Add to bookbag
Author: Thomas G. Lannon
Title: Daniel J. Cohen's Our Modern Times: The Nature of Capitalism in the Information Age
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
September 2005

This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact for more information.

Source: Daniel J. Cohen's Our Modern Times: The Nature of Capitalism in the Information Age
Thomas G. Lannon

vol. 8, no. 2, September 2005
Article Type: Book Review

Our Modern Times: The Nature of Capitalism in the Information Age

Thomas G. Lannon

New York Public Library

Cohen, Daniel.  Our Modern Times: The Nature of Capitalism in the Information Age.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.  126 p.  ISBN 0-262-03302-X. $14.95.

Daniel Cohen's short volume Our Modern Times was first published in French in 2000, and published in paperback by the MIT Press in 2004.  It is a slim and literate attempt at setting forth an economic rationale behind the developments in capitalism since World War II.  Through an investigation of the workplace in the computer age, Cohen attempts to contrast the role of the worker both before and after the advancement of new information technologies.  Without explicitly discussing any individuals responsible for the development of computers and the networked society, Cohen claims that the students of the 1960s played some part in the bringing about the information technology revolution. The book rests on the assumption that the rejection of bourgeois values by the baby boomer generation allowed for greater flexibility in the workplace of the last 30 years. While he never actually claims to believe that the riots in Paris '68 led to the UNIX prompt, it is with a sense of pride that the author touts the achievements of his generation. The book excels when it describes the faults and metaphysical ailments of the new economy, rather than tracing the history of its development.  Concepts are developed and described in an intellectual and easy to digest fashion leaving the book read as an informal essay.  The focus on the changing nature of the workplace is interesting and insightful, however, today's reader will probably question how much capitalism of the current decade has reverted back to conservatism and steady conglomeration since the exit of the swinging and excessive 90's.

Cohen's suggestion that the baby boomer rejection of their parents’ workplace is backed up by his concepts of financial and human capital.  In his historical view, the cultural revolution of the 1960s ushered in a new type of capitalism where what is human is to be valued higher than the purely financial.  Human capital is characterized by the subtle intricacies of what a person knows, and how these specialized moments help a person in their professional efforts.  Human capital is the competence of a worker to do their own job, and the need to understand how their job is performed in competing companies.  The era of human capital is filled with management theorists and consultants whose work is to know human relationships.  Everything we are told about human capital is the opposite of its predecessor, financial capital.  Cohen’s model for financial capital is Henry Ford's assembly plant, where workers are forced to work and their unique knowledge goes ignored.  Financial capital is not interested in the lives of its workers, but in the growth of its own market share. Cohen sees glimpses of totalitarianism in Fordism, and reckons it was utopian computer scientists who helped bring down the era of the big bosses.

The reader might assume Cohen to be a champion for the new workplace dynamic. However, we find out that all is not perfect in the sphere of the computerized office.  One of the problems in the era of human capital, where the separation of one's job and life are increasingly difficult to distinguish, is the risk of overwork.  A whole chapter of the book is dedicated to elucidating the cause and describing the pain of ‘burnout.’  Rather than merely claim people work too many hours, while constantly facing the risk of redundancy at the slightest market shift, a more cultural definition of the state of ‘burnout’ is presented.  Cohen reports on the connection between de-standardization of work and the rise in the possibilities of consumption.  Just we expect modern workers to multi-task, so do we expect products to be created for every moment of our busy lives. The days of standardized products are gone, and everything is now made to order.  Cohen suggests that this way of consuming products, coupled with the new risks at the workplace is what leads to burnout.  He uses the term 'polyvalence' to describe the tech savvy worker living in the world of consume on demand.  Tasks are meshed together, people surf the web while they work, executives type their own e-mails and workers are less under the control of a boss are than are regulated by computer programs.

The book takes a sobering look at conclusions to be drawn from the changes in the culture it describes.  The economist in Cohen becomes apparent as he includes statistics for population and employment in France and the United States that give proof to some of his claims.  He highlights the rise of the industry of intermediation where businesses, such as banks and insurance companies profit off the analysis of risk.  Another of these conclusions is the rising cost of the arts, for which technology has done nothing to advance or change.  Cohen describes the sad state of affairs for opera, orchestra, and theater in a world of increasing economic productivity and decreasing technological cost.  As the human time for those educated to be artists, or appreciate such arts as opera increases in cost, so to do ticket prices.  Cohen is interested in pondering the switch from an industrial to service economy, and eloquently describes a society where the consumption of things remains essential, though not their production.  Current developments such open source technology, the Creative Commons license and the turn to sustainability in architectural theory, while not mentioned, seem to fit into this description of a society fully saturated with the consumption of goods. Looking with an increasing scope, Cohen asks the question of what will happen to workers as the new information revolution unfolds?  It is here where he posits some of his most enlightening claims, such as the errors in Malthusian ideas of increasing population leading to unemployment.  Cohen also argues that technological innovation creates, and not displaces jobs, while at the same time decreasing production costs in its area of influence.

Cohen's ideas are synthesized in his description of capitalism as a force that continually destroys and begins anew. In this way, the cultural changes of the last fifty years have occurred in line with capitalism’s rules. They have alleviated problems, as well as created new ones.  The messages of the ‘60s counterculture have been successfully incorporated into the machination of the electric media, and morphed into advertising slogans and fashion styles. Cohen recognizes that capitalism and its utilitarian logic at the very least enrich the masses.  What began as an attempt to reject the world of big business has successfully inserted meaning into jobs, but it is now that meaning which resembles what it first set out to destroy.  Working for one's own sake, and not just for monetary fulfillment has created the anxieties recognizable to today’s worker.  The book stands as a wonderful explication of the ideas necessary in thinking about the information society.  Cohen relies less on economic theory then on cultural criticism and general intellectual history. He manages to inform the reader that the occurrences associated with the last fifty years of change are not particular to the times we live in, but are part of a larger growth of society.  Capitalism, before any other force, gives these transitions a means to expression. Perhaps these means of expression are the goods exchanged in the information age.