After the Industrial Era
Over the past half-century, the United States and other economically advanced countries have gradually made the shift into what has been called an "information society," the "information age," or the "postindustrial era." Futurist Alvin Toffler has labeled this transition the "Third Wave," suggesting that it will ultimately be as consequential as the two previous waves in human history: from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies and then from agricultural to industrial ones.
This shift consists of a number of related elements. In the economy, services increasingly displace manufacturing as a source of wealth. Instead of working in a steel mill or automobile factory, the typical worker in an information society has a job in a bank, software firm, restaurant, university, or social service agency. The role of information and intelligence, embodied in both people and increasingly smart machines, becomes pervasive, and mental labor tends to replace physical labor. Production is globalized as inexpensive information technology makes it increasingly easy to move information across national borders, and rapid communications by television, radio, fax, and e-mail erodes the boundaries of long-established cultural communities.
A society built around information tends to produce more of the two things people value most in a modern democracy: freedom and equality. Freedom of choice has exploded, whether of cable channels, low-cost shopping outlets, or friends met on the Internet. Hierarchies of all sorts, whether political or corporate, come under pressure and begin to crumble. Large, rigid bureaucracies, which sought to control everything in their domain through rules, regulations, and coercion, have been undermined by the shift toward a knowledge-based economy, which serves to "empower" individuals by giving them access to information. Just as rigid corporate bureaucracies like the old IBM and AT&T gave way to smaller, flatter, more participatory competitors, so too did the Soviet Union and East Germany fall apart from their inability to control and harness the knowledge of their own citizens.
The shift into an information society has been celebrated by virtually everyone who has written or talked about it. Commentators as politically diverse as George Gilder, Newt Gingrich, Al Gore, Alvin and Heidi Toffler, and Nicholas Negroponte have seen these changes as good for prosperity, good for democracy and freedom, and good for society in general. Certainly many of the benefits of an information society are clear, but have all of its consequences necessarily been so positive?
People associate the information age with the advent of the Internet in the 1990s, but the shift away from the Industrial era started more than a generation earlier with the deindustrialization of the Rust Belt in the United States and comparable moves away from manufacturing in other industrialized countries. This period, from roughly the mid-1960s to the early 1990s, was also marked by seriously deteriorating social conditions in most of the industrialized world. Crime and social disorder began to rise, making inner-city areas of the wealthiest societies on earth almost uninhabitable. The decline of kinship as a social institution, which has been going on for more than two hundred years, accelerated sharply in the last half of the twentieth century. Fertility in most European countries and Japan fell to such low levels that these societies will depopulate themselves in the next century, absent substantial immigration; marriages and births became fewer; divorce soared; and out-of-wedlock childbearing came to affect one out of every three children born in the United States and over half of all children in Scandinavia. Finally, trust and confidence in institutions went into a deep, forty-year decline. A majority of people in the United States and Europe expressed confidence in their governments and fellow citizens during the late 1950s; only a small minority did so by the early 1990s. The nature of people's involvement with one another changed as well. Although there is no evidence that people associated with each other less, their mutual ties tended to be less permanent, less engaged, and with smaller groups of people.
These changes were dramatic, they occurred over a wide range of similar countries, and they all appeared at roughly the same period in history. As such, they constituted a Great Disruption in the social values that prevailed in the industrial age society of the mid-twentieth century, and are the subject of Part One of this book. It is highly unusual for social indicators to move together so rapidly; even without knowing why they did so, we have reason to suspect that they might be related to one another. Although conservatives like William J. Bennett are often attacked for harping on the theme of moral decline, they are essentially correct: the breakdown of social order is not a matter of nostalgia, poor memory, or ignorance about the hypocrisies of earlier ages. The decline is readily measurable in statistics on crime, fatherless children, reduced educational outcomes and opportunities, broken trust, and the like.
Was it just an accident that these negative social trends, which together reflected weakening social bonds and common values holding people together in Western societies, occurred just as economies in those societies were making the transition from the industrial to the information era? The hypothesis of this book is that the two were in fact intimately connected, and that with all of the blessings that flow from a more complex, information-based economy, certain bad things also happened to our social and moral life. The connections were technological, economic, and cultural. The changing nature of work tended to substitute mental for physical labor, thereby propelling millions of women into the workplace and undermining the traditional understandings on which the family had been based. Innovations in medical technology like the birth control pill and increasing longevity diminished the role of reproduction and family in people's lives. And the culture of intensive individualism, which in the marketplace and laboratory leads to innovation and growth, spilled over into the realm of social norms, where it corroded virtually all forms of authority and weakened the bonds holding families, neighborhoods, and nations together. The complete story is, of course, much more complex than this, and differs from one country to another. But broadly speaking, the technological change that brings about what economist Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction" in the marketplace caused similar disruption in the world of social relationships. It would be surprising were this not true.
