campaign on a platform of moral righteousness and expose the iniquities of their opponents. Corporate CEOs who pursue the axioms of profit expansion everywhere without national concerns or interests declare themselves guardians of the civil order, gladiators of American advancement, doers of “God's work.” The celebrity of “Celebrities” amounts to their frontal, upstage presence amid a chaos of bytes and clicks, tweets and apps. A great part of our “Information Age” is information about those whose access to us is their 'raison d'etre'. In this category, marketers precede celebrities, but in truth, both are intertwined: marketers brand products and services as luminosities we respect and love, while celebrities brand themselves in such ways that we tie our lives to them.

If, indeed, we are thriving as information increases and disseminates at digital speed, we seem more easily bamboozled by the most transparent reversals and perversions of our surround. The more we are steeped in information, the less wise we seem to be. Our pride in our cyber-verse of information, available at a click, responsive to our self-design, seems to get in the way of recognizing our own ignorance.

Thoreau directed us to “Only Simplify” and demonstrated how to do so. Perhaps his cabin was too small to accommodate the “stuff” that now is a large piece in the American Dream puzzle. Whatever. We've gone in the opposite direction, as if the reality of what Thoreau said lay in the reverse: “Only Proliferate, Produce More, Add an Addition, Balloon Your Account, Swell Your Holdings, Grow the Economy, Ascend, Surge, Upgrade, Snowball, Expand, Accelerate, Explode, Implode!” The Information Explosion is some sort of step forward, a post-industrializing, an access bridge to the New Millennium. But, once again, it's a peculiar sort of advancement, one that has led to much confusion and scant hold on enough critical acumen to see, for instance, that The Donald was always and only just an Ego strutting on the national stage; that Glenn Beck was certifiable; that Mrs. Palin and Mrs. Bachmann were clearly the “kids left behind”; that Newt Gingrich is a self-inflated device; that “Birthers” are racists; that we've messed with Mother Nature and she's angry; that tax rebates to the wealthy are lunatic in the ancien regime of present day USA; that Ronald Reagan dismembered the middle class; that George W. Bush wrought more death, misery and hardship on more people than Attila the Hun; that the 2008 Great Recession looters will never be brought to justice because worldwide looting is inextricably tied to the American enterprise, and these are, after all, our heroes.

In a way, of course, we have simplified a great deal by simply announcing that we are post-everything: post-history, post-feminist, post-racist, post-industrial, post-ideology, post-newspapers, post-book, post-literate, post-socialism, post-Kodak color film, post-checkbook, post-buggy whip, post-phone booth and phone book, post-postcard, post-vinyl LP, post-cheap gas, post-wrinkles, post-copyright, post-bone loss, post-welfare, post-family dinners. And so on. It seems to be a requirement in our Information Age that all of history must be reduced to the question about it that YOU ask, that all information must be validated as worthwhile or not if it succeeds in attracting YOUR attention and that the challenges made by others to YOUR thinking have no power to change YOUR thinking because it's THEIR thinking. In one fell swoop, the great repertoire of accumulated thought, the historical register, if you will, climaxes now in your “social” networking, your Googling, your tweeting, your blogging, your texting. And so on. The past is no more than other people's twitter and as such has no power to trump your own.

This seems absurd, but yet it explains much of what goes on in the present. Americans, especially those most in need of governmental assistance, are proud to be apolitical, or, more disastrously, join something like the Tea Party Brigade, which is marching against … those most in need of governmental assistance. We see also an increase in social incivility among the rising Millennial generation, the effects of an online “social” apprenticeship, one in which the self-design of cyberspace displaces the “material, historical and objective conditions” of “offline” life, ie, the world. There is, as Margaret Thatcher affirmed, no such thing as “society” because what that word signified now extends no further than to the boundaries of Facebook, boundaries YOU establish.

Perhaps, we have entered a “self-determining” view of information because there is such an overwhelming, never-ending increase of what cyberspace offers us. Thus, in defense, we fall back on our own predilections, incapable as we now are to sort through this mass of words and images in any critical way. The genius of Facebook is to offer more image than word, thus diminishing the need to find meaning in words. Photos make a far less conceptual demand upon us than words. It has been said that any text that exceeds a photo caption is vulnerable to a dismissive click and surfing to a more accommodating location.

