The Information Age is still in its infancy, but already there is a recognisable geography to the debate about the risks and opportunities The gee-whizzers insist that nothing will be the same again; the cautionaries argue that old truths and rules will reassert themselves even in cyberspace. But there is another risk confronting us with the advent of information technology (IT): trash books of futurology offering a mishmash of home truths and millenarian predictions of doom and that marshal only the ghastly prejudices of their authors.
British society and its bookshops are now at serious risk of intellectual pollution from one of the wildest of the genre I have yet come across; Professor Ian Angell's The New Barbarian Manifesto.
Everybody knows the downsides to globalisation; what Angell has done is to embrace uncritically every risk you can think of it, multiply it by 10 and top it up with an infusion of technobabble. He is sufficiently knowledgeable about the impact of IT for parts of his account to be plausible, and along the way he makes some good points; but it is all so over the top that even his worthwhile insights are discredited by the lurid vision of the whole.
His difficulty is conceit. Angell obviously considers himself one of the new intellectual elite. But his knowledge of IT is not matched by his understanding of history. There is a body of thought and debate, for example, about citizenship, democracy, the state and the public realm about which Angell is supremely ignorant. These theorists and practitioners, airily dismissed as 'Old Barbarians', are about to be succeeded by new IT power merchants. This is the world interpreted with the political sophistication of the plot of Star Wars, except the bad guys win.
Europe, for example, is dismissed as collapsing under the weight and advance of socialism. Intellectual women, we learn, are about to suffer a grisly fate as the New Barbarians dismiss their frail social and sexual gains. And so on.
His Star Wars thesis is that IT is going to equip a new breed of Nietzschian, libertarian supermen (women not allowed) with the wherewithal to escape old and suffocating ideologies and institutions, notably those of the state. They will create new cybercommunities so that everything associated with the old 'Barbarianism' - largely state education systems and the payment of taxes - will dissolve away. It will be a dog-eat-dog world with massive inequalities; only those possessed of the 'will to power' will win out, by relying on their highly educated wits and willingness to embrace the new technologies and associated life forms. Society and state are powerless to resist.
This kind of talk is associated with the extreme American right, and it is no accident that Angell cites kooky right-wing theorists like Ayn Rand and the American anti-government tradition with enthusiasm. We are invited to regard their musings, along with those of Nietzsche, as having reached a new and unchallengeable status; IT now means their insights and theories have come true.
The impact of globalisation, the financial markets and the information revolution is transformatory. That is not in doubt.
But the cross-currents are complex and the outcome unpredictable. Manuel Castells, for example, has written a masterly account of the Information Age, besides which Angell's efforts look comically shallow. Castells attempts to measure and classify all the forces identified by Angell - while placing them in an overall political and social context.
Angell neglects that we are living through a period of what the great Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter recognised as endemic to capitalism: creative destruction. New industries and opportunities are emerging along with new inequalities; but societies and states will not stand idly by as they are robbed of their humanity. We will create new institutions and structures to keep the Barbarians at bay, even if the Barbarians are as barbarous as Angell claims - which I wonder. Sad book. Sad author.