Beniger on anomie and technophobia

by Sebastian Benthall

The School of Information Classics group has moved on to a new book: James Beniger’s 1986 The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society. I’m just a few chapters in but already it is a lucid and compelling account of how the societal transformations due to information technology that are announced bewilderingly every decade are an extension of a process that began in the Industrial Revolution and just has not stopped.

It’s a dense book with a lot of interesting material in it. One early section discusses Durkheim’s ideas about the division of labor and its effect on society.

In a nutshell, the argument is that with industrialization, barriers to transportation and communication break down and local markets merge into national and global markets. This induces cycles of market disruption where because producers and consumers cannot communicate directly, producers need to “trust to chance” by embracing a potentially limitless market. This creates and unregulated economy prone to crisis. This sounds a little like venture capital fueled Silicon Valley.

The consequence of greater specialization and division of labor is a greater need for communication between the specialized components of society. This is the problem of integration, and it affects both the material and the social. The specifically, the magnitude and complexity of material flows result in a sharpening division of labor. When properly integrated, the different ‘organs’ of society gain in social solidarity. But if communication between the organs is insufficient, then the result is a pathological breakdown of norms and sense of social purpose: anomie.

The state of anomie is impossible wherever solidary organs are sufficiently in contact or sufficiently prolonged. In effect, being continguous, they are quickly warned, in each circumstance, of the need which they have of one another, and, consequently, they have a lively and continuous sentiment of their mutual dependence… But, on the contrary, if some opaque environment is interposed, then only stimuli of a certain intensity can be communicated from one organ to another. Relations, being rare, are not repeated enough to be determined; each time there ensues new groping. The lines of passage taken by the streams of movement cannot deepen because the streams themselves are too intermittent. If some rules do come to constitute them, they are, however, general and vague.

An interesting question is to what extent Beniger’s thinking about the control revolution extend to today and the future. An interesting sub-question is to what extent Durkheim’s thinking is relevant today or in the future. I’ll hazard a guess that’s informed partly by Adam Elkus’s interesting thoughts about pervasive information asymmetry.

An issue of increasing significance as communication technology improves is that the bottlenecks to communication become less technological and more about our limitations as human beings to sense, process, and emit information. These cognitive limitations are being overwhelmed by the technologically enabled access to information. Meanwhile, there is a division of labor between those that do the intellectually demanding work of creating and maintaining technology and those that do the intellectually demanding work of creating and maintaining cultural artifacts. As intellectual work demands the specialization of limited cognitive resources, this results in conflicts of professional identity due to anomie.

Long story short: Anomie is why academic politics are so bad. It’s also why conferences specializing in different intellectual functions can harbor a kind of latent animosity towards each other.