Welcome to the Age of Knowledge: How Propaganda Has Moved Us From the Information Age, Into New Challenges & (Potentially?) a Renaissance
It’s instructive to begin with Barry Blitt’s March 28, 2016, New Yorker cover, “The Big Short,” because it conflates three central ideas critical to our discussion: Donald Trump’s deep anxiety about the size of his fingers — and something else, our age’s latest, desperate attempt to try and determine our future by hyperbolic palm reading — disconcerted flailing as we transition into the challenging Age of Knowledge — and the latest, eye-opening film directed by Adam McKay, The Big Short, based on the book by the same name written by Michael Lewis about the financial crisis of 2007–2008, which was triggered by the build-up of the housing market and the economic bubble.
No one has said this, so let me be the first: Donald Trump is a manifestation of an age that has run its course. There you have it.
The Information Age, whereby digital industry created a knowledge-based society surrounded by a high-tech global economy that spans its influence on how the manufacturing throughput and the service sector operate in an efficient and convenient way, is waning.
This is not to say that innovative, creative development of new technologies is dead; far from it. But we, as a society, in terms of how we engage this knowledge-based existence, have reached a turning point — an ending and a beginning.
Information requires time to become knowledge. On the one hand, machines are churning and learning, reusing and revising, and making better machines of themselves. Humans are much slower; we find we’re completely reliant on machines as never before. We’ve become true cyborgs. And we don’t know what to do with ourselves.
Information is compressed and it comes at us through social media and mediated interpretations of reality in sound bites. We receive the cacophony all at once — computers, smartphones, ear buds, radios and televisions are always on, always on us.
Work has become more labor intensive as a consequence. For the white collar worker, gone is the 40 hour work week; she’s constantly online responding to someone’s needs, managed by systems without faces and prophetic names, Integration, Idealware, The Raiser’s Edge. For the blue collar worker, either because machines have replaced their labor or because of the fickle nature of capital and its relationship to globalization, always looking for the cheapest labor, the cheapest way to make something work, grow something, do something, labor has gone offshore — as has much banking. Promises of a new, yet to be richer industrial U.S. will not bring these jobs back; industrialization is forever gone and the promises politicians make, if history tells us anything, are a fabrication whose sole purpose is the consolidation of power among a few elites.
So we’re angry; we’re displeased; we’re miserable. Enter Donald Trump, his small fingers and his vulgarity.
Donald Trump is not a person. He is not a candidate, nor is he a politician. Donald Trump is an Event. An event, says Slavoj Žižek, “is a change of the very frame through which we perceive the world and engage in it.” What we are in fact witnessing, in the case of Trump, following Šižek’s definition, “is a supposed fiction standing in for a reality that nobody is willing to acknowledge.”
The reality no one is willing to acknowledge is that we are not in control of our very lives. We look to entertainment for answers, to mediated sports, alcohol and drugs, and dream of a future in myriad things that ensure our residency in an illusory spectacle, an imagined life that does not exist. Illusion is reality. This is Donald Trump. This is why hyperbolic palm reading seems reasonable — nothing else does. “Leadership skills up the wazoo,” and we believe Trump, especially because of the way he says it, wazoo. “Successful (duh!).” We want to believe someone who like speaks as we do. “Respected by Hispanics” & “Respected by Blacks” — slogans that can be on t-shirts we want to wear. Where do I buy one?
Overwhelmed by the racism in our own country, in our streets and in our college campuses; visible socio-economic disparities; terrorism and ISIS seemingly everywhere else, as are the invisible victims of terror, refugees living on the borders of existence; and the broken promises that are too many to count — we are traumatized.
The order of things has been destabilized. And so we anticipate a new, master plan that will restructure our fields of perception and provide meaning — perhaps, as Šižek says, “a radical political rupture.”
Enter the rupture, the event proper, Donald Trump, the propagandist. When a society is confused, beaten down, besieged and anxiety-ridden, the propaganda machinery is unleashed to sooth the ferocious populace. “Very big heart (but not like an enlarged heart or anything. Perfect size).” Size matters in America. In the confusion, we inevitably turn to reading palms. Nothing else seems to have worked; everything we’ve done so far has gotten us to this point.
The compression and speed of incoming information have made it impossible to tell truth from fiction, the real from the illusion. To see accurately time is essential; a space between the information and understanding is a prerequisite to knowing. Dissatisfaction grows when space is compressed — or taken from us. Imagination, the key for survival, is marginalized, disqualified.
“The Big Short,” Donald Trump, the Big Man with Short Fingers — and Adam McKay’s film about the financial crisis of 2007–2008, which was triggered by the build-up of the housing market and the economic bubble, are the symbolic ends of an Information Age that relied too heavily on illusion.
We’re now at the doorstep of the Age of Knowledge. What does this mean? Tomorrow’s challenges are about deciphering, about deconstructing our means of production, our means of meaning-giving, our means of mythologizing lived experiences for political (read: power) ends.
The Age of Knowledge requires deliberation, inquiry, cooperation and collaboration. We’re lost; this is the only way back. “We are now at the beginning of an era whose constructions are far scarier than ruins,” says Rebecca Solnit in A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Indeed. Information is upon us; sometimes, more often than not, staggering. We need time now; we need to push back on the common structures in our lives to gain the time and space we need to breath and decipher and deconstruct the relationships between (con)texts and meanings. Machines will help in this.
But the first order of business is to dig deeply into the relationship between propaganda, power, and our complacency; then it will be to reimagine our institutions and the way power is negotiated structurally. This is the essence, the building blocks of the Age of Knowledge that will — if guided by purposeful, virtuous action, and empathy — bring about a Renaissance.
And if not, if we don’t recognize this and continue on a conveyor belt to apathy and meaninglessness, well then, we’re destined to a future up the wazoo of hyperbolic palm reading, distrust, anxiety and malaise, and we’ll look for enemies, we’ll look to violate each other, feeling that there’s less happiness and fewer resources to go around — a future of nothing but fight and strife for scraps and lead by small hands that can’t do much of anything, not even toil.