But there is a bright side too: social order, once disrupted, tends to get remade once again, and there are many indications that this is happening today. We can expect this to happen for a simple reason: human beings are by nature social creatures, whose most basic drives and instincts lead them to create moral rules that bind themselves together into communities. They are also by nature rational, and their rationality allows them to create ways of cooperating with one another spontaneously. Religion, often helpful to this process, is not the sine qua non of social order, as many conservatives believe. Neither is a strong and expansive state, as many on the Left argue. Man's natural state is not the war of "every one against every one" that Thomas Hobbes envisioned, but rather a civil society made orderly by the presence of a host of moral rules. These statements, moreover, are empirically supported by a tremendous amount of recent research coming out of the life sciences, in fields as diverse as neurophysiology, behavioral genetics, evolutionary biology, and ethology, as well as biologically informed approaches to psychology and anthropology. The study of how order arises, not as the result of a top-down mandate by hierarchical authority, whether political or religious, but as the result of self-organization on the part of decentralized individuals, is one of the most interesting and important intellectual developments of our time. Thus Part Two of this book steps back from the immediate social issues raised by the Great Disruption and asks the more general questions, Where does social order come from in the first place, and how does it evolve under changing circumstances?
The idea that social order has to come from a centralized, rational, bureaucratic hierarchy was one very much associated with the industrial age. The sociologist Max Weber, observing nineteenth-century industrial society, argued that rational bureaucracy was in fact the very essence of modern life. We know now, however, that in an information society, neither governments nor corporations will rely exclusively on formal, bureaucratic rules to organize the people over whom they have authority. Instead, they will have to decentralize and devolve power, and rely on the people over whom they have nominal authority to be self-organizing. The precondition for such self-organization is internalized rules and norms of behavior, which suggests that the world of the twenty-first century will depend heavily on such informal norms. Thus, while the transition into an information society has disrupted social norms, a modern, high-tech society cannot get along without them and will face considerable incentives to produce them.
Part Three of the book looks both backward and forward for the sources of this order. The view that society's moral order has been in long-term decline is one long held by certain conservatives. The British statesman Edmund Burke argued that the Enlightenment itself, with its project of replacing tradition and religion with reason, is the ultimate source of the problem, and Burke's contemporary heirs continue to argue that secular humanism is at the root of today's social problems. But while conservatives may be right that there were important ways in which moral behavior deteriorated in the past two generations, they tend to ignore the fact that social order not only declines, but also increases in long cycles. This happened in Britain and America during the nineteenth century. It is reasonably clear that the period from the end of the eighteenth century until approximately the middle of the nineteenth century was one of sharply increasing moral decay in both countries. Crime rates in virtually all major cities increased; families broke down and illegitimacy rates rose; people were socially isolated; alcohol consumption, particularly in the United States, exploded, with per capita consumption in 1830 at levels perhaps three times as great as they are today. But then, with each passing decade from the middle of the century until its end, virtually each one of these social indicators turned positive: crime fell; families began staying together in greater numbers; drunkards went on the wagon; and new voluntary associations sprouted up to give people a greater sense of communal belonging.
There are similar signs today that the Great Disruption that took place from the 1960s to the 1990s is beginning to recede. Crime is down sharply in the United States and other countries where it had become epidemic. Divorce rates have declined since the 1980s, and there are now signs that the rate of illegitimacy (in the United States, at any rate) has begun to level off, if not fall. Levels of trust in major institutions have improved during the 1990s, and civil society appears to be flourishing. There is, moreover, plenty of anecdotal evidence that more conservative social norms have made a comeback, and that the more extreme forms of individualism that appeared during the 1970s have fallen out of favor. It is far too early to assert that these problems are now behind us. But it is also wrong to conclude that we are incapable of adapting socially to the technological and economic conditions of an age of information.
Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, One More Time
The disruption of social order by the progress of technology is not a new phenomenon. Particularly since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, human societies have been subject to a relentless process of modernization as one new production process replaced another. The social disorder of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in America and Britain can be traced directly to the disruptive effects of the so-called first Industrial Revolution, when steam power and mechanization created new industries in textiles, railroads, and the like. Agricultural societies were transformed into urban industrial societies within the space of perhaps a hundred years, and all of the accumulated social norms, habits, and customs that had characterized rural or village life were replaced by the rhythms of the factory and city.
