As Speed Increases So Must Our Trust II: Unexpected Next Step, Research Time, 09/12/2014

As I thought about the basic idea that lay behind yesterday’s post, I had an intriguing idea. It was an answer to Paul Virilio’s critique of the accelerating speed at which information and material in modern human society moves. Remember that Virilio’s analysis is based on the notion that as communications and materials move faster and faster in a society, the more militarized that society becomes. Or at least, the more vulnerable to militarization the society becomes.

Virilio himself isn’t quite so hesitant as I am, but that’s because of a fundamental difference between he and I on the human capacity to adapt to high speeds. In this sense, for all his association with radical left politics, I find Virilio a conservative figure. He has little faith in humanity's ability to change with its changing world. In so many aspects of our existence, I consider humanity an immensely changeable and adaptable species. 

A foundational psychosis of our modern sensibility is the
simultaneous fear of mechanization and breathless
anticipation to become a machine.
The danger of accelerating speed in human life is that humanity’s control of itself will be overwhelmed. The prophets and theorists of totalitarian politics and life envisioned humanity as constantly accelerating (as in the propulsive image of the car on an empty highway for Marinetti) and embracing a mechanization that renders individuality superfluous until it disappears (as in Jünger’s nightmares of the First World War). 

Organic existence requires, in this perspective, slowing down and thinking. Only in slowness can we hope to take control of our existence, of the processes that determine how we live. In a slow-moving communications environment, possible knowledge accumulates at a speed that allows a single person to get on top of the details of every intellectual and political event and development. This is the myth of the early modern polymath, the idealization of men like Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton. 

When we are able to move slowly, we can take self-conscious control of every aspect of human life and politics. Comprehensive knowledge frees us because it empowers us to act as an expert in every domain of human life. Such slowness finds itself deluged in the propulsion of contemporary communication and material flows.

My first critique of this idea is that I don’t think such totally comprehensive knowledge was ever possible on an individual scale. Even if human society was ever so simple that one person could ever plausibly understand everything that was going on with any genuine comprehensiveness, the physical world around us was always more complicated than this. One aspect of this simpler, slower world that is too often romanticized is that everyone was incredibly ignorant about almost all of existence. Our knowledge has exploded beyond the scale where any one person can be a true master of everything, but it’s become more comprehensive as a whole of the world itself.

Here’s what all this has to do with the Romney-Obama campaign story I told yesterday. When an individual or a small group attempts total control of all of a complex field of action, their knowledge to control it is inevitably inadequate. The top Romney campaign brass would not let anyone else communicate without their knowledge, and they could not build their knowledge and understanding with the speed required for adequate response in our fast digital media environment.

The key factor was trust, enabled by the democratization of knowledge. Every member of the Obama digital media team was included in the intimate knowledge of the key messages and public images that the campaign developed. Having been welcomed into that knowledge, they were empowered to enact that knowledge in their communication. They knew the organization’s goal, and they already had the expertise in action to push that goal forward in their own venues. They could do so because no one at the top expected to have total control over every act of communication.

The lesson for our politics is this. We need not be afraid of a world of accelerated media and material flows. The fear lies in the inability of any one individual to master knowledge of every phenomenon as it changed. But a group can achieve what is beyond the means of an individual. A team working together to combine their specialties is more powerful than even a superman. Knowledge and trust binds those teams together, just as it binds together communities and societies.

Here is a key lesson underlying the anarchism — sorry, network politics — in my own political ideals. Our greatest enemies, the most fundamental forces of destruction in our world, are willful ignorance and fearful paranoia. Practical action in the world must be based on knowledge and our ethics at every scale of human action must be based on trust.

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