Monday, February 15, 2010

Another Kind of Climate Change

You have to be old enough, of course—breathing, living in that time—to feel the change viscerally. Not that those times are inaccessible to the younger generation, but there is a difference. I was 14 in 1950 and therefore, obviously, 24 in 1960, 34 in 1970. What loomed huge in the 1950s was Technology as Machine. UNIVAC, the first computer, was born in 1951; it was huge and did almost nothing. This feeling culminated in 1959 when the gigantic machine assaulted heaven and made a giant step, boots on the moon. The transformation of technology has since proceeded toward the ever smaller, so that its latest and almost universally fingered product is held in the hand, and it is now commonplace to thumb-nudge bright little pictures (does it really matter what they show?) left, right, up, and down on a screen no larger than a calculator.

I started consciously noting in the late 1970s that the word “technology” had come more and more to mean the cybernetic. Before that time, invariably, it had meant mechanical, plastic, chemical, and atomic wonders or horrors. There was a time, believe it or not, when Steel, the magazine of the metals industry, had roughly the same aura of prestige as Wired has today. The relentless miniaturization of the new technology has had the curious effect, I would propose, of miniaturizing our scientific imagination too. In the process the genuinely human has been squeezed out. Wandering about, it has gotten lost in a thickening forest of barbarism and of the weird. Hence the interesting changes in science fiction.

The first phase of the cybernetic revolution began with UNIVAC and ended, I would propose, in the early 1970s. The Apple appeared in 1976. The computer developed in the shadow of another dominant technological threat, atomic annihilation. Significant markers of that phase were Herman Kahn thinking the unthinkable. Kahn was an influential military strategist, systems theorist, and founder of the Hudson Institute. His actual title (1962) was Thinking About the Unthinkable—namely about total atomic war—but the phrase was shortened by much use. Two years later came the movie, as it were: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

By the year 1970 two decades of relentless change and endless public dread had reached a tipping point. Two books again marked another transition. It would last another thirty years. That year Alvin Toffler wrote Future Shock and Charles A. Reich The Greening of America. One analyzed the all-deforming magic, supposedly, of technology. The other leaped into an imaginary future of ecological nirvana.

This wondrous period, in which we all turned green but nothing actually changed, culminated in two other books, both with oddly ambiguous messages. Francis Fukuyama sensed something. I think he got the details all wrong, but he captured the essence of his time. His book was The End of History. The book appeared in 1992. In 1996 John Horgan wrote The End of Science, Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age. Horgan’s book did make some waves, but mostly in the specialized circles interested in science and technology.

The actual future shock, the seal of the old dispensation, came some years after its announcement when on September 11, 2001, airplanes rammed into the two pillars of capitalism and the bastion of military might, the Pentagon. Another, intended to destroy the symbol of democracy, didn’t make it but augured into the ground. Thus we passed through an invisible gate from Modernity into the New Dark Age. (Okay, cut the man some slack. He’s just a science fiction hack.)

Since then? Well, folks, I propose to you yet another wild and wooly fancy that minds like mine will conjure up. It is that we are undergoing a mighty climate change indeed, but it is cultural. But in the manner of humans always, we project it. We project it onto the innocent canvas of nature and think that it’s a physical phenomenon. Lives are short and the processes of history long. Our times will be judged a thousand years from now. By then these words will certainly be lost in the vortex of historical change, but I might just turn out to have been right.

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