This shift in norms engendered what is perhaps the most famous concept in modern sociology, the distinction drawn by Ferdinand Tönnies between what he called gemeinschaft("community") and gesellschaft("society"). According to Tönnies, the gemeinschaft that characterized a typical premodern European peasant society consisted of a dense network of personal relationships based heavily on kinship and on the direct, face-to-face contact that occurs in a small, closed village. Norms were largely unwritten, and individuals were bound to one another in a web of mutual interdependence that touched all aspects of life, from family to work to the few leisure activities that such societies enjoyed. Gesellschaft, on the other hand, was the framework of laws and other formal regulations that characterized large, urban, industrial societies. Social relationships were more formalized and impersonal; individuals did not depend on one another for mutual support to nearly the same extent and were therefore much less morally obligated.
The idea that informal norms and values will be replaced over time by rational, formal laws and rules has been a mainstay of modern sociological theory ever since. The English legal theorist Sir Henry Maine argued that in premodern societies, people were tied to one another by what he called a "status" relationship. A father was bound to his family or a lord to his slaves and servants in a lifetime personal relationship that consisted of a host of informal, unarticulated, and often ambiguous mutual obligations. No one could simply walk away from the relationship if he or she didn't like it. In a modern capitalist society, by contrast, Maine argued that such relationships are based on "contract," for example, a formal agreement that an employee will provide a certain quantity of labor in return for a certain quantity of wages from the employer. Everything is spelled out in the wage contract and is therefore enforceable by the state; there are no age-old obligations or duties that accompany the exchange of money for services. Unlike a status relationship, in other words, the contract relationship is not a moral one: either party can break it at any time, provided the terms of the contract are fulfilled.
The consequences of the shift from agricultural to industrial societies on social norms were so large that they gave birth to an entirely new academic discipline, sociology, which sought to describe and understand these changes. Virtually all of the great social thinkers at the end of the nineteenth century -- including Tönnies, Maine, Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Georg Simmel -- devoted their careers to explicating the nature of this transition. Indeed, the American sociologist Robert Nisbet once characterized the entire subsequent thrust of his discipline as one long commentary on gemeinschaft and gesellschaft.
Many of the standard sociological texts written in the middle of the twentieth century treated the shift from gemeinschaft to gesellschaft as if it were a one-shot affair: societies were either "traditional" or "modern," and the modern ones somehow constituted the end of the road for social development. But social evolution did not culminate in middle-class American society of the 1950s, as industrial societies soon began transforming themselves into what Daniel Bell characterized as postindustrial societies or what we know as information societies. If this transformation is as momentous as the previous one, then it should hardly surprise us that the impact on social values should be equally great.
Why Social Order Is Important to the Future of Liberal Democracy
One of the greatest challenges modern information age democracies face today is whether they can maintain social order in the face of technological and economic change. From the early 1970s to the early 1990s there has been a sudden surge of new democracies in Latin America, Europe, Asia, and the former communist world that constitutes what Samuel Huntington has labeled another "Third Wave," this one of democracy. As I argued in The End of History and the Last Man, there is a strong logic behind the evolution of political institutions in the direction of modern liberal democracy, one that is based on the correlation between economic development and stable democracy. For the world's most economically advanced countries, there has been a convergence of political and economic institutions over time and no obvious alternatives to the liberal political and economic institutions we see before us.
This same progressive tendency is not necessarily evident in moral and social development, however. The tendency of contemporary liberal democracies to fall prey to excessive individualism is perhaps their greatest long-term vulnerability, and is particularly visible in the most individualistic of all democracies, the United States. The modern liberal state was premised on the notion that in the interests of political peace, government would not take sides among the differing moral claims made by religion and traditional culture. Church and state were to be kept separate; there would be pluralism in opinions about the most important moral and ethical questions concerning ultimate ends or the nature of the good. Tolerance would become the cardinal virtue. In place of moral consensus would be a transparent framework of law and institutions that would produce political order. Such a political system did not require that people be particularly virtuous, only that they be rational and follow the law in their own self-interest. In a similar fashion, the market-based capitalist economic system that went hand-in-glove with political liberalism required only that people consult their long-term self-interest to achieve a socially optimal production and distribution of goods.
