”The Internet is the biggest thing that has happened to mankind since the printing press,” I have repeated innumerable times at various speaking engagements in Brussels, when I was a member of the European Parliament 2009-2014 for the Pirate Party. This was and is one of the cornerstones of pirate movement’s political ideology.
Cyber philosophers Alexander Bard and Jan Söderqvist say the same thing in their new book Syntheism– Creating God in the Internet Age, and put the observation in its information historical context. The list four information technological advances that each fundamentally changed both society itself and the dominating metaphysical world view. These technological advances are:
- Spoken Language
- Written Language
- The Printing Press
- The Internet
Since information technology is the most important tool for power that there is, it makes sense to use it to divide human history into ages, Bard & Söderqvist argue. And it makes more sense than ever right now, when we are entering the information age. They write: [p. 69]
Forget the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age and the other mythological constructions of industrialism, produced for precisely the purpose of writing history so that it culminates in the smoking factories of industrialism. Let us instead regard all societies in all forms and stages of development as various kinds of information societies, and let us view history as a story of the battle for power over the means of communication. Because whoever controls the channels for communicating truth and ideas can also be said to own and dictate the truth and the ideas.
Completely forgetting the division of history into stone age, bronze age etc., as Bard & Söderqvist suggest, is perhaps going a bit too far. Presumably, it is a relevant division from a practical archaeological point of view, if nothing else.
But it is true that the focus on the tools for physical production rather sneakily introduces a mindset where history becomes a tale of how mankind conquered and tamed nature with ever more sophisticated tools, and where the one who controls the most advanced tools, the capitalist and factory owner, sits rightfully at the top of the pyramid. Nobody is suggesting that there was a conscious conspiracy among the philosophers that gave us the world view that dominates us today. But we can take note of the fact that this is a world view that is very much in line with the interests of the people who are the most powerful in today’s society.
An information historical perspective is likely to give us a better understanding of societies at different stages, and the philosophical paradigms associated with each of the information historical milestones. Each of the previous milestones in the history of information technology — spoken language, writing, and the printing press — led to new types of societies, based on new philosophical paradigms. We have every reason to believe that the Internet will lead to the same kind of changes to our society. This makes it interesting to look at the philosophical paradigms that emerged from each of the previous information historical turning points.
Spoken Language — Tribal Societies — Primitivism
Bard & Söderqvist write: [p. 74]
Primitivism is the first paradigm; it is based on the revolutionary emergence of spoken language and is characterized by nomadism, hunting, fishing, and gathering. Primitivist metaphysics is based on reverence for one’s ancestors and respect for the tribe’s oldest members, since these are the collective’s most reliable and resource-rich knowledge bank, and thus also the key to survival, the engine of primitivist metaphysics. The narrative of nomadism revolves around the concept of history as circular, with the regular return of the seasons as the dominant symbol. Existence in not linear, has no direction, time instead runs in recurring cycles; there is no development, everything is instead repeated ad infinitum. To be a human being is to be a member of a tribe, and within the limits of the tribe’s structures, to take responsibility for ensuring that this perpetual repetition is maintained. Strangers constitute competitors for the tribe’s resources, wherefore one either flees from them or beats them to death when one happens upon them. The human being that does not belong to the tribe is therefore not a human being at all, but an animal that can basically be treated as nonchalantly or as brutally as one pleases.
This way of viewing other people is not something we would want back. It is rampant xenophobia taken to the extreme. One of the big problems of our world today is that the primitivist pattern of xenophobia is still so strong, and so easy for individuals and communities to fall into.
But other aspects of primitivism can serve as an inspiration in our times. Primitivism is also associated with a holistic view of nature and our place in it. Nature is seen as something that we as humans are part of, rather than an external object to be exploited at will. Primitive religions usually stress how all living things are connected to the same web, including us humans. This is a perspective that many people today feel attracted to, as a potential improvement compared to our current society’s mechanistic and objectified view of nature.
Syntheism picks up and makes use of paganism’s community-building properties and its pantheistic search for an existentially trancendental experience.
Writing — Feudal Civilizations — Feudalism and Monotheism
Feudalism is the second paradigm, based on the appearance of written language, Bard & Söderqvist continue. With the invention of writing, agricultural local societies could turn themselves into large agricultural feudal empires. Writing was a truly revolutionary technology.
The human brain has clear and present limitations on how much it can remember and retell. Writing allowed us to transcend these limitations. With writing you can share more complex thoughts with more people at a lower cost. You can create more complex structures that involve more individuals. The amount of information that can be stored is no longer limited to what an individual can recall. Writing made it possible to copy and share information like never before. Written orders could be sent from the capital and be expected to arrive intact in the provinces, where they could be implemented as directed. The technology of writing turned out to be a powerful tool for both bookkeeping and propaganda, making it possible to create and control great empires.
