St. David’s Day 2011: Technology and Social Change
“We Irish think otherwise.” Bishop Berkeley
Technology is not always values-neutral. From anthropologist Lauriston Sharpe’s classic essay on the impact of steel axes on stone age Australians to the medievalist historian Leslie White’s famous essay on the impact of the stirrup on the rise of feudalism, we have been taught to think that the Whig theory of history as a simple linear progression is too one-sided.
Technological innovation can dissolve traditional cultures to release children laboring on the farm and women locked into the home from the authoritarian grip of patriarchal traditions, but it can also spring back into modernized forms of authoritarian societies. Children can be collectivized in a new monocrop mentality of patriotic public schools, and women can be retooled into consumers for the suburban home and shopping mall.
The Reign of Terror and Napoleon’s imperialism followed the high hopes of the French Revolution. Book censorship and a petit-bourgeois clerical state led by DeValera followed the Irish Insurrection and Civil War. Fascism in Italy, Spain, and Germany followed industrialization and the rise of the masses in the transformation of feudal kingdoms into industrial nation-states, and aerial bombardment from Guernica to Viet Nam showed us how technological societies could apply their cutting edge innovations to traditional societies.
A sword can cut both left and right. The printing press created pamphleteers for the Rights of Man like Thomas Paine, but then the Hearsts of the world found ways to use journalism in support of imperialism in the Spanish American War and racism in creating the fear of the Yellow Peril in the early twentieth century. Radio brought an invisible world into play in history by exciting the imagination and creating new folk souls. Rilke first heard invisible angels as he paced the battlements of Duino Castle and cried out to them, but later Hitler channeled demons in his rants and incantatory speeches to adoring multitudes entranced with Das Vaterland. Churchill’s rhetorically cadenced paragraphs and FDR’s intimate Fireside Chats both brought a nation into being through the imaginative participation of radio. The cassette tape recorder served to inspire the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in Iran, as his Friday sermons in a Mosque in Paris were air-shipped to Tehran to inspire the downfall of the Shah and his CIA-supported regime. The Xerox machine and Samisat literature served to aid the process of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the televised living room war of Viet Nam served to bring down LBJ.
But LBJ was followed by Nixon, and Gorbachev’s Glasnost was shortly followed by Putin’s control of the Russian media, so on the slaloms of the downward slopes of history, lines are never straight but always zig and zag. Only a view from above can determine whether the alternating leanings toward left and right are in the general direction of progress.
Today, the revolutions in the Arab world–from Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya–are credited to the impact of the Internet, smart phones and lap tops, and the social networking of Twitter and Facebook. Since these networks are owned by corporate billionaires, it remains to be seen if the new and younger generation of billionaires such as Page, Brin, and Zuckerberg will becomes like the Murdochs and Koch brothers before them, or the William Randolph Hearsts of electronic prehistory even before them.
As a poet, I am heartened to see democratic revolution inspire the hearts and minds of the young in the Islamic world, and I hope that it may spread to Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan; but as a cultural historian, I think in longer cycles of time than the daily news, and I am disturbed to see American democracy being bought out in the hostile takeovers of the Murdochs and Koch brothers and transformed into the new union-busting latifundia of a plutocratic America. It is ironic that at a time when American culture has inspired imaginative insurrections–from Tiannmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to the Middle East today—that our own democracy is collapsing under the pressure of a plutocracy that defines freedom as the right to poison and pollute both mentally and physically without the interference of government.
Philo Farnsworth, the inventor of television, hoped TV would become an educational medium, but it was transformed into a corporate medium for advertizing in a general dumbing down of the public mentality of print and political reflection. Will Google follow the cultural drift of TV? Will it serve to eliminate copyright and the self-supporting economy of the author, as the Authors Guild fears in its legal struggles against Google andAmazon.com? Will Google and Time Warner take over the Internet, as AOL has bought up the Huffington Post? Our cultural drift at the moment certainly seems to be going that way.
