Monthly Archives: August 2009

The truth and change, 2: Technoredemption Goes Pro

house-of-tomorrow

The House of Tomorrow, 1933, Indiana version

In the first installment of The truth and change, I wrote about how the Enlightenment gave us a new kind of science and social discourse that pictured a perfectible mankind, which would be the basis of real democracy and freedom in the future.  Yet it was really a Greek tragedy.

Jefferson snubbed the ancients by declaring that there will be something new under the sun, and a hundred years later the world embarked on a century that would witness versions of apocalypse previously imaginable only in epics and divine texts.  Everything that the Enlightenment made it possible to imagine, it also made it possible to destroy.  That was the dilemma of my generation . . .

Technoredemption Goes Pro

The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair gave us the “House of Tomorrow,” which still stands in Indiana and at 78 years old combines the future and past in one space.  Like most dream houses created since the 1930s, it has a double garage, with a twist – one for an automobile and one for the airplane that “World’s Fair optimists assumed every future family would own …”

One can only imagine how this garage has played out of time – rumpus room, game room, massive mud room, cluttered workshop where grandpa used to build boats in bottles, and now the place where mom and dad surf the internet when the other isn’t looking.

The House of Tomorrow held out a vision of the future at odds with much of what was going on around it.  A few years earlier, World War I gave people a glimpse of the horror to be wrought by chemical warfare and bombs.  In 1933, faith in individual action and the capitalist economy was well under seige.  On February 27 of that year, Hitler burned the Reichstag and The Third Reich began.  World War II, with its multiple Holocausts of genocide, firebombing, and nuclear warfare would be soon upon us.

The House of Tomorrow, 1933, Berlin version

The House of Tomorrow, 1933, Berlin version

Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (published in 1973) portayed this entire destructive arc of the twentieth century.  Science fuelled a spiral of violence, which unleashed and unbound human emotions both zany and horrific.  Pynchon captured this most vividly in Brigadier Pudding’s humiliation scene, a Pavlovian experiment in the malleability/perfectibility of mankind that was a living annihilation at the border between the past and our future in which Pudding relived and relieved himself of the filth of Ypres and Passechendaele over and over again.  The ritual became the center of his being.

Brigadier Pudding on the border between past and future.

Zak Smith: Brigadier Pudding, p. 236

Still, annihilation and holocaust were not the only ideas on the table. The playfulness of Pynchon’s novel and its main character, Tyrone Slothrop, held out the competing narratives of innocence and technologial redemption, impulses ironically (and perhaps hypocritcally) present in Robert Moses’s 1964 New York World’s Fair.  This was the year of my birth and the year in which Stanley Kubrik gave us Dr. Strangelove.  At the Fair, GM’s “Tomorrow Land” provided a delightful tour of the wonders yet to be bestowed on us by reinforced concrete, steel, and plastic.  Tomorrow Land was a glimpse into the world that could be, minus the evils of nuclear war, poverty, and exploitation.

At the Fair’s Pepsi Pavilion, “Children of the World” used mechanized dolls and music to showcase a world of hope and diversity.  This became Disney’s “It’s a Small World,” leading to the installation of its relentlessly saccharine theme song in the minds of millions of people every year, some of whom must wish that Slim Pickins would ride a missile into Orlando and put an end to the little dolls and gadgets just so they could get that song out of their heads.

The world we inherited in the Reagan years was reeling between the Jetsons and Dr. Strangelove as Paul Westerberg wrote “we’ll inherit the earth, but we don’t want it.”  If we were finally, really going to do it, to blow it up, I’d at least try to spend my last years thinking of other things.

TRS80mod3

The Mighty "Trash-80"

In 1981, I bought a TRS-80, Model III.  I was 17 and had saved up the money from my job at the pizza parlor down the street.  I read Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave and John Nesbitt’s Megatrends.  A future of progress was much more appealing future than the one forecast by the “Doomsday Clock” on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.  Such was the future according to Generation X, as we stumbled between slackerism and technoredemption.

In 1989, I remember being in my kitchen, washing dishes and listening to NPR when they announced that people had climbed over the Berlin Wall and were taking it apart.  In my own mind, I replaced The Day After with Blondie and hummed “Atomic” over and over again as I felt relief wash over me.

Then in the mid-1990s, Newt Gingrich started invoking Alvin Toffler at every opportunity.  1984 and Y2K came and went with neither Orwellian nor apocalyptic futures taking hold.  The most prescient glimpse of the future provided in my entire lifetime was not Space 1999 but Prince’s 1999, which accurately forecast exactly what I, and countless others around the world, were doing in 1999.  Whatever the future would be, it would be weird, and once Tim Berners Lee put the World Wide Web up, Gen X went online and, as if following Hunter S. Thompson’s consultation to our parents, we went pro.