The most prominent product of the feudal philosophical paradigm is the law, Bard & Söderqvist write. With the arrival of the law as an almost magical cornerstone of the world view, a metaphysical system develops where all forms of social mobility are seen as an anarchist threat to society, a threat that has to be fought. In the feudal society, stability and obedience is everything, with no room for openness or questioning the prevailing social order. The state is portrayed as the creator and guardian of the holy law, and all the good values it is claimed to represent, in the same way as the monotheistic religion preaches that God is the creator and guardian of existence as a whole. Monotheism becomes the perfection of the feudal paradigm, with its hierarchical society built on eternal laws.
Bard & Söderqvist write: [p77]
What is brilliant about the law is that it is based on a clear representation of the divine. Although it pays homage to God — to pay homage to someone who anyway never interferes costs nothing, and it is therefore the oldest metaphysical trick in the book — but what is important is not to whom the law pays homage, but that it is based on something physically absent so that, with the homage as camouflage, it can furtively hand over the actual power to the (self-appointed) representative of the object of homage. The monarch who is present therefore becomes the representative on Earth of the absent god (with ancient Egypt’s pharaoh as the most flagrant example). To obey the monarch is thus in practice to obey God, which must be seen as a powerful incentive. Power thereby ends up with the monarch and his allies, the landed aristocracy and their common truth producer, the monotheist religion. The feudal paradigm’s power triangle is thus complete. The monarch, the aristocrat, and the High Priest can sit down to an expensive and well-prepared dinner in peace and quiet together, and in complete understanding share the power and the glory between themselves.
The Printing Press — The Industrial Society — Individualism and Capitalism
When Johannes Gutenberg managed to put together the first efficient moveable type printing press around 1439, it was an invention that in just a few centuries would transform the world like none before it. In just a few decades, the technology of the printing press spread like wildfire over medieval Europe. This lead first to the renaissance, with its rediscovery of the ancient Greek and Roman cultures, and then to the enlightenment, when philosophers develop a new metaphysical paradigm for the industrial and capitalist era.
The philosophers of the enlightenment remove God as the unifying metaphysical concept. Deism downgrades God to someone who exists, but does not intervene in the functioning of the natural world in any way, and can therefore be ignored for all practical purposes. Atheism takes this idea to its logical conclusion, and eliminates God altogether. Instead, focus shifts to the individual as the existential atom and cornerstone of the world view. This leads to the capitalist paradigm, where the purpose of being a human is to one day build a factory filled with obedient workers, and where nature is seen as an external object to be exploited by any individual that can.
Bard & Söderqvist write: [p. 82]
According to the information technology writing of history, the capitalist and industrialist paradigm was enabled by the arrival of the printing press in the mid-15th century. The publication of books and newspapers in Europe gradually increases and at an ever-increasing pace, an increasing number of readers entail an increasing number of authors, and vice versa. From the 17th century onwards the banknote presses also start running. The new paradigm becomes widely accepted during the 18th century, which is clearly manifested by the French Revolution, for example, which was initiated with the storming of the Bastille in 1789. The streets of Paris filled with the burgeoning bourgeois class, which was united in its newly-acquired literacy, its books, newspapers and banknote presses, and in its hated of the old feudal paradigm’s aristocratic superiority. An entirely new power structure — consisting of the politicians, the bourgeoisie, and the universities — emerged and took over, while the old power troika — consisting of the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the Church — was caught off guard to the extent that it never succeeded in recovering again. The social conditions that brought the old troika to power quite simply no longer prevailed, and consequently monarchy, aristocracy, and Church were reduced to museum exhibits: curiosities from a nostalgically glowing past, robbed of all power and all influence and relegated to a growing capitalist tourist industry, which exploits them with considerable success.
But for all its successes and achievements in the last centuries, Bard & Söderqvist do not see the capitalist paradigm as sustainable: [p. 87]
With the march of capitalism across the world, there also followed the markedly superstitious belief in the invisible hand as an eternal guarantor of never-ending growth. Exactly how naive this notion really is has now dawned on thinking people across the world as the crisis-ridden nation states, one after another, drift away towards the precipice while impotent politicians and bureaucrats sit in fruitless meetings dreaming of a dramatic increase in growth that never eventuates. The Western welfare state, which is based on precisely such institutionalised wishful thinking about strong and continuous growth, is looking more and more like a cynical pyramid scheme. Future generations are welcomed with gigantic debts and badly eroded benefits. Not to mention the escalating environmental problems that arise as a result of capitalism’s intemperate, ruthless exploitation of the planet.
The Internet — The Information Society — What?
So if capitalism and individualism are not sustainable any more, and a new milestone in information technology has brought us to the brink of yet another paradigm shift anyway, what’s it going to be then?