“Information wants to be free,” said Stewart Brand two generations ago in The Whole Earth Catalogue, and today most of the lively and spontaneous magazines and blogs on the Internet are free and cannot pay their authors, so a new kind of Samisat web literature does seem to be evolving. Certainly, all of us involved in theWild River Review are part of this new culture and corporately uncentralized distributive network. But in the future will WRR be bought up by Time Warner, and will Truthout be taken over by Conde Nast?
As I look to my left, away from my computer screen and out my window, I see that it is March and is snowing and raining at the same time. “O Wind, If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”
March 14, 2011,
Postscript on “Technology and Social Change”
“We Irish think otherwise.” Bishop Berkeley
“For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me.” Job: 3, 25
In my book At the Edge of History in 1971 and in its subsequent follow-up in 1977 of Darkness and Scattered Light, I wrote of a coming period of catastrophes that would force a re-structuring of our global civilization. And so here we are–a little later than the year 2000 I thought it would be–but definitely in a period of catastrophes from earthquakes, tsuanmis, hurricanes, irrational nativistic movements, and an American dependence on energy from the most backward, hate-filled, and reactionary part of the planet.
In spite of this week’s catastrophe in Japan, hired corporate liars will continue to try to convince us that nuclear power is safe, co-opting in the process the environmental movement’s warning about global warming that they ridiculed in the seventies, and politicians will continue to argue that self-correcting market forces are all that are needed now and that things are bad simply because we have departed from the good common sense of American Enterprise as articulated by Rupert Murdoch, the Koch brothers, Mitch McConnell, Michele Bachman, and Sarah Palin.
But it is becoming increasingly clear that the people who govern us are not smart enough for the job. Do the Japanese people feel comforted when a publicist for Tokyo Electric reads a statement to the effect that the crisis is being competently managed? Would you believe a statement from General Electric that what America needs now are more nuclear reactors to counter global warming?
The whole foundation of industrial civilization is shaking as the planetary tectonic plates are shifting. When nuclear power is just too complicated, and when oil is being produced by totalitarian states like Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Iran, we can no longer travel in the fast lane in our American SUV lifestyle.
We will have to change, change utterly. Or to shift from Yeats to T.S. Eliot, what is required is a “A condition of complete simplicity/(Costing not less than everything).”
There are no fixes anymore. We do not face a problem to be solved, or a global problematique that a global technological elite can administer. What is called for is a cultural transformation.
The course I used to teach at York University in Toronto in the sixties was called “The Transformations of Human Culture.” It tried to prepare students for the world they were entering by looking at Hominization, Agriculturalization, Civilization, Industrialization, and Planetization.”
A transformation involves everything, and not just an implementation of something. We will need to cluster suburbs into smaller cities with green belts for horticulture. We will need to give up cars, or have minis. We will need solar, wind, biomass and recycled fuels, and smaller houses and incomes and bigger minds and bigger governments to restrain the Kochs and the Murdochs. The Koch Cancer Center at MIT may nobly work to cure cancer with Big Science, but Koch Industries is still fighting the EPA and is one of the worst polluters in the country, 1 and thus gives more people cancer than their Cancer Center can cure.
Like most poets and scholars in the Humanities, I was pissing into the wind in the Sixties and just got wet. Now I am an old man with one foot out the door. 1968 came and went and the opening of the cultural horizon and the sky closed and the period became led by Reagan and Thatcher, and then the two Bushes. In 2008 I was naïve enough to think that Obama was the one I had been waiting for, but he soon proved me wrong and continued to enforce the old political paradigm instead of leading a cultural transformation. He had his eloquent moments, when his better angel overlighted him, but he always feared to move beyond inspiring sermons to Presidential leadership and governmental implementation. He remained a neighborhood social worker trying to bring peace to the warring gangs of the two political parties and never understood the American presidency after the manner of a Teddy or Franklin Roosevelt.
So here we are in 2011. Let oil be cast upon the waters by BP, let General Electric and Dupont bring us better things for better living. It will be easier to do nothing than change everything.
1 See Frank Rich, New York Times, OpEd Column, February 26, 2011. “Look to Washington for the bigger story. As The Los Angeles Times recently reported, Koch Industries and its employees form the largest bloc of oil and gas industry donors to members of the new House Energy and Commerce Committee, topping even Exxon Mobil. And what do they get for that largess? As a down payment, the House budget bill not only reduces financing for the Environmental Protection Agency but also prohibits its regulation of greenhouse gases.”
