Today's date:
Summer 2006

The Third Wave’s Third Way
Networks vs. Elementary Particles

The profound consequences of the cultural revolution of the 1960s are still catching up with us decades later. Breaking free of the soft shackles of deadening bureaucratic institutions and the strangling confines of tradition has ended up leaving the liberated individual standing alone in the world, fodder for the flexible labor markets of the new economy and an easy target for the pervasive assaults of the consumer marketing machine.

In his book The Elementary Particles the French novelist Michel Houellebecq pondered how liberation, sexual and otherwise, smashed not only authority and a sense of responsibility, but love itself. In the name of throwing off oppression, the protracted revolt of the 60s’ generation as it marched through society’s institutions acted as a battering ram for the unrestrained freedom of market-mediated self-interest.

As Houellebecq sees it, by dismantling any meaningful commitment to community and others the liberatory movements of the last decades of the 20th century opened the floodgates to consumerism, allowing it to invade every aspect of life and turning all those liberated individuals into aimless atoms competing with each other for recognition through the status of what they consume. Thus the title The Elementary Particles.

Similarly, the sociologist Richard Sennett argues that the insurgency launched in the 60s’ against the alienating organizations of industrial society has not resulted in new forms of community and solidarity. Instead, he says, “the fragmenting of big institutions has left many people’s lives in a fragmented state.” With no sustaining narrative as had once been provided by stable unions, lifetime employment in large corporations or fixed global markets the middle class has been cast adrift. In the guise of flexiblity and devolution, the costs, risks and burdens of the new economy, Sennett argues, are also being shifted onto this fractured person who is increasingly responsible for his or her own employment, pensions and health care.

Alvin Toffler, the dean of futurists, offers another view. Far from stranding and dispossessing the individual, the “third wave” information revolution which unfolded with the 60s’ generation has by his lights enhanced the role of the individual as never before through the “distributed power” of networks and by radically fusing the functions of producer and consumer into the “prosumer.”

For Toffler, mass institutions of the industrial age as well as the traditional community and nuclear family will fade entirely. Instead of the geographically bounded and socially ascribed communities of the past, networks of the like-minded—individualized coalitions of the willing—will bring people together as never before. We will all be authors of our own life narrative. Whomever love, libidinal attraction or mere convenience bring together will define the new family. Though new technologies may enable companies to externalize labor onto unpaid consumers in the form of a “third job,” those same technologies also promise to delink us from the rule of monopolisitc professions, whether teachers or doctors, as we take schooling and health care into our own hands.

In Toffler’s new wealth system, we will live on customized time suited to our own personal rythyms, working and playing by our own schedule, “each according to his or her own tempo.” Creative “piece work” and projects will replace jobs and careers as we become producers of what we consume, much of the time outside the money economy. Work will move out of the factory and office back to the home.

All this is well and good, surely the next historical stage after the dissolution of mass society. However, there are some big bumps along the road from here to there. And also less cause for despair than Houellebecq suggests.

The condition for the broad emergence of individualized flexibilty has to be a backdrop of social security, including portable pensions and universal health care. Paradoxically, the experience of the successful “Scandinavian model” is that sharing the social risk that comes along with the creative-destructive dynamic of globalization is the surest way to encourage an entrepreneurial spirit. This is the “third way” of the third wave.

Despite Houellebecq’s bleak vision, elementary particles tend to seek bonds with others. If the bonds of old were conditioned by their historical level of technology and necessity, then new conditions, including global networking capacity and post-scarcity, will surely forge new convivial forms of human association. Why not? The greatest challenge will be attaining individual autonomy in a system of values driven by consumerism.

Elementary particles and fragmented selves need not be the ultimate legacy of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Hopefully, they are only the destructive moment of a creative dream yet to be fulfilled.

Nathan Gardels, editor