Our Information Society is then a very odd sort of society, a “personal” society. And the plentitude of information has led to an overstimulation that renders us incapable of doing what we should do with information, that is, interpret and integrate it with resident understanding. We are, instead, hyper-kinetic and lack sufficient power of concentration, of sustained focus, to build an understanding, that complex layering of experience and thought which great works, not photo captions, offer us. The Attention Deficit Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder we see in the young is not disconnected from the hyper-real informational amplitude of cyberspace. Autism may be a mutation in our species that is either defensive and protective against this hyper-real or a genetic retreat into a personal space in which indeed society does not exist.

There is undoubtedly a politics to the perversity of our Information Society, the social credentials of which have been replaced with the personal such that information has severed us from our aggregate historical wisdom and replaced that with the daily updating of Facebook. Information has expanded to a point where it is not collectively retrievable because any accepted norms of interpretation have been replaced by individual, personal interpretive strategies. That retreat from common interpretation and understanding is, as I have said, defensive in the face of an ever-expanding Cyber-verse of information. This is a situation that serves the axiomatic directives of globalized techno-capitalism very nicely – in the same fashion that dividing of an opposing army is a conquering strategy. A remove from the social to the personal is a move from any collectivity, any solidarity, any union of forces, which would challenge economic directives.

Our Information Society is, then, like all the other reversed truisms that we cannot collectively deflate, bring to ground, make an end of. Our Information Society is, then, neither informed, nor a society. The benefits of deluded individuals accrue only to capitalist forces we are now, in our Information Society, so much further than ever from withstanding.

Perhaps, the reason we don't know how to educate can be traced to a drastic Millennial amendment of the late 17th century Quarrel Between the Ancients and the Moderns, or what Jonathan Swift satirized as The Battle of the Books. Globalized techno-capitalism wants information that will enable a hedge fund manager like the recently indicted Raj Rajaratnam “to win.” What opposes this looks much like a combination of the Ancients and the Moderns, a quoting of the rich legacy of history, of “the best that has been thought and said,” of “the graces and accomplishments of a higher form of life,” and so on. The idea of this sort of education remains like a vestigial, haunting presence on a stage where the only direction has become to inform oneself so as “to win.”
One wins in the way Rajaratnam defines it. The goal of the capitalist elite guard – the hedge fund – has more need of forbidden “insider” information than of any information our schools can provide. What sort of education is to be instituted to achieve capitalism's sense of “being informed,” so as to win remains arcane and illegal, or, as inexpressible and incomprehensible as all those hi-tech finance “tools” that came to light – yet remain opaque – after the 2008 Great Recession? One can become “mathematically informed” and pursue winning as a “Quant,” a rarified education, but not, per se, illegal. But even here, the goal of being informed is restricted within the boundaries of “return on investment.” This sort of information, ironically, discards as irrelevant what I have described as the processes of incremental understanding: critical thinking and interpretation not limited to capitalist goals. Our educational system will continue to be pulled in the direction of capitalist needs, while simultaneously suppressing information about the ruinous economic divide created by our unbridled capitalism – a divide that blocks effective democratization of education and replaces it with a privatized, pay-as-you-go system driven by profit.

Perhaps, the reason we are replacing society and the public sphere with the personal and the private compound can be traced to our transposition of society and what is public to a hyper-real, virtualized cyberspace. How we are informed is now contained within that hyper-real, a realm of image and representation, in which the external reference point of the “world-out-there,” The Great Outdoors, has been replaced by yet another updated representation. Instead of traveling in the world and allowing our experiences thereby to inform us, we travel by clicks or sweeping gestures of one finger and experience an already-filtered world, a world limited by the filtered “friends” we allow inside our cyber-domain. Marketers now have pre-sorted information before them, values and interests on display and prioritized, changing psychologies revealed on a daily basis. This is yet another form of information capitalism seeks in order not to educate, but to market, to exploit a literal form of “insider” information in order to maximize profits.

We are a very odd sort of “Information Society”: uninformed regarding the impending collapse of the Soviet Union; of Bernie Madoff's long-running Ponzi scheme; of the absence of WMDs in Iraq; of the willful ignorance of George W. Bush; of the science of global warming; of the consequences of a rich vs. poor society; of the effects of outsourcing on domestic manufacturing and job creation capabilities; of any remedy to transnationals avoiding taxes; of how to answer the dilemma of rule by wealth and power and the need for change; of, finally, how to inform ourselves beyond the walls of an economic system we refuse to interrogate and indict. We need to be less ignorant, but it seems clear that as long as we continue to honor ourselves as an “Information Society” without realizing that what capitalism privileges as “information” only leads to the reverse – the “Ignorant Society” – change has no engine.