Technoredemption provided a kind of cure-all for anxiety about the future.  Today it feeds the relentlessly positive assessments of Twitter’s contribution to revolution and freedom around the world.  Yet the same technology can bring us back to Huxley or Orwell, and we know it.  Evgeny Morozov writes that even as “activists and NGOs are turning to crowdsourcing to analyze data, map human rights violations, scrutinize the voting records of their MPs, and even track illegal logging in the Amazon”, ” governments are also relying on crowdsourcing to identify dissenters and muzzle free speech.

Technoredemption remains as much a promise now as it was in 1776, 1933, 1964, or 1989.  Rousseau’s famous line from the opening of On the Social Contract – “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” – strikes me as quite true today, in the same sense that Rousseau meant it, and with the same consequences.

Notes and Credits

The photograph of the House of Tomorrow, Indiana version, was found on Wikipedia, in the commons at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:571531cv.jpg.  The House of Tomorrow, Berlin version, is in the Wikimedia commons at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Reichstagsbrand.jpg.

We didn’t need nuclear bombs alone to create armageddons of pain and horror.  Madhukar Shukla writes “The Firebombing of Tokyo was as devasting as the nuclear, Hidden in the history of that time, is an unnoticed footnote – the ‘Tokyo Fire-Bombing,’ which the Western press would not touch, and the Japanese survivors would not like to dwell upon [was an] event which happened months before the atom-bombs and with far more lethal consequences.”  Shukla’s blog is called “Alternative Perspective” and his homepage is here.

The illustration of Brig. Pudding is by Zak Smith, from his work Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Much thanks to Zak for granting me permission to use the image.  The series of illustrations was featured in the 2004 Whitney Biennial (agh, just before I arrived in New York!) and is now part of the permanent collection at the Walker in Minneapolis.  In the episode referenced above, Brig. Pudding must undergo a scatological humiliation scene with Domina Nocturna as part of his atonement for his role in Ypres and Passechendaele, a scene occupying pp. 232-36 of the book (Viking Press, 1973).  Click on the image and you will be taken to a website featuring all of the illustrations.

Among Pynchon’s themes we count the Europeans’ damning of the world to endure the repetitive future of their own racist, colonial past, which sits perversely at the heart of American innocence and condemns America (white America, especially) to this struggle between technoredemption, dystopia, and annihilation.  Like Rousseau, Pynchon sees the chains that reason has placed on mankind.  He continues to explore that theme in his writing, with impressive intensity in Mason and Dixon, in which the two famous astronomers are contracted to create an artificial boundary between two artificial entites (Pennsylvania and Maryland) that have been imposed on something like a state of nature.

Pynchon’s new novel, Inherent Vice, goes into the territory of detective fiction and film noir, two of my favorite genres.  I am giddy and cannot wait to read this book.  Expect more posts related to TP.

On August 31, 2006, Douglas Coupland posted a wonderfully ironic vision of the future as past and present on his New York Times blog.  At that point he boldly foresaw the Kindle-future, as he predicted that books will “cease to exist” and become “extinct.”  Looking at his old novels and thinking of insects, he began to think about how wasps made paper from wood, and then he used his own mouth to pulp his novels and make nests from them.  The resulting photos are quite beautiful, and the blog posting shows what Generation X looks like as a nest.

The photograph of the TRS-80 Model III comes from Stan Veit’s website, PC-History, based on his famous book, Stan Veit’s History of the Personal Computer.

I learned about Evgeny Morozov’s blog post in a Tweet from Cause Global’s Marcia Stepanek.

The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in
Engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin
A nuclear error, but I have no fear
Cause London is drowning and I, I live by the river

Advertisements

6 Comments

Filed under danger, death, freedom, ideas, politics, truth, Uncategorized, war

The truth and change, 1: From Perfection to Dystopia

The House of Tomorrow, 1776

The House of Tomorrow, 1776

For as long as I can remember, people have been trumpeting the big changes that were supposed to occur in my lifetime.  In this span of years, roughly the 1960s-forward, change was the key ingredient of the future, which amounted to three alternatives:  progress, dystopia, or annihilation.  Looking back on the future of the last 45 years, however, it turns out that these aren’t mutually exclusive alternatives.

