COLUMN - THINKING OTHERWISE - Thoughts on My new Kindle App:
on My Mac ipad
“We Irish think otherwise.” Bishop Berkeley
Steve Jobs unveils the ipad
Electricity was first thought of as a commodity before it became understood as a utility, just as oil was thought by rural Texas and Oklahoma wildcatters to be like milk you could take in cans to the market. It was the genius of John D. Rockefeller to understand that oil was a utility and not a commodity as he created the first multinational corporation with its symbiotic architecture of flow in pipes and monopolized railways. Likewise, it was the genius of Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison to turn electricity from a commodity like coal into a utility.
A utility is an infrastructure - like interstates or trains - that supports the emergence of productive industries. Train and telegraph transformed the West from frontier territories to enclosed states with cities and factories. The genius of Jeff Bezos with his Amazon.com and then Kindle is that he, like Rockefeller and Edison before him, transformed the commodity industry of bookstores into a utility. The knowledge-worker or artisan is served with an electronic utility that sustains his metier. "The electronic cottage" predicted by Alvin Toffler is how and where we work now.
Jeff Bezos holds up his Kindle
The vast drive-in university of the post-war era is, like the drive-in theater itself, a thing of the past. Even great ones like Berkeley are in deep financial trouble. The cultural shift from perpetual student to knowledge-artisan is an example of Teilhard de Chardin's contention that "collectivization leads to hyperpersonalization." In the Noosphere, or the cosmic Mind of God in Leibniz, we all become fractals, bubbles of mind in the quantum foam of an infinite Being. Salaried knowledge-workers in state colleges are disappearing - especially in the humanities. In Marshall McLuhan’s concept of “cultural retrieval,” piece-work in the electronic cottage has replaced it. Scholars and editors are no longer full-time workers in universities and publishing companies; they are free-lancers working with computers at home on odd jobs and whatever they can get.
This cultural transition is certainly not painless. In complex dynamical systems the transition from one basin of attraction to another involves a catastrophe bifurcation. Printed money is going down along with the printing press and bookstores of McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy. What Goldman Sachs has wrought in causing the Crash of 2008 is the etherealization of money. In using dollars to buy dollars, U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Benjamin Bernanke is stretching money so thin that it is no longer a solid like gold or a liquid like currency. It has become the hot air of “quantitative easing.” But here we need to remember that hot gasses generate the birth of stars. The star of a new global economy may be aborning in the etherealization of capitalism—more on this in future columns.
The great cultural historian Fernand Braudel noted that the sign of the shift of the center of the world economy from London to New York was the Crash of 1929. Braudel understood complex dynamical systems and recognized that the sign of the shift from one basin of attraction to another is a catastrophe bifurcation. So we now have to follow the genius of Bezos - not by returning to some Tea Party Libertarian nativistic fantasy of an eighteenth century agrarian market economy - but by transforming the American economy from a polluting commodity industry to an ecosystem of utilities, since we have already displaced our industrial production to Asia.
Some economists are now challenging the politicians’ unthinking commitment to economic growth. (See Peter Victor, “Questioning Economic Growth,” Nature, Vol. 468, Nov. 18, 2010, 370-371). Such a transformation would need to be a cultural one - a transformation in values and world-view. In the words of Hazel Henderson, we have to grow the Green Economy, replacing shopping malls with farmers’ markets and artisanal stands and boutiques, replacing fast food chains with slow food restaurants serving local produce, replacing television’s passive non-activity with arts, crafts, and research at public libraries that have galleries and computers with high speed internet connections. Boulder has just such a one, and so does my town, Portland, Maine. It is not just a question of replacing smoke stacks with windmills, but of watching less TV and thinking and doing more.
As people begin to choose a way of life over a career, visions of the old idea of a guaranteed annual income will need to return - like the commons before the Enclosure Acts - and the government will need to upload, like Kindle, each month into the accounts of "the structurally unemployed" the equivalent of a citizen fellowship to live on. Transactions in the new finance economy will need to be taxed, as Hazel Henderson and others have called for - EthicalMarkets.com - and this income will need to be transferred to the structurally unemployed—that is, if the government wishes to avoid rage, crime, revolution, and anarchy.
By heating the economy at the bottom with these new research fellowships for the hitherto designated “unemployed,” we can expect, not the sloth generated by welfare and television, but bubbles of invention to rise and join the wealth-producing class through innovation aided by internet connectivity. Recall that it was two adolescents in a garage that invented the Apple computer.
When wealth was accumulating in a destabilizing way in the transition from the Gilded Age to the emergence of the United States as a superpower that needed an army and navy to project power and enter the Great War to become a global player, we created income tax in 1913. Now as we shift from an economy of industrial production to one of financial transactions, we will need to create a transaction tax. A stipendiary fellowship for the older knowledge-worker such as I already exists and is called Social Security; significantly, it is an object of emotional hatred for the old industrial business class that seeks to reinstate the world of 1900.
As for my new Kindle App on my iPad: I bought three anthologies of poetry from Amazon’s Kindle store, and I read one of them for 30 minutes a day while doing my cardiovascular routine on my exercise bike. So for me, Kindle has not replaced books or bookstores, but just books and turning pages on my bike.
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