Consequences of Modernity

From p. 315 in Social Theory Re-Wired

Abstract systems have provided a great deal of security in day-to-day life which was absent in pre-modern orders. A person can board a plane in London and reach Los Angeles some ten hours later and be fairly certain that not only will the journey be made safely, but that the plane will arrive quite close to a predetermined time. The passenger may perhaps only have a vague idea of where Los Angeles is, in terms of a global map. Only minimal preparations need to be made for the journey (obtaining passport, visa, air-ticket, and money)—no knowledge of the actual trajectory is necessary. A large amount of “surrounding” knowledge is required to be able to get on the plane, and this is knowledge which has been filtered back from expert systems to lay discourse and action. One has to know what an airport is, what an air-ticket is, and very many other things besides. But security on the journey itself does not depend upon mastery of the technical paraphernalia which make it possible. In Consequences of Modernity, Giddens argues that modernity is, in many ways, like a runaway train. The pace of technological change is fierce and the extent to which the world is increasingly interconnected is simply mind-blowing. In this passage, Giddens underscores the importance of trust in our rapidly changing modern world. Without trust in so-called “abstract systems,” or systems of experts and professionals, we would constantly feel anxious and insecure. His example of flying is particularly instructive: in order to travel across the globe, we rely upon experts, such as aerospace engineers, air traffic controllers, and travel agents, to get us from here to there. 

Compare this with the task of an adventurer who undertook the same journey no more than three or four centuries ago. Although he would be the “expert,” he might have little idea of where he was traveling to—and the very notion of “traveling” sounds oddly inapplicable. The journey would be fraught with dangers, and the risk of disaster or death very considerable. No one could participate in such an expedition who was not physically tough, resilient, and possessed of skills relevant to the conduct of the voyage.

Every time someone gets cash out of the bank or makes a deposit, casually turns on a light or a tap, sends a letter or makes a call on the telephone, she or he implicitly recognises the large areas of secure, coordinated actions and events that make modern social life possible. Of course, all sorts of hitches and breakdowns can also happen, and attitudes of scepticism or antagonism develop which produce the disengagement of individuals from one or more of these systems.Even though we put trust in experts and abstract systems, there is still an element of risk that permeates modern life. Although plane crashes are rare, their possibility still invites an element of fear and anxiety when many of us board a plane. Similarly, genetically modified fruits and vegetables may help solve food shortages or provide fresh fruit in the dead of winter, but they also introduce unknown risks of their own. Again, trust in experts mitigates this risk and allows us to live comfortably. Giddens is not the only theorist to point out the paradox of increased risk in a society characterized by technological advance. Ulrich Beck, for example, has pioneered research on the rise of the “risk society.”  But most of the time the taken-for-granted way in which everyday actions are geared into abstract systems bears witness to the effectiveness with which they operate (within the contexts of what is expected from them, because they also produce many kinds of unintended consequences).

Trust in abstract systems is the condition of time-space distanciation and of the large areas of security in day-to-day life which modern institutions offer as compared to the traditional world. According to Giddens, our trust in abstract systems stems from a transformation of time and space. In pre-modern societies, life was primarily based on face-to-face interactions and natural cycles. However, modernity has meant that time has become more abstract and space has become less of a hindrance. Outsourcing is a good example: Software companies are able to contract out key operations to places like India and China through the abstraction of time and space; that is, they can rely on detailed timetables, online communication, and other technologies to get things done. This process of disembedding social relations out of face-to-face interactions and reordering them along more abstract concepts of time and space is key to understanding modernity, according to Giddens. The routines which are integrated with abstract systems are central to ontological securityOntological security refers to the trust we have in everyday reality, a trust that the meaning of our world and our sense of self won’t radically change at a moment’s notice. According to Giddens, individuals strive for ontological security by making their world as routine as possible. Such routines reduce the anxiety we might feel if we ever realize that our social world is actually quite unstable and unpredictable. Similarly, people have trust in the “continuity of their self-identity” (or, put simply, that who we are today bears some resemblance to who we were in the past and who we will be in the future). According to Giddens, modernity poses all sorts of risks to these routines and continuities or, conversely, such routines are even more important for our ontological security in the modern world. For more on how the social world become routine and taken-for-granted, revisit Berger and Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality in conditions of modernity. Yet this situation also creates novel forms of psychological vulnerability, and trust in abstract systems is not psychologically rewarding in the way in which trust in persons is. I shall concentrate on the second of these points here, returning to the first later. To begin, I want to advance the following theorems: that there is a direct (although dialectical) connection between the globalising tendencies of modernity and what I shall call the transformation of intimacyGiddens is arguing that modernity has transformed relationships of all sorts. Because the modern world reaches across time and space, we do not know many of the people we must interact with to achieve ontological security. This includes intimate relationships, which Giddens suggests are also riskier and thus depend on more trust between individuals. Moreover, the trust required for intimacy is not easily achieved, but instead must be worked at through a process of self-disclosure, or opening up of oneself to the other in order to build trust. We also depend on abstract systems for intimacy, such as relationship experts and self-help gurus. Check out his book, The Transformation of Intimacy, for more on how modernity has transformed our intimate relationships. in contexts of day-to-day life; that the transformation of intimacy can be analysed in terms of the building of trust mechanisms; and that personal trust relations, in such circumstances, are closely bound up with a situation in which the construction of the self becomes a reflexive projectGiddens argues that identity is essentially something we have to work at in modern society. In pre-modern societies, identities were essentially tied to roles bestowed upon individuals through tradition. But, in the modern world, we constantly make choices and grasp opportunities for ourselves that all become part of our personal narrative. And, we are aware of and constantly evaluate our personal narrative—that is to say, we are reflexive toward our self and the world around us. Because modernity also introduces risks, we enter into relationships that are less likely to disturb our path toward self-actualization; in other words, relationships with people (and abstract systems!) that we trust. And those intimate relationships we mentioned earlier? They are also transformed so that we enter them to fulfill our individual needs and satisfactions rather than more romantic ideals..

