Digital feudalism

I'm in London this week. Tonight I recorded a programme for the BBC tv show "It's Only A Theory" hosted by the comedians Andy Hamilton and Reginald D. Hunter. Then tomorrow night, I'm at London's RSA to respond to Don Tapscott's thoughts in the RSA/Encyclopaedia Britannica (sold-out) debate about "the Economic Crisis and the Age of Uncertainty". The debate will also feature Dan Hind of Bodley Head and The Threat To Reason fame, as well as the Cambridge economist Lord Eatwell. It promises to be a very lively discussion in which Tapscott will use his Wikinomics/Grown Up Digital argument as a way of making sense of the current economic situation. Here's the RSA's description of the event:

To what extent has the global economic crisis triggered a crisis ofconfidence in our previously trusted repositories of knowledge? What do the failures of the financial system tell us about the dangers of a hierarchal system of knowledge where power lies in the hands of a professional elite? Can we continue to have confidence in the professional authority of bankers, financiers and economists, when they seem to have so grossly failed us? Has economics as a discipline failed? Do these failures further case for new organisational models, based on more open, more transparent cultures of collaboration (the "wikinomics" model)? Does the democratisation of knowledge and wealth of information offered by the internet open up the possibility of taking economic decision-making out of the academy and institutions, and into the hands of individual citizens? Or should we be wary of blurring the expert/amateur divide and trusting too much in the wisdom of crowds?

On the plane from O'Hare, I read most of his latest book, Grown Up Digital which, like all Tapscott's work, is lucid and honorable. Tapscott is generous toward his ideological foes -- particularly Nick Carr and Susan Greenfield -- and I admire his willingness to criticise young people's failure to protect their online privacy. That said, of course, I don't agree with a number of the book's major premises about the positive pedagogical qualities of the Internet and I suspect that my responses to his presentation will be skeptical.

Where Tapscott and I do agree, however, is about the historical significance of the digital revolution. Like me, Tapscott sees the social media transformation as equivalent to the industrial revolution in its transformational significance. But what we don't share is a common theory of history. For Tapscott, the digital revolution represents the progressive transformation from the mass age to the age of the autonomous, liberated individual. Here, for example, is his analysis of the shift in educational terms (pp 139):

Mass education was a product of the industrial economy. It came along with mass production, mass marketing and the mass media..... This mass-education idea, however, is being challenged. Students are individuals who have individual ways of learning and absorbing information... "If the factory was the model of the typical 20th Century American school, the craftsman's shop or artist's studio is the model for the 21st century educational delivery system."

What is interesting is that Tapscott is idealizing the pre-industrial romantic vision of the "craftsman shop" or "artist's studio" as the organizing principle of the digital age. I don't agree. Yes, he's right that the mass production of the industrial age is being replaced by the digital revolution. But I fear that our new epoch will be characterized by a new kind of hyper-individualism more akin to digital feudalism than to an idyllic new age of craftsmen and artists.