The new old

Simon Jenkins is convinced that neophilia, the "raging obsession of the boom years", is history and Gutenburg's ghost has returned to live in Silicon Valley. In our recession/depression, Jenkins says, there's a new "cult of antiquity". He sees this in Obama's arrival at the inaugeration by train and his return to the art of oratory, in the current vogue for live theater and live communication and public congregation and, above all, in Silicon Valley's embrace of "The Printed Blog" (Josh Karp's new start-up)

But Jenkins, a Guardian columnist who happens to be on the left, has fallen into the same ahistorical trap as the conservative David Brooks. Yes, Jenkins is right in his observation that history now seems reassuringly familiar. But the past that we are all now embracing is sanitized and simplified. It's the invented past of supposedly symbolic train journeys in a country that, fifty years ago, slaughtered its railways. It's History for Dummies -- the kind of lazy, ill-informed generalizations which say that Obama won't do an FDR and compare him with Lincoln and our current economic situation with the Great Depression (and yes, I confess to being a dummy sometimes too).

Jenkins says that the old is now new. But it's a new old which bears no resemblance to the past. And he's wrong to believe that the death of neophilia (a shrinking Wired, for example) will enable us to go back to a world that once really had existed:

The early media guru Marshall McLuhan thought thatelectronics would usher in an age of global villages and virtual friendships. It would render true community obsolete. He was wrong. He understood technology, but not humanity. Live is real. Old is new.


Take, for example, books and paper -- what Jenkins calls the "ghost of Gutenberg". He says that the Printed Blog is proof than old is new. "Prepare to meet they past", he tells us. But nothing could, in fact, be further from the truth. Print newspapers are dying, the book business is in crisis and 2009 will be a year of unrivaled turbulence in both industries. Jenkins is right to say that the future lies in our longing for "true community" and for the live act -- both in the theater and in politics. But this future is entirely foreign to the past. It will be a future in which the copy has been entirely commodified and viable individual brands like Obama (who merges theater and politics) are monetized through a new kind of physical interaction of which we got a sneak preview on Pennyslvania Avenue last Tuesday. 

That's the great irony of the 21st century digital revolution. In this world of ubiquitous free content, the only thing of value is the analogue. Live is more than real. It is our new reality.