Monday, 30 September 2013

It's Yesterday Again

Ceiling at Ash House Hotel, Martock, August 2013

Recently, I seem to keep reading variations on this paragraph:
"Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the unnuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deep zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others."

Rebecca Solnit, "Diary: In the Day of the Postman", London Review of Books, v.35 no.16, 29/8/2013
You must have seen such pieces, too. Generally written by well-known writers advancing into late middle-age (Jonathan Franzen had a similar piece in The Guardian recently), they bemoan the state of the world, and in particular the negative impact of an all-pervasive technology on the human capacity for sociability, learning, eating real food, and tying shoelaces.  Particularly among the young. Surely, they ask, the downfall of civilization is imminent?  As a parent of two young e-adults, I do know the feeling.

The term for such literary grumbling is a "jeremiad", after those two sunniest of the Old Testament books, Jeremiah and Lamentations.  Given that Jeremiah was writing his Mr. Angry columns in about 600 B.C., we can be pretty sure the world must definitely have gone to Hades in a handcart several times over since, and that life in 2013 A.D. is nothing like as comfy or as convivial as it was in the good old days of the late Bronze Age of blessed memory.

Well, not really.  Certainly not for the unregarded, unrecorded majority of humankind.  Jeremiads are fun to read and to write, but almost always wrong.  Wrong, because the unfashionably optimistic Whig view of history is, on balance, a more accurate reflection of the way things have gone than the perverse idea that progress (usually, in jeremiad terms, "so-called progress") is always either illusory or heading backwards or so relative as to be just another word for standing still.

True, there is a rhetorical satisfaction in the assertion that advances in technology are balanced by a corresponding decline in the spiritual well-being of humanity.  Why, these new-fangled iron tools are putting too much commercial power into the hands of a few untrustworthy and mysterious blacksmiths!  And, worse, young people are losing the skill -- and the sheer satisfaction! -- of knapping their own flints.  It will be the end of the Stone Age as we know it, mark my words.  And, look, this famous shiny stuff of yours just goes blunt and rusty if you leave it lying around!  Call me old-fashioned, but I simply prefer the feel of a well-made flint handaxe.

It is probably an eternal truth that we, the middle-aged, will always disapprove of the young for merely inhabiting the world we have built for them.  Mobile phones, tablets and laptops are not invented, improved, manufactured, distributed or retailed by 19-year olds.  (They're not usually paid for by 19-year olds, either.  Harumph.)  As so often, Douglas Adams had wisdom to share on this subject:
"Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things."
Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt
Notably, Jonathan Franzen's last sentence in his Guardian piece sees him stumbling out of Jeremiah's harsh, flint-strewn desert into an oasis of sanity:
"The experience of each succeeding generation is so different from that of the previous one that there will always be people to whom it seems that any connections with the key values of the past have been lost. As long as modernity lasts, all days will feel to someone like the last days of humanity."
Exactly.  But, sometimes, the Bronze Age can feel as if it were just yesterday.

Valley Garden nursery, August 2013


Zouk Delors said...

Yes, but what is the destination we are progressing towards?

Mike C. said...

We'll never know...

However, I must have mentioned on this blog somewhere before the theories of Argentinian Trotskyist Juan Posadas, who argued -- perfectly logically -- that given the inevitable direction of history according to Marx, any visitors from space must (by virtue of their technological advance) be socialists. UFOs should therefore be welcomed. I suspect Spielberg is a closet Posadist.


Zouk Delors said...

Yes, and I suspect an alien civilization's first question about us would not be, "Who is their leader?", but "Can we eat them?".

Mike C. said...

Clearly you are a Quatermassist.


eeyorn said...

I like to think that any alien civilisation that has mastered space-travel would be a little bit more advanced than to need to go space-foraging for food.

One of the noticeable aspects of the current development of technology is that it is largely driven by commercial interests, which has led I believe to a decrease in pure scientific research and development - not a good thing in my opinion. But as an insider within the University system you may know better?

Mike C. said...


Well, I can imagine a little foraging for wild food might be recreational and put them back in touch with their roots... Blackberrying on a cosmic scale.

As to universities -- Plenty of pure research going on, but (ahem) I'm also aware of plenty of Official Secrets / non-disclosure / commercial confidentiality clauses on items that pass through my hands. Some theses are embargoed for 5 years or more after award. Last year I had to give sworn evidence in a court case in Massachusetts (electronically, unfortunately) over certain aspects of a certain PhD thesis. Apparently millions of dollars were at stake...