"...The breakdown of social order is not a matter of nostalgia, poor memory, or ignorance about the hypocrisy 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 represented weakening social bonds and common values holding people together in Western societies, occurred just as societies were making the transition from the industrial to the information era?"
F. Fukuyama, The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of the Social Order, 1999.
Do modern technological change and social chaos go hand in hand as Fukuyama implies? Are we dealing with a true social decline amidst the growing technological sophistication of an information society or simply a form of socio-evolutionary malaise? What does the seeming malaise unleashed by this evolving information economy bring to our understanding of public discourse and the subsequent challenge of governance?
The paper is divided into three parts. Part one underlines a few significant dimensions of social and economic change in Western societies over the last thirty years. The second part identifies some of the contributing factors that have shaped public discourse. The third part suggests that Beck's notions of an emergent risk society and of reflexive modernism1 help decode the significance of this new discourse. The concluding comments suggest some implications of this new discourse for governments and governance.
The last two decades have witnessed a revolution in information and communication technologies that has, from a socio-economic perspective, been complex and multi-faceted. From a society striving to affirm the principles of universality, equity and economic security, we are now a society of individuals and highly differentiated groups. Consumer choice, personal entrepreneurship and solitary indulgence are now presented as the anticipated behavioural and attitudinal norm.2 From a political economy rooted in the strengthening, integrating and defending the nation state, we are asked to participate in a corporate driven but yet-to-take-shape globalization experiment. From a life consisting of family, church community and nation, more and more of us live lives for ourselves, our families, our electronically-based networks and our causes.3 Poverty, once seen as the result of a fundamentally-flawed system (capitalism) has increasingly been seen as the product of dependency, failed creativity or imagination, and even irresponsibility. This represented no small change. But it did not end there.
Governments have been active in this transformation. Indeed, they have often been the lead change agent. Canada for example, committed multi-millions of dollars towards promoting fundamental organizational and operational changes to address the challenges and opportunities of the knowledge economy and the information and communication technology (ICT) capability.
1 Ulrich Beck, World Risk Society (Polity Press, 1999).
2 For an analysis of how this image circulated internationally and has been borrowed in surprising and inventive ways by other cultures see Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (University of Minnesota Press, 1996) and Jan Van Dijk, The Network Society: An Introduction to the Social Aspects of New Media (Sage, 1999).
3 Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Touchstone Books, 2001) and Robert Putnam, Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society (Oxford University, 2002).