The societies created on these individualistic premises have worked extraordinarily well, and as the twentieth century comes to a close there is little real alternative to liberal democracy and market capitalism as fundamental organizing principles for modern societies. Individual self-interest is a lower but more stable ground than virtue on which to base society. The creation of a rule of law is one of the proudest accomplishments of Western civilization, one whose benefits become all too obvious when one deals with countries like Russia or China that lack one.
But although formal law and strong political and economic institutions are critical, they are not in themselves sufficient to guarantee a successful modern society. Liberal democracy has always been dependent on certain shared cultural values to work properly. This can be seen most clearly in the contrast between the United States and the countries of Latin America. When Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and other Latin countries gained their independence in the nineteenth century, many of them established formal democratic constitutions and legal systems patterned on the presidential system of the United States. Since then, not one Latin American country has experienced the political stability, economic growth, or efficiency of democratic institutions enjoyed by the United States, though fortunately most had returned to democratic government by the late 1980s.
There are many complex historical reasons for this, but the most important is a cultural one: the United States was settled primarily by Britain and inherited not just British law but British culture as well, while Latin America inherited various cultural traditions from the Iberian peninsula. Although the U.S. Constitution enforces a separation between church and state, American culture was nonetheless decisively shaped by sectarian Protestantism in its formative years. Sectarian Protestantism reinforced both American individualism and what Alexis de Tocqueville called the American "art of association" -- that is, the tendency of the society to be self-organizing in a myriad of voluntary associations and communities. The vitality of American civil society was crucial for both the stability of its democratic institutions and its vibrant economy. The imperial and Latin Catholic traditions of Spain and Portugal, by contrast, reinforced dependence on large, centralized institutions like the state and church, consequently weakening an independent civil society. There are similar contrasts between northern and southern Europe, whose differing abilities to make modern institutions work was also influenced by religious heritage and cultural tradition.
The problem with most modern liberal democracies is that they cannot take their cultural preconditions for granted. The most successful among them, including the United States, were lucky to have married strong formal institutions to a flexible and supportive informal culture. But there is nothing in the formal institutions themselves that guarantees that the underlying society will continue to enjoy the right sort of cultural values and norms under the pressures of technological, economic, and social change. Just the opposite is the case: the individualism, pluralism, and tolerance built into the formal institutions tend to encourage cultural diversity and therefore have the potential to undermine moral values inherited from the past. And a dynamic, technologically innovative economy will by its very nature disrupt existing social relations.
It may be, then, that while large political and economic institutions have been evolving along a long-term secular path, social life is more cyclical. Social norms that work for one historical period are disrupted by the advance of technology and the economy, and society has to play catch-up in order to renorm itself under changed conditions.
The Value of Rules
The cultural connections between the shift to an age of information and social disruption were symbolized by a series of television commercials that blitzed the airwaves during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. Sponsored by a major American telecommunications company, they showed a series of muscular, well-conditioned athletes doing some rather extraordinary things, like running up the sides of buildings, jumping off cliffs into thousand-foot canyons, and bounding from the roof of one skyscraper to another. The commercials were built around the theme that flashed on the screen at the end: "No limits." Consciously or not, the athlete's superb physique evoked the philosopher Nietzsche's Superman, the godlike being unconstrained by ordinary moral rules, as he might have been lovingly portrayed by the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.
The telecommunications company that sponsored the commercials and the ad agency that produced them clearly wanted to create a powerful, positive, and future-oriented image: in the new age of information technology, old rules were breaking down, and the sponsoring company was at the forefront of the destruction. The implicit message said that the old rules -- presumably the ones governing pre-Internet communications and regulated telephone monopolies -- were unnecessary and harmful constraints, not just on telephone service but on the human spirit more generally. There was no telling what heights of human achievement could be reached if only these rules were lifted, and the sponsoring company would be perfectly happy to help its customers reach this promised land. Like the athletes, we might then become Godlike.
Whether consciously or not, the producers of these commercials were building on a very powerful cultural theme: that of the liberation of the individual from unnecessary and stifling social constraints. Since the 1960s, the West has experienced a series of liberation movements that have sought to free individuals from the constraints of many traditional social norms and moral rules. The sexual revolution, the women's liberation and feminist movements, and the movements in favor of gay and lesbian rights have exploded throughout the Western world. The liberation each one of these movements seeks concerns social rules, norms, and laws that unduly restrict the options and opportunities of individuals -- whether of young people choosing sexual partners, women seeking career opportunities, or gays seeking recognition of their rights. Pop psychology, from the human potential movement of the 1960s to the self-esteem trend of the 1980s, sought to free individuals from stifling social expectations. Each one of these movements might well have adopted the slogan "No limits" as its own.
