Another Age

I have just finishing reading the posthumously published lectures of British Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm who died October 2012. Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century (Little, Brown: 2013) is a good example of never judging a book by its cover, the top half of which consists of an indecipherable abstract and the bottom half a picture of Marilyn Monroe who never gets a mention in the book. It’s also a good example of the disconnect between the world of publishing (marketing) and the world of serious social analysis (academic). It fits rather well with the major theme of the book, that the latter (high theory, high art, high culture of any kind) cannot easily survive the onslaught of the Internet-enabled Age of instant consumption of passing fads and fancies.

No, this isn’t the grumblings of an old fart who cannot use a computer. It is an insight of significance by a scholar who was erudite to the very end. The perspective is as follows (forgive the instance consumption implied!). Up to 1914 the period of bourgeois society created High Culture, typically opera and operatic houses, fine art paintings and drawings, classical music, ballet, the Victorian novel, etc. For the masses there were music halls, gin palaces and penny papers. The War ended this era and replaced it with mass production, mass consumption, mass communications, etc. (Radio, movies, TV, comprehensive education for the masses and, from the 1960s onwards, university education and much more). The technological basis for all this was reproducibility. Reproducible arts, such as music, film, photography, books, all thrived. Non-reproducible art like opera, ballet, and fine arts died. Today no-one really “does them” any longer. This was a linear society (not a term Hobsbawn uses), top down, uniform and efficient. No longer so.

The Internet era is typically non-linear. Production and consumption are fragmented, segmented, eclectically thrown together. The traditional assessments of what’s good and not good pretty much go out the window. Even if something is “bad art” like most pop music, which is largely electronically synthesized, it is “good” or at least “successful” insofar as “art” reflects society as it is. Andy Warhol’s cynical representational “art” (Campbell’s Soup) captures it perfectly. This is an anything goes society. Oddly, nowhere does Hobsbawn refer to the post-modernist school, which made a name for itself precisely as a critique of these trends in arts and culture of society. I suspect within the Left, the Old Left and the New Left still don’t mix that well.

Let’s take one example, not one that Hobsbawm gives. Higher education is today globally available over the Internet. Young people in India or Rwanda can take courses from Harvard or wherever but they do not get accredited for it. No way to operate quality control. In the pre-Internet society that was a problem. Employers wanted well educated all-rounded graduates who were capable of applying their learning skills, if not their precise knowledge-set. Employers wanted this because they were investing in staff long term. Not so today. There is no such thing as job security. Employers are happy to give someone a chance if they say they have acquired the knowledge from the Internet. 2 months’ probation of on-the-job training will expose any problems. No need for graduates, although those with a degree may still be preferred as check-out assistants in supermarkets or call-centre staff. Their education comes free to the employer, no salary to match their academic qualifications for as such they have none, and their tenure is completely uncertain. The jobs are here today and gone tomorrow, and so often are the employers. The knock-back on traditional higher education remains to be seen, but it will be disruptive that’s for sure. What was that Marx said about “all that is solid melts into air”? We can no longer ask Eric Hobsbawm, but we can go back to the Communist Manifesto. Being a short book it is very reproducible on the Internet.

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