Einstein observed that the experience of an event is subject to relational factors like who’s observing it, where, and under what conditions.  So it is with the future.  It may not be the world itself that changes, but rather how we experience it, a future that happens inside our bodies to make the world look, sound, feel, taste, and smell different.  The House of Tomorrow may well be the house of yesterday, but it won’t feel that way.

This is the first of three posts on The truth and change.  The series will look at how tangled, ironic, and weird (to invoke a favorite category of Hunter S. Thompson’s) the future will be, if it’s not that already.  The exercise in lateral thinking takes us from perfection to dystopia, annihilation, technoredemption, slacker paradise, Qoheleth, Big Pharma, and cyberchange.

From perfection to dystopia

The future, change, and progress are products of The Enlightenment.  For millennia, people were assumed to be what they were.  Thinkers in the West and the East had explored all sorts of ideas about how to create good societies, find peace, and achieve enlightenment (The Buddha’s kind) – but there was no belief in a “future” that would be different from the past.  Differences in politics, spirituality, or technology were seen as superficial, and the great wheel of history rolled along.

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity! …
One generation passes and another comes, but the world forever stays …
What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done.
Nothing is new under the sun.  [Eccl. 1: 2, 4, 9]

Then in the eighteenth century the philosophes in France and other spots around Europe started to think about the life we could have on Earth through science, reason, and (in one form or another) “democracy.”  The twin notions of change and the future became tangible, captured in a repurposing of the word “progress.”  In The Invention of Air, Stephen Johnson shows how these ideas were tied together across science, politics, and religion.  Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Joseph Priestly (the nominal subject of Johnson’s book) were scientists and radicals who imprinted the American Revolution with the Enlightenment’s vision of the future.

As Jefferson wrote to Priestly after the presidential inauguration in 1800, “We can no longer say there is nothing new under the sun.  For this whole chapter in the history of man is new.”  In another context, Jefferson famously quipped, “Every generation needs a new revolution.”  Compromised as Jefferson’s revolution was, eventually even the enslaved and formerly enslaved African Americans, written out at the beginning, would build their own revolution to insist on (some of) Jefferson’s ideals, among others.  The times, they would be a-changing, and the early Abolition movement itself was a part of the Enlightenment’s vision of change.

New industries and the “New World” conjured an image of humankind’s infinite malleability – we were blank slates on which a better world would be drawn.  People were, in a word, perfectible.  Yet perfection was a contestable quality, and disagreements over perfectibility would draw the lines of ideological battles that lasted from 1776 to 1989.  One of the central lines in the struggle over change was who would make change happen best — freely acting individuals, private corporate entities, or the state.

These conflicts underlay Adam Smith’s own writings.  He placed great faith in individuals and very little in either the state or corporations.  In Smith’s ideal world, we were a self-correcting society of individuals guided “by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of [their] intention.”  In other words, people following purely individual motives could create social good, almost accidentally.

Smith applied his faith in individuals to economic life, but he saw a conflict between the capacity of individual action to create a moral world and the effects of capitalism’s main motor for change, the division of labor.  Far from perfecting mankind, the nature of industrial production (and with it, the creation of wealth) would render the bulk of people ever more ignorant even as democracy expanded their ability to affect their world:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur.  He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human to creature to become.  The torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment … Of the great and extensive interests of his country, he is altogether incapable of judging …

This would be the product of capitalism, said Smith, “unless government takes some pains to prevent it.”  Smith never resolved this conflict in his understanding of change, and his fans have ignored it and instead dwelled on the “invisible hand” alone, taking this half-premise to logical extremes.

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand made a grand dystopian plea for her version of capitalist utopia that in general (if less radical) terms is part of everyday political discourse in the United States, where faith in powerful, dynamic individuals is strong.  The fear of the state is great, and the relation to mass politics is complicated.  The masses are fickle and in general not to be trusted (even by the masses).  To wit:  In the wake of the economic collapse of 2008, “going John Galt” has become the calling card of dissident financiers holding out against the reactions of the federal government and the populist fervor aimed at them, though this fervor was short-lived and now is turned against the government and health care reform.

Over time, dystopia transcended the narrow limitations of the conflicts between capitalism and socialism, seeing in both a massification of industrial society that used technology to dampen the very urges toward freedom and expression unleashed by the forces that Jefferson and Priestly heralded with such optimism.  Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We combined his experiences in the Russian Revolution and in the British factories of World War I to describe a true dystopia that was the forerunner of Orwell’s 1984.  Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World concentrated our gaze on the manufacture of pleasure as a way of breeding conformity and social order from the “torpor of mind” that Smith lamented in 1776.

