A throwaway knowledge for a throwaway human being

The present generation has been born into a throwaway society of consumers

in which both goods and young people are increasingly objectified and disposable.

Henry Giroux

The speed-up society

In late modernity, we assist to the acceleration of just about everything (Gleick: 2000) and the concepts of immediacy (Tomlinson: 2007), Global village (McLuhan & Powers: 1989) and speed-up society become very popular (e.g Crary: 2013, Schulte: 2014, Colvile: 2016).

According to Rosa (2013) acceleration of everyday life means acting at a faster pace during the day, getting rid of pauses between actions, and experiencing an increase of multitasking and time pressure associated with the speeding up of the pace of life.

The speed-up society is the result of what Harvey calls time-space compression (1990), which is the intensification of events per unit of time and per unit of space.

Just before the stock market crash of 1929, J. George Frederick, editor of Advertising and Selling, proposed the ‘progressive obsolescence principle’ according to which people are encouraged to replace products that had not worn out. According to Frederick, people should be ‘buying for up-to-dateness, efficiency and style … rather than simply for the last ounce of use’ (Slade: 2006, p. 58). In her popular book Selling Mrs Consumer, his wife, Christine, was promoting stylistic obsolescence and this way of thinking was soon applied to the economy as a whole.

In 1928 investment banker Paul Mazur noted how ‘if what had filled the consumer market yesterday could only be made obsolete today … that whole market would be again available tomorrow’ (Slade: 2006, p. 60) and by the early 1930s designers Roy Sheldon and Egmont Arens were promoting ‘obsoletism’ as a ‘device for stimulating consumption’ (Slade: 2006, p. 66).

The first time that the expression ‘planned obsolescence’ appeared was in a pamphlet by Bernard London in 1932 entitled Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence. London proposed government-imposed maximum product life-spans in times of widespread unemployment, at which point ‘people would turn in their used and obsolete goods to certain government agencies’ (Slade: 2006, p. 75).

Throwaway knowledge

If it is true that ‘a disposable society is only fit for disposable people’ (McGill: 2012) it is also true that a throwaway society needs a throwaway knowledge.

In his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979) François Lyotard writes ‘that the status of knowledge is altered as societies enter what is known as the post industrial age and cultures enter what is known as the postmodern age’ (p. 3).

knowledge transmutes into information and becomes the main tool of the ‘information economy’ (Barnett: 1997, p. 92) and its use value is less important than its exchange value.

In this context, knowledge is subject, as any ordinary product, to commodification, and in a society where production and consumption accelerate, knowledge, as a tool of production and as a product in itself, is also subject to acceleration.

Knowledge is now produced in order to be sold, and it is sold with the techniques of any other product. In relation to knowledge understood as a tool of production, each variation in the production requires new knowledge and each obsolescence requires that that knowledge becomes irrelevant and is replaced.

According to Hassan (2009, p. 120) the forms of knowledge change: ‘Humanities give way to science; small-scale forms of knowledge production give way to large-scale forms; knowledge for its own sake gives way to applied knowledge; pure inquiry gives way to problem-solving in situ; prepositional knowledge gives way to or at least is supplanted by experiential knowing, and ways of knowing give way to sheer information’.

As a product in itself, knowledge requires to be produced and consumed at the speed that favours maximum production and consumption of other products and of knowledge itself.

Creators and users of knowledge are required to use any content of knowledge as long as it is consistent with maximum profit and to replace it when profit drops.

To the extent that man is a knowledgeable animal, having a throwaway knowledge is a bit like being a throwaway human being.

References

Barnett, R. (1997). Higher education: a critical business. Buckingham: The Society For Research Into Higher Education.

Colvile, R (2016) The Great Acceleration: How the World Is Getting Faster, Faster. New York: Bloomsbury.

Crary, J. (2013). 24/7 : Late capitalism and the ends of sleep. New York: Verso.

Gleick, J. (2000). Faster. Abacus.

Harvey, D. (1990) The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Hassan, R. (2009). Empires of Speed: Time and the Acceleration of Politics and Society. Leiden: Brill.

Jean-Francois Lyotard (1991). The postmodern condition: a report on knowledge. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Mcgill, B. (2012). Voice of reason: speaking to the great and good spirit of revolution of mind. Sarasota, Fl: Paper Lyon.

Mcluhan, M. and Powers, B.R. (1989). The global village: transformations in world life and media in the 21st century. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rosa, H. (2013) Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity, New York: Columbia University Press.

Schulte, B (2014) Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No-One Has the Time. New York: Sarah Crichton Books.

Slade, G. (2007). Made to break: technology and obsolescence in America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Tomlinson, J. (2007). The culture of speed: the coming of immediacy. London: Sage.

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