From pp. 321–22 in Social Theory Re-Wired

Trust and risk, opportunity and danger—these polar, paradoxical features of modernity permeate all aspects of day-to-day life, once more reflecting an extraordinary interpolation of the local and the global.Here Giddens summarizes the two paradoxes of modernity. In many ways, modernity is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it offers safety, opportunity, and trust that together insure that our basic needs are met and most catastrophes (though not all) are avoided. On the other hand, it introduces new dangers and risks, such as nuclear war, climate change, and terrorism. According to Giddens, each of us actively works to deal with modernity in ways that mitigate or reduce our anxieties about these risks, thus transforming our relationships with time, space, and each other. Giddens has spent the latter part of his career extending his ambitious theoretical agenda to the topic of globalization, which you can read about in his book, Runaway World Pragmatic acceptance can be sustained towards most of the abstract systems that impinge on individuals’ lives, but by its very nature such an attitude cannot be carried on all the while and in respect of all areas of activity. For incoming expert information is often fragmentary or inconsistent, as is the recycled knowledge which colleagues, friends, and intimates pass on to one another. On a personal level, decisions must be taken and policies forged. Privatism, the avoidance of contestatory engagement—which can be supported by attitudes of basic optimism, pessimism, or pragmatic acceptance—can serve the purposes of day-to-day day “survival” in many respects. But it is likely to be interspersed with phases of active engagement, even on the part of those most prone to attitudes of indifference or cynicism. For, to repeat, in respect of the balance of security and danger which modernity introduces into our lives, there are no longer “others”—no one can be completely outside. Conditions of modernity, in many circumstances, provoke activism rather than privatism, because of modernity’s inherent reflexivity and because there are many opportunities for collective organisation within the polyarchic systems of modern nation-states.According to Giddens, no one can escape the forces of modernity. But, he is not all doom and gloom. Rather, he is somewhat ambivalent, suggesting that modernity is as comforting as it is scary. And, there are a lot people do to deal with the risks of modernity, whether it be recycling their garbage, going vegan, or contributing money to a hunger relief organization. These so-called “life politics” are designed to free up individuals to make choices and achieve ontological security in the face of danger and uncertainty. Giddens’s mention of collective organization here prefigures his later policy work in the United Kingdom. In The Third Way, Giddens outlined a set of (mostly left of center) policy proposals for the British government designed to “help citizens pilot their way through the major revolutions of our time.” His ideas on social democracy eventually got him a spot as adviser to then British prime minister Tony Blair.

Anatomy of an Abstract System

Question 1 of 1

Giddens writes a lot about how, in modern times, we rely on numerous abstract systems to generate trust and a sense of ontological security in an otherwise “runaway world.” Giddens’ favorite example of an abstract system is the airline industry, but there are countless others. For this activity, pick your own example of an abstract system and explain how it functions to create trust and security. Also think about the ways that this system may produce new forms of risk and negative consequences (like air pollution or increased surveillance of individuals, in the airline example).

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