Both the Left and Right participated in this effort to free the individual from restrictive rules, but their points of emphasis tended to be different. To put it simply, the Left worried about lifestyles, and the Right worried about money. The former did not want traditional values to constrain unduly the choices of women, minorities, gays, the homeless, people accused of crimes, or any number of other groups marginalized by society. The Right, on the other hand, did not want communities putting constraints on what they could do with their property -- or in the particular case of the United States, what they could do with their guns. It was not an accident that the commercial promulgating the message of "no limits" was produced by a private, high-tech corporation trying to maximize its profits, for modern capitalism thrives on the breaking of rules wherein old social relationships, communities, and technologies are discarded in favor of new and more efficient ones. Both Left and Right denounced excessive individualism on the part of the other. Those who supported reproductive choice tended to oppose choice in buying guns or gas-guzzling cars; those who wanted unconstrained economic competition were appalled when they were mugged by unconstrained criminals on the way to the low-priced Wal-Mart. But neither side was willing to give up its preferred sphere of free choice for the sake of constraining the other.
As people soon discovered, there were serious problems with a culture of unbridled individualism, where the breaking of rules becomes, in a sense, the only remaining rule. The first had to do with the fact that moral values and social rules are not simply arbitrary constraints on individual choice; rather, they are the precondition for any type of cooperative enterprise. Indeed, social scientists have recently begun to refer to a society's stock of shared values as social capital. Like physical capital (land, buildings, machines) and human capital (the skills and knowledge we carry around in our heads), social capital produces wealth and is therefore of economic value to a national economy. It is also the prerequisite for all forms of group endeavor that take place in a modern society, from running a corner grocery store, to lobbying Congress, to raising children. Individuals amplify their own power and abilities by following cooperative rules that constrain their freedom of choice, allow them to communicate with others, and coordinate their actions. Social virtues like honesty, reciprocity, and keeping commitments are not choiceworthy just as ethical values; they also have a tangible dollar value and help the groups who practice them achieve shared ends.
The second problem with a culture of intense individualism is that it ends up being bereft of community. A community is not formed every time a group of people happens to interact with one another; true communities are bound together by the values, norms, and experiences shared among their members. The deeper and more strongly held those common values are, the stronger the sense of community is. The trade-off between personal freedom and community, however, does not seem obvious or necessary to many. As people were liberated from their traditional ties to spouses, families, neighborhoods, workplaces, or churches, they thought they could have social connectedness at the same time, this time the connections being those they choose for themselves. But they began to realize that such elective affinities, which they could slide into and out of at will, left them feeling lonely and disoriented, longing for deeper and more permanent relationships with other people.
The "no-limits" message is, then, a problematic one. We want to break rules that are unjust, unfair, irrelevant or outdated, and we seek to maximize personal freedom. But we also constantly need new rules to permit new forms of cooperative endeavor and to enable us to feel connected with one another in communities. These new rules always entail the limitation of individual freedom. A society dedicated to the constant upending of norms and rules in the name of increasing individual freedom of choice will find itself increasingly disorganized, atomized, isolated, and incapable of carrying out common goals and tasks. The same society that wants "no limits" to its technological innovation also sees "no limits" to many forms of personal behavior, and the consequent growth of crime, broken families, parents failing to fulfill obligations to children, neighbors not looking out for each other, and citizens opting out of public life.
Even if we agree in a general way that human society requires limits and rules, the question immediately arises, "Whose rules should prevail?"
In the rich, free, and diverse society constituted by the United States at the end of the twentieth century, the word culture has come to be associated with the concept of choice. That is, culture is something that artists, writers, or other imaginative people choose to create on the basis of an inner voice; for those less creatively inclined, it is something they choose to consume as art, cuisine, or entertainment. Culture is superficially but also commonly associated with food, particularly of an ethnic variety: what it means to have cultural diversity is to have a great choice among Chinese, Italian, Greek, Thai, or Mexican restaurants. More important cultural choices are up for grabs as well, as in the case of the Woody Allen character who, upon learning that he has terminal cancer, frantically tries to decide whether he will seek solace as a Buddhist, Hare Krishna, Catholic, or Jew.
We are taught, moreover, that in negotiating among these competing cultural claims, none can be judged to be better than any other. In the hierarchy of moral virtues, tolerance ranks high and moralism -- the attempt to judge people by one's own moral or cultural rules -- ranks as the vice among vices. De gustibus non est disputandem -- there is no accounting for tastes -- and like the taste for ethnic food, there is no way of judging whether one set of moral rules is better or wo