Richard Sennett, Centennial Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and professor at New York University, doesn't normally feature in the usual line-up of quoted experts concerned with the diffuse nature of the internet and its affects on humanity. A regrettable omission because Richard Sennett's digital wisdoms (“The Digital Wisdom of Richard Sennett”) are not only found online.
An expert in urban social relationships, Sennett doesn't only focus on the effects of economic systems on everyday life. He also offers important insights more ephemeral spaces, such as the internet. He led a research project which looked at the working conditions of mid-twenties professionals in finance, IT and new media. “They are confused”, he says. “Everyone thinks they are going to be the next Martha Lane Fox but they are learning very quickly that all these fantasy worlds just aren't going to happen. Don't commit, don't be dependent, stay loose. Loyalty is very low on this list. But if you think dependence is bad, what you produce is a damaged human being.” His diagnosis: “lack of mastery over one's life”.
Sennett is a successful public intellectual and belongs to the group of authors and thinkers, whose expertise covers a broad spectrum of areas. He's often asked to make sense of society, who we are and how “we” became what “we” are today.
Sennett's list of publications spans disciplines, from architecture to design, music, art, literature, history, and political and economic theory. His works are marked by anthropological hunger for detail. In his own life, the “making is thinking” and vice versa principle is probably best reflected in his mastery of the cello. In London, he once played in a small chamber orchestra alongside former editor-in-chief of the Guardian Alan Rusbringer on the clarinet. Those evenings must have been reminiscent of the literary and philosophical salons of glory days gone by.
His writings focus on social inequalities, the effects of urban growth on the individual and the interconnections of power, modernity and public life. Urban living, with its promise of anonymity as well as community, continues to offer new food for thought. In his book “The Uses of Disorder”, Sennett observes: “the city alone can make us conscious of the kind of equilibrium of disorder.” The same could be said about digital spaces.
At their best, his writings on sociology read like a subtle, psychological novel, an engaging biography or a good piece of journalism. They fulfil their roles of “reporting on the act of thinking”. His stated goal is to re-cast sociology into a form of literature (as it formerly was).
Currently, Sennett is working on completing his three volume project "Homo Faber", which looks at the impacts of material culture on human thought processes using his central theme of “Making is thinking”. Even abstract thought like mathematics are based on material foundations such as the abacus.
The first book in the series, titled "The Craftsman", was published in 2008 while the second, "Together: The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation", arrived in 2012. The soon to be released final publication in the series will focus on human creation in an urban setting and include descriptions of internet-related maker cultures.
Sennett argues: "The material world speaks back to us constantly, by its resistance, by its ambiguity, by the way it changes as circumstances change, and the enlightened are those able to enter into this dialogue and, by so doing, come to develop an 'intelligent hand'."
His conclusions and theses clearly lean left on the political spectrum. While his research mostly supported the claims made by American counterculture – the environment which spawned some of the first tech startups (see Steward Brand and the Whole Earth Catalogue) – his academic analyses were initially not well received by the movement:
"I started out in the 60s when it was pretty fevered on the left. And then I moved right in reaction to all the bullshit of the counterculture. I got fed up with that anti intellectualism, the rejection of serious ideas, of serious art and the measurement of reality by psychological categories of the moment, an emphasis on immediate gratification.“
This self-identity explains the creation of the New York Institute of Humanities, co-founded by Sennett and led by him since the 1970s. The institute's aim is the exchange of knowledge and ideas between scientists and the wider public. It's scholars have included Michel Foucault, Susan Sonntag, as well as Sennet's wife and economist Saskia Sassen. At re:publica 2014 she held a great talk on the complexity and power structures of the global economy (watch the video recording here) .
Sennett described the institute as an attempt “to create a 'town-gown' intellectual centre in combining academia, the worlds of publishing and writing, musicians, diplomats, journalists, politicians, painters... a kind of All Souls with lousy food lots of good talk”. That pretty much sums up our vision for re:publica's 10th anniversary event.
Image credit: Richard Sennett, photo by Thomas Struth