Thursday, March 8, 2012

Eerie Prescience

Tell me if this sounds familiar:
The sober Englishman at the close of the [redacted] century could sit at his breakfast-table, decide between tea from Ceylon or coffee from Brazil, devour an egg from France with some Danish ham, or eat a New Zealand chop, wind up his breakfast with a West Indian banana, glance at the latest [redacted] from all the world, scrutinize the prices current of his geographically distributed investments in South Africa, Japan, and Egypt, and tell the two children he had begotten (in the place of his father’s eight) that he thought the world changed very little.
That’s our global village today: Food and news and complacency from all over the world, correct?

But you, smart reader, know it’s not our world today. Why, you say, there are two [redacteds] in the text. You are so very astute. And there is one Americanized spelling as well, “scrutinized,” rather than “scrutinised.” From whence does this passage come, you may well ask. Well, by all means it comes from HG Wells’ “The World Set Free,” published in 1921. He speaks of the nineteenth century, and his news comes in the form of telegrams, not tweets or the Internet or whatever.

But the sentiment, the sentiment, ladies and gentlemen, is what I want to talk about. That global village. News and products in your own kitchen from around the world. That feeling that the world is getting closer, and yet not different, for as Wells continues writing, “[The children] must play cricket, keep their hair cut, go to the old school he had gone to, shirk the lessons he had shirked, learn a few scraps of Horace and Virgil and Homer for the confusion of cads, and all would be well with them . . .”

In the first portion of this fantasy of a world to be, Wells writes of technological upheaval in a manner that would not be unfamiliar with those who are fond of hearing Clay Shirky and other such gurus speak of the Internet. Wells wrote in a period of time when the Industrial Age was approaching its wracking maturity, at the end of the first Great War in which the manufactures of men poured out new horrors on the earth. The technology of which he writes upsetting the landscape literally, socially, and figuratively, is atomic power, which produced cheap energy, abundant wealth for the few and mass unemployment for those who used to work on machines or mine coal or work in other hundreds of sundry industries now rendered obsolete by the splitting of the atom.

Also familiar to Shirky and Wells is the skepticism that the new technology brings:
And there was an extraordinary mental resistance to discovery and invention for at least a hundred years after the scientific revolution had begun. Each new thing made its way into practice against a scepticism that amounted at times to hostility.
Again, sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We see skepticism and hostility in the news business, in the movie business, the music business, growing deeply in the publishing business, as people who write manifestos like this continue to urge technology and as companies aim to fill that desire for us all, at the expense, yes the expense, of those who have gone on before and who do not have an inkling of how to react to their world crumbling around their ears.
Between these high lights accumulated disaster, social catastrophe. The coal mines were manifestly doomed to closure at no very distant date, the vast amount of capital invested in oil was becoming unsaleable, millions of coal miners, steel workers upon the old lines, vast swarms of unskilled or under-skilled labourers in innumerable occupations, were being flung out of employment by the superior efficiency of the new machinery, the rapid fall in the cost of transit was destroying high land values at every centre of population, the value of existing house property had become problematical, gold was undergoing headlong depreciation, all the securities upon which the credit of the world rested were slipping and sliding, banks were tottering, the stock exchanges were scenes of feverish panic;—this was the reverse of the spectacle, these were the black and monstrous under-consequences of the Leap into the Air.
Unintended consequences, of course – but there’s so much good to come of it! Cheap transportation! Smoke-free skies! Fuel that cost pennies to produce and that could power a city for a year from a lump of matter no bigger than a bottle of gin! Oh yeah, had to know I’d bring gin into it. Shirky did, and to great effect.

Nobody was read, Wells said, for the onslaught of prosperity:
The thing had come upon an unprepared humanity; it seemed as though human society was to be smashed by its own magnificent gains.

For there had been no foresight of these things. There had been no attempt anywhere even to compute the probable dislocations this flood of inexpensive energy would produce in human affairs.
Not even government, of which one of Wells’ characters speaks with much scorn:
An entry in Holsten’s diary-autobiography, dated five days later, runs: ‘Still amazed. The law is the most dangerous thing in this country. It is hundreds of years old. It hasn’t an idea. The oldest of old bottles and this new wine, the most explosive wine. Something will overtake them.’
Thing is, Wells tells us, is that those in power and position to do something, to discover that thing that will overtake them before it does so, are not willing to do so:
It flashed suddenly into his mind just what the multitudinous shambling enigma below meant. It was an appeal against the unexpected, an appeal to those others who, more fortunate, seemed wiser and more powerful, for something—for intelligence. This mute mass, weary footed, rank following rank, protested its persuasion that some of these others must have foreseen these dislocations—that anyhow they ought to have foreseen—and arranged.

That was what this crowd of wreckage was feeling and seeking so dumbly to assert.

‘Things came to me like the turning on of a light in a darkened room,’ he says. ‘These men were praying to their fellow creatures as once they prayed to God! The last thing that men will realise about anything is that it is inanimate.

They had transferred their animation to mankind. They still believed there was intelligence somewhere, even if it was care less or malignant…. It had only to be aroused to be conscience-stricken, to be moved to exertion…. And I saw, too, that as yet there was no such intelligence. The world waits for intelligence. That intelligence has still to be made, that will for good and order has still to be gathered together, out of scraps of impulse and wandering seeds of benevolence and whatever is fine and creative in our souls, into a common purpose. It’s something still to come….’
The world waits for intelligence, Wells writes. But, he reminds us, intelligence has to be made. Waiting for industry, for government, for institutions to be that intelligence is ill-advised. We have to be that intelligence. We are the people we’ve been waiting for, and it’s only dumb of us to be cross for keeping us waiting so long.

Wells urges us not to wait, through one of his characters:
‘I saw life plain,’ he wrote. ‘I saw the gigantic task before us, and the very splendour of its intricate and immeasurable difficulty filled me with exaltation. I saw that we have still to discover government, that we have still to discover education, which is the necessary reciprocal of government, and that all this—in which my own little speck of a life was so manifestly overwhelmed— this and its yesterday in Greece and Rome and Egypt were nothing, the mere first dust swirls of the beginning, the movements and dim murmurings of a sleeper who will presently be awake….’
Can governments and institutions do this kind of thing? Yes, but they have to be filled with people willing to put in the effort, and not for pay nor glory nor praise, but because it simply has to be done. This doesn't mean burning and pillaging and setting aside the old guard for something new -- they tried that in the French Revolution, and we see how well that worked out for everyone. But it does mean listening, listening, thinking, and listening some more. And not automatically braying against what is old and hidebound -- some things that are hidebound are so for excelelnt, timeless reasons -- ant not for automatically dismissing every new thought that comes along. This is a thinking, evolving process that demands careful consideration, not political or media sound bites.

This is an eye-opening book, folks. Highly-recommended reading. It could be the manifesto of the Tea Party or the Occupy movement, or of anything from the Cato Institute to Lulzsec (however that is freely capitalized).

Now, I'm not blind to Wells' faults -- one of my mottoes is Beware the Writer Who Thinks He Knows. The brutality shown in this book, as well as that in The Shape of Things to Come, is ugly. But for thinking purposes, this book of his has some interest.

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