Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Consequences of Modernity

People tend to call the current era “post-modernity”, “new society”, etc., but Anthony Giddens argues in his book “The Consequences of Modernity” that we are not experiencing the era beyond modernity; rather we are now at the very consequences of modernity where key characteristics of modernity became radicalized and universalized than ever before.

The key observational characteristics of modernity are “disembedding mechanisms (or abstract systems, composed of symbolic tokens and expert systems)”, which are backed by trust based on “faceless commitments”. This trust in strangers is generated by the situation of modernity which experienced the unprecedented social changes, such as (1) human beings transcended the power of natures, and (2) emerging reflexive science cast doubt on divinity of Gods and myths, (3) change in institutions.

Disembedding mechanisms overcoming time and space
The term “disembedding” means the “lifting out” of social relations from local contexts of interaction and their restructuring across indefinite spans of time-space. (page 21)

Giddens argues that there are two types of disembedding mechanisms. The first is the creation of symbolic tokens. The symbolic tokens are media of interchange which can be “passed around” without regard to the specific characteristics of individuals or group. (page 22) An example of tokens is money, says Giddens, because money in its developed form is defined in terms of credit and debt, where these concern a plurality of widely scattered interchanges. It is a means of bracketing time and so of lifting transactions out of particular milieux of exchanges, and thus it is a means of time-space distanciation.

The second type of disembedding mechanism is the establishment of expert system. The expert systems remove social relations from the immediacies of context, by providing “guarantees” of expectations across distanciated time-space. For instance, we perceive a lawyer as a legal professional regardless of their seniority or the relationship we have made with him or her. (page 28)

Background changes in modernity

A. Radicalized Reflexivity
Giddens argues that reflexive appropriation of knowledge is the characteristics of modernity. Here, reflexivity means the custom that one examines, reflects and reforms oneself (or simply self reflection). The reflexivity of modern social life consists in the fact that social practices are constantly examined and reformed in the light of incoming information about those very practices, thus constitutively altering their character (page 38).

Needless to say, reflexivity is not the unique idea of modernity. Giddens says that only in the era of modernity is the revision of convention (i.e. reflexivity) radicalized to apply to all aspects of human life, including technological intervention into the material world. He cites examples of modern social science, such as economics, as the one having reflexive characteristic in its research style.

The knowledge applied to social activity has four factors. First, some individuals and groups can more easily have access to the knowledge. Second, social values and empirical knowledge are inter-connected. Third, knowledge about social lives transcends the intentions of those who apply it to transformative ends. Fourth, knowledge reflexively applied to the conditions of system reproduction intrinsically alters the circumstances to which it originally referred. (page 44)

B. Changes of Institutions in modernity
Giddens says that modernity is composed of four institutional dimensions: industrialism, capitalism surveillance, and military power. He argues that those four, especially industrialism and capitalism, are compatible and are under the concept of modernity. Modernity is inherently of global nature, and as globalization makes progress, the four dimensions transform into international division of labor, world capitalist economy, nation-state system, and world military power.

Trust in modernity
In modern social life, many people interact with and thus trust others who are strangers to them. (page 80) Giddens says that all disembedding mechanisms, both symbolic tokens and expert systems, depend upon trust. Thus, he thinks trust is the fundamental factor of the institutions of modernity. Trust is a form of “faith”, in which the confidence vested in probable outcomes expresses a commitment to something rather than just a cognitive understanding. Giddens also argues that the trust involved in modern institutions are based upon vague and partial understandings of their “knowledge base” (page 27)

Trust in itself had existed long before the modernity, but the striking feature of modern trust is that people express faceless commitments, instead of facework commitments. Here, facework commitments refer to trust relations which are sustained by or expressed in social connections established in circumstances of co-presence. Faceless commitments, instead, are the faith in symbolic tokens or expert systems (Giddens terms it “abstract systems”). Giddens says as follows:

“It will be a basic part of my argument that the nature of modern institutions is deeply bound up with the mechanisms of trust in abstract systems, especially trust in expert systems.” (page 83)

Trust usually is demanded where there is ignorance, i.e. we trust things that we don’t know well, e.g. scientists’ remarks. According to psychology, a sense of the reliability of persons and things is basic to feelings of ontological (existential) security. In other words, trust is something to do with survival of human beings.

However, the above understandings do not help us to understand why in modernity the meanings of trust experienced transformation. To answer to the question why modernity sees faceless commitments, Giddens examines the environment of trust and risk in pre-modern and modern cultures. Modern era marked the great progress in science and the power of human beings. The community no longer is limited to the location thanks to the advancement in mobility. The biggest pre-modern threats were based on nature, environments or locality, whereas they became to be generated by human beings themselves and globalized. The reflexive science diminished the influence of religions, left human beings in a threat of personal meaninglessness. (the table below is from page 102)

This environmental change caused abstract systems to provide a great deal of security in day-to-day life which was absent in pre-modern orders. As we believed in God and neighbors in pre-modern era, we now need new Gods and believe in expert systems and symbolic tokens.

To me it was an interesting idea that trust based on faceless commitment is not the product of 21st century but of modern era. Reading through the discussions that Giddens made on trust building in modernity, we will be able to foresee how the discussions on faceless trust would evolve.

It is not the 21st century that human beings exceeded the limitation of time and space. Internet is not the fundamental reason of transcending time and space; it is the trust that enables human beings to go beyond the limitations of time and space.

Anthony Giddens, “The Consequences of Modernity”, Polity, 1991/9/2

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