William Irwin Thompson (born July, 1938) is known primarily as a social philosopher and cultural critic, but he has also been writing and publishing poetry throughout his career and received the Oslo International Poetry Festival Award in 1986. He has made significant contributions to cultural history, social criticism, the philosophy of science, and the study of myth. He describes his writing and speaking style as “mind-jazz on ancient texts”. He is an astute reader of science, social science, history, and literature. He is the founder of the Lindisfarne Association.
His book, Still Travels: Three Long Poems was published in 2009 by Wild River Books. Order a copy from Amazon.
Works by William Irwin Thompson
Memoir – Farewell Address at the Lindisfarne Fellows Conference
Memoir – Pilgrimage to Lindisfarne: 1972
Memoir – The Founding of the Lindisfarne Association in New York, 1971-73 – Part I
Memoir – The Founding of the Lindisfarne Association in New York, 1971-73 – Part 2: A Community in Fishcove, Long Island
Memoir – Building a Dream – Part One: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – My Dinner with Andre Gregory: Lindisfarne-in-Manhattan, 1977-1979
Memoir – Building a Dream/The Shadow Side Part Two: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – Building a Dream/The Cathedral Part Three: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – Conclusion: The Economic Relevance of Lindisfarne
Memoir – Raising Evan and Hilary: Reflections of a Homeschooling Parent
Memoir – Sex and the Commune
Memoir – Raising Evan and Hilary
Memoir – With Gregory Bateson’s Mind in Nature
After Heart Surgery: Hokusai’s Great Wave
A Lazy Sunday Afternoon
Nancy Grayson’s Bookstore
On Reading “The Penguin Book of English Verse”: on my iPad and Exercise Bike
Wild River Books/Poetry – Nightwatch and Dayshift: Cezanne
Anatolian Days and Nights and the Cultural Evolution of Spirituality
And the Votes are In: The American Elections of 2010
Avatar – When Technology Displaces Culture
Bedtime Story for a Civilization
The Big Picture: Reflections on Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines
The Big Picture, II
Child Abuse and the Catholic Church
The Digital Economy of W. Brian Arthur
From Shamanism to Religion, Part Two
From Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality, Part Three
From Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality: Conclusion
January 1, 2011: Reflections on the Philosophical Notions of Republicans
January 6, 2011 – Part Two: The Etherealization of Capitalism
Nature and Invisible Environments
Of Culture and the Nature of Extinction
On Nuclear Power
On Religion – Part One
On Religion and Nationalism: Ireland, Israel, and Palestine
On Transnational Military Interventions
A Pagan Ur-Text of the Lebor Gebála Érenn
Part 1 – The Shift from Industrial to a Planetary Civilization
Part 2 – The Shift from an Industrial to Planetary Civilization
Part 3 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – The Recovery of a Cosmic Orientation
Part 4 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civlization – The Global War for Drugs
Part 5 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – The New Jerusalem
Part 6 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Catastrophes as the Spur to Institute Tricameral Legislature
Part 7 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Complex Dynamical Systems and Tricameral Legislatures
Part 8 – The Shift from a Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Israel and Palestine: Sic transit gloria mundi
Part 9 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civlization – On Sarah Palin and the Technocratic Society
Part 10 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – On Conspiracy Narratives as Expressive of the Transition from the Nation: State to the Noetic Polity
Part 11 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Global Awareness and Personal Identity
Part 12 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Conclusion: The United Nations
Political Meditation for the Fourth of July, 2011: Can We Shift from Empire Back to Republic?
St. David’s Day, 2011, Technology and Social Change
Saint Patrick’s Day, 2010: Us and Them: Identity and the State
Some Reflections on Hurricane Sandy and an Outline for a New Civilization
Technical Hubris: and the Sinkhole of Obama’s Centrism
Television and Social Class
Thanksgiving Day, 2010: The Uses and Abuses of History
The Elections of 2010
Thoughts on My new Kindle App: on My Mac iPad