When I was a student in the 1960s a popular subject of study was futurology, that is a study of how society would change in the future. It’s a subject that seems not to have lost its popularity, there was not so long ago the seminal text by Francis Fukuyama “The End of History” and more recently there is the book I have just finished reading Paul Mason’s “Post Capitalism – A Guide To Our Future”. However while enjoying reading such books I as a sceptic look for different answers, answers that will satisfy my scepticism. Such answers I find in classical Greek philosophy as I am one of those who believes that old answers are the best.
One such author who shared my views was Jonathan Swift. In one of his short stories he imagines “A Battle of the Books’. A battle in which the books in the library shelves fly off the shelves and form up into two rival armies. In one army there are the books written by the classical Greek and Roman writers and in the other the books written by Swift’s contemporaries. In a short but vicious battle the books of the classical Greek and Roman authors prove their superiority by triumphing in battle.
Aristotle provides my inspiration for this short essay. What I what to appropriate is his concept of being and give it a more modern context. Not only was Aristotle a philosopher but he was also a biologist and as such was aware of the diversity of life between and within species. He wanted to solve a simple classification problem, that is what do we mean when we speak of man or any other creature. These creatures change with age so the young creature is different from the adult and they differ markedly within each species. He wanted to know what was the chief characteristic or essence that enable one to call a man a man. How was man to be identified, what was the characteristic that gave man his identity. His answer was being, that is what was it that each individual evolved into, what was the perfection or ideal for their species. There was he believed a template for perfection into which the best of the species would evolve.
What was the essence or being of man, it seems to Aristotle it is man as the philosopher. The ideal man was one who reached that stage of intellectual maturity which enabled him to think. At the end of ‘The Ethics’ Aristotle writes briefly that the best type of life is the one spent in contemplation. The essence of man is that of a rational thinking being who spends his time contemplating the nature of their own existence. Any other type of human existence does not participate fully in the being of human nature.
To give my musings some contemporaneity, I want to consider the trend towards the 24/7 society or as the writer Negri wrote the means by which ‘society has become the factory. What he was referring to is the networked society and the ubiquity of the smart phone, which means work is no longer tied to the workplace. Once a person is in possession of a smart phone they can take their work with them. A friend of mine explained to me how when on a beach on holiday in Southern Europe, he received calls from work and carried on his consultancy work from the beach. What I am more familiar with is the individual working from the coffee shop using their laptop, tablet or smartphone. In our networked society the home can as much be the workplace as the office.
The downside of this networked society is the lack of privacy. I am reminded of a study in the 1960s of politicians who had nervous breakdowns. One cause of these breakdowns was the merging of the private and public spaces of these politicians personalities, the had lost the sense of the private. They could no longer cope because they had lost their individuality all that was functioning was their public persona, they were an empty shell or husk having lost the kernel of human individuality. What on concerns me is the very intrusiveness of the networked society and the diminishing scope for privacy. Work becomes an increasingly controlling factor in people’s lives. They are becoming less themselves and more somebody else’s person. The space in their life for personal development is becoming increasingly restricted. Their scope for achieving their potential being is increasingly limited. People are becoming increasingly ‘outer directed’ and lacking inner direction or creativity.
One commonality of the recent popular protests is their resentment of the controlling ‘big brother’, the oppressive monitoring of work and social life. Interiority is discouraged as it might conceal subversive thinking. The fear of dissent is the greatest fear of the new manager, everybody must be on message. Rather than there being a collective societal breakdown there will be increasing resistance to big brother. People will become increasingly creative in creating personal private spaces for themselves. Already it’s happening on an interpersonal level with under the screen events, when raves and music events are organised through social media, pop up events which lack legal sanction. Increasingly non big brother events will be organised, events at which individuals are free just to be. The social network will be increasingly used to create under screen events. The fog of social media messages make the control so loved of big brother impossible. Already protests have been organised through peer to peer networks; whether it be protests in East London about gentrification and the lack of affordable housing or Chinese factory workers protesting about poor pay and working conditions.
What I believe is that the organised network of ‘big brother’ is contrary to human nature. If I can modify Aristotle’s concept of being, human nature contains within it the urge to fulfil individual potential, that is to be a something. Whether it be Aristotle’s philosopher or something else this potential cannot be ‘other directed’. The monitoring of individual behaviour whether it be by the security services or employers can only provoke hostility and a counter reaction. In a relatively free society such as the UK individuals will come up with ways to subvert big brother and make their inner selves increasingly impenetrable to big brother. There is a thriving under the screen counter culture which appears to be about music and clothes, yet for anybody who is familiar with these cultures it is far more than that. Clothes and music are but the visible appearance of the new man or woman, one who has created a personality separate from that imposed by the societal big brother. When I read any literature given to me by my nephew who is a Black Metal enthusiast, I am made aware of this resistance amongst the young to an oppressive culture that wishes to deny them their individuality.
Reading this last paragraph I realise that I identify being or individuality with non-conformity. I am a serial non conformist a non joiner in, when teaching I was described by one colleague as being one of the three eccentrics, who taught in that school. My non conformity was sought in emphasising my individuality and I think my personal experience can be generalised, the good society is one that allows individuals to exercise their individuality, to develop their potential or being in ways free from the direction of society’s big brother. A society that calls itself free cannot impose big brother through the social media it will meet with resistance. Resistance to the brutalities of the industrial workplace in the early 19th century developed within small private rooms in public houses and resistance to the brutalities of the new social order, poverty pay, insecurity and poor housing will develop in those under the screen places made possible by the new social media.