Yet numbing sameness wasn’t the only threat to Jefferson and Priestly’s House of Tomorrow.  The rocket scientists who stood on their shoulders (among so many others) eventually helped us create weapons of unparalleled destruction that could end all life as we know it.  Beyond dystopia, the future created by reason might actually annihilate us all.  These were our choices by the time I was growing up:  Smith, Marx, Rand, Huxley, Orwell, Dr. Strangelove, or Charlton Heston on a beach some time in the distant future.

The Apes were able to perfect themselves greatly with people out of the way.  The surviving humans, able to carry on through accidents of history and rocket science, became vermin and slaves until the moment in which Taylor and Nova became a new Adam and Eve under the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, now a fallen, man-made Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  If you look hard enough, you can see in the background the shadows of Priestly, Paine, Jefferson, Franklin, Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Teller.  Thoreau and Whitman are nowhere to be found.  They were buried by the knowledge of good and evil.

Notes and Credits

The quotation from the opening of Ecclesiastes is taken from the New American Bible, Eccl. 1: 2, 4, 9.

Jefferson’s statement setting aside Qoheleth is cited by Stephen Johnson in The Invention of Air:  A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America (New York:  Riverhead Books, 2008), p. 199.  Overall, this book is a real treat that shows a rare and impressive achievement of lateral thinking.  To extend your thinking, visit Johnson’s blog, where he is further ruminating on ecosystems, technology, and change.

My quotations from Adam Smith are taken from The Essential Adam Smith, ed. Robert L. Heilbronner (New York:  W. W. Norton, 1986), pp. 265 and 302.  Read this book, which includes abridged versions of both the Theory of the Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations.  They are indispensable critiques of the world that Smith’s fans seem to adore.

1 Comment

Filed under Albert Einstein, danger, death, freedom, ideas, individuality, philosophy, politics, revolution, Uncategorized, war

The truth and chickens, coda: The Road

chicken-red

The following five questions and topics address a very old issue involving a chicken and a road.  In spite of many hours given to thinking about this topic, by myself and legions of others, many issues are unresolved even as we speak (or write).  One brave chicken, one empty road, and a million synapses firing all at once all lead us to this juncture.  Follow the links and then contribute something to help finish the story:

Twitter your immediate thoughts and include #chickenroad in your Tweet …

Leave a comment if there’s something you want to highlight for readers, or warn them about …

Write a story that addresses the following points and/or questions and send it to jguidry.7@gmail.com.  We’ll talk about it, but mainly I’ll be looking to repost your story here.

Now … here we go.

First:  Which of the following roads (paths, lanes, etc.) was the chicken trying to cross, and in what way did it matter?  Each link takes you to the appropriate song (or book).

•    the road less travelled
•    the hillbilly highway
•    the long and winding road
•    the path of least resistance
•    the lost highway
•    the road to nowhere
•    highway 61 revisited

Second:  When the bear went over the mountain, he saw the other side of the mountain, to be sure, but winding through the valley below was one of the aforementioned roads (paths, lanes, etc.).  Alongside the road was a chicken.  Note:  the bear was hungry.

Third:  In the middle of the road is Paul McCartney.  Do they do it in the road?  Or not? And what is “it,” specifically?

Fourth:  As the bear reaches the road in the valley below, along with the chicken and Paul McCartney, “she” is coming round the mountain, when she comes, when she comes, driving eight white horses, and etc.  What happened next?  Who is “she?” And why were the horses white?

Fifth:  Should any character in your story “live happily ever after,” please explain how, and why, in precise terms.

Notes and Credits

Photograph of chicken in the road:  Ian Britton, August 29, 2004.

The drawings in the Bob Dylan video for Highway 61 Revisited are by a man named Giovanni Rabuffetti.  I can’t find a home page for him or a Wiki entry, but I found this entry on him on a blog called White Rabbit by a guy named Andrew Keogh.  I think it’s beautiful art, and there’s a lot of hits for drawings by Rabuffetti if you google him, including this video with animation by Rabuffetti for “All Along the Watchtower.”

One of the featured videos here is from The Beatelles, an all female Beatles tribute band from Liverpool.  You can learn a lot more about them here and here.  And if you like this, see The Beladies, who were the first all-woman Beatles band, hailing from Buenos Argentina.

And considering the road and highway theme of this posting, I can’t resist the temptation to post another favorite highway song by a favorite songwriter, Steve Earle, “The Long Lonesome Highway Blues.”  Enjoy.


5 Comments

Filed under danger, risk, truth, Uncategorized