Saturday, January 18, 2014

The startling power of the culture

In The New Yorker issue of January 13, 2014, Evgeny Morozov writes in “Making It” about the allure of craft as a form of liberation – from the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th Century to the Whole Earth Catalog (first published in 1968) to the digital revolution to, most recently, the “maker era.”

Stewart Brand of the Whole Earth Catalog applauds the “Makers,” who he says “take whatever we’re not supposed to take the back off of, rip the back off and get our fingers in there and mess around. That’s the old impulse of basically defying authority and of doing it your way.” Morozov explains that the Makers “include 3-D-printing enthusiasts who like making their own toys, instruments, and weapons; tinkerers and mechanics who like to customize household objects by outfitting them with sensors and Internet connectivity; and appreciators of craft who prefer to design their own objects and then have them manufactured on demand.”

The Makers are intriguing, but I was most struck by another Brand comment that Morozov quotes: 
            Around Berkeley, it was Free Speech Movement, “power to the people.” Around Stanford, it was “Whole Earth Catalog,” Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, people like that, and they were just power to people. They just wanted to power anybody who was interested, not “the people.” Well, it turns out there is no, probably, “the people.” So the political blind alley that Berkeley went down was interesting, we were all taking the same drugs, the same length of hair, but the stuff came out of the Stanford area, I think because it took a Buckminster Fuller access-to-tools angle on things. 
Morozov is pretty skeptical about all this, and emphasizes the essential importance of politics. He comments that “[t]he lure of the technological sublime has ruined more than one social movement ….” No doubt he is right.

But we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of the culture – including but not limited to those who seek the “technological sublime.” Rich and poor alike inhabit the culture, not one single unified culture, which no doubt the rich would shape to their liking, but something much bigger, faster and multi-faceted. So fast, for instance, that I’d never heard of the “Makers” before I read Morozov’s article – though I’m far from the cutting edge of culture, and will be happy just to sample some fraction of our cultural riches!

This isn’t just a matter of what music we listen to, though it is certainly true that a great many children of the rich listen to the music of the poor. It’s also a matter of how we live our lives every day (as I was also saying in my previous post). Once it was said that “the revolution will not be televised,” because it will be real, unlike the artifice of television; but now it’s obvious that the revolution, and everything else, will be televised, because the power to create video has been transferred, by technology, to everyone. There simply never were games that could be played by thousands of people simultaneously all over the world, until now. The “chattering classes” have been spoken of for many years – but the cacophony of Twitter and its progeny has amplified their voices tremendously. And it may yet turn out that Makers, or those like them, will wind up building the rockets that get us off Earth, not for NASA (or the Chinese army) but for private companies.

Politics and power matter a lot, of course. But even if Brand was wrong to call the Free Speech Movement a blind alley, and I do think he was, it’s clear that we’re living in a world being transformed by the other enthusiasts, the tool-users and hackers. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our (political) philosophy, as Hamlet would have said.

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