The next Dark Age

Are we on the brink of another Dark Age?

I started thinking about Dark Ages last week when I attended a speech at the American Book Expo in Washington DC by Carly Fiorina, ex Hewlett-Packard CEO, now touting her upcoming autobiography. Fiorina studied Medieval History at Stanford and, in her talk, she explained she chose this period because of her morbid fascination with how neo-classical civilization plunged into the Dark Ages.

Plunging  into the Dark Ages... Isn't another dark age -- the crisis of culture, the collapse of moral authority, the disappearance of political legitimacy -- exactly what we are on the brink of now?

I'm not alone in thinking about the Dark Ages. Today, Nick Carr called my attention to an article entitled "The New Middle Ages" by John Rapley into the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs. Rapley's piece suggests that three global developments are simultaneously occuring: the collapse of the traditional nation-state, the emergence of an international strata of economic elites (what Robert Reich calls the "secession of the successful") and the "privatization" of law-and-order by gangs in the world's post-industrial metropolises.

Rapley suggests that these three political phenomenon are combining to recreate what he calls "the postmodern Middle Ages." As the traditional state shrinks/withdraws, elites shift their allegiance to international corporations or institutions, while the poor are forced to rely on local thugs to maintain order in their neighborhood.

How does the information technology revolution tie in to these New Middle Ages? According to Rapley:

"There has long been a chasm between the planet's rich and poor. What is unusual about the incomes gap today is that it has widened just as dramatic improvements in communications technology have filtered down to even the most impoverished villages. The world's poorest citizens are thus more exposed than ever before to images of how the richest people live, creating an expectations gap between what states can offer and what their citizens demand. The gap has often been filled by private agents, who are more flexible than states and better positioned to exploit current opportunities,"

Rapley's theory of communications technology creating an "expectations gap" is particularly pertinent. Yesterday, I was critical of Eric Schmidt's scheme to wire up Africa. In the New Middle Ages, I fear that the bringing of the Internet to Africa will only create a continent wide expectations gap, thereby sparking the emergence of fundamentalist movements of rage and resentiment. Such a development will benefit neither the rich nor the poor. And it will plunge the world deeper into the darkness of Rapley's New Middle Ages.

IRRATIONAL EXUBERANCE -- SECOND EDITION

Many people ask me if we are on the brink of another bout of irrational exuberance. We all, of course, remember the last destructive bout -- the boom and bust of the telecoms, the dotcom lunacy and the dramatic NASDAQ meltdown of April 2000. The question everyone is asking is whether all this Web 2.0 hype is a return to irrational exuberance of the Nineties.

I think we are on the brink of more irrational exuberance -- but this bout is more dangerous because it is rooted in broad cultural forces rather than in the quantitative realities of the market economy.

In the Nineties, the irrational exuberance was rooted in economics and the stock market. I've just read the second edition of Robert Shiller's highly influential and persuasive Irrational Exuberance, and the book focuses exclusively on the dramatic bull markets in equities and real estate of the Nineties. Thus, in his concluding "A Call to Action" section, the Yale economist focuses on concrete economic measures to manage speculative volatility.

Today's incipient exuberance is quite different. It is driven by an infectious optimism about the cultural, political, economic and social consequences of technology. This exuberance is driven by the so-called "democratizing" consequences of digital technologies. It is an exuberance that overflows into an irrational faith in the globalizing political, cultural and economic implications of technology.

All periods of irrational exuberance have their inspirational texts, books which create the intellectual framework for the hysteria. Two books epitomize the exuberance of our digital era. The first is New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. The second is Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson's upcoming  The Long Tail: How the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. (due to be published in July by Hyperion).

Friedman's The World is Flat is global economic exuberance dressed up as objective journalism. Anderson's Long Tail (which I've already read and will review on publication) is cultural exuberance dressed up as sensible economic analysis. Both books treat the digital revolution as liberating the world from tradition and inertia. Both books seduce their readers with the "democratic" and, thus, beneficial consequences of the digital revolution.

The World is Flat is a best seller. The Long Tail will also be a big seller -- certainly the most seductive book about the digital revolution to be published this year. The popularity of both these texts, the resonance of their seductive message, suggest that we are on the brink of another bout of irrational exuberance.  These books are both causes and the consequences of the second edition of the digital revolution. They are irrationally exuberant manifestations of irrational exuberance.

RICH MEDIA

Sebald_vertigo_1

As the world became more mobile, so media acquired mobility too.

A revolutionary event in the modern history of media was the 19th century invention of the pocket sized paperback book. Up to this point, media consumption was locked in the library. Think of it as poor media.  The paperback is the original Sony Walkman or Palm Pilot. Being able to hide a small book in the privacy of one’s pocket, of carrying somebody’s else world of words wherever one went, not only transformed the act of reading, but also added a third, portable party to the relationship. With the invention of the small paperback, the writer, the book and the reader could go everywhere together – on foot, by bicycle, on trains and buses, eventually even aboard airplanes. Reading became a part of a mobile lifestyle, rather than a hindrance to it. Added to this ménage a trois was a fourth element: the world outside. The act of reading was taken out of the library. It acquired an ever changing backdrop, a mobile set, which transformed the act of reading a book into a complicated form of interactivity. This may not have been digital media – but it was multimedia. It became, to be more precise, rich media.

This thought occurred to me earlier this month while I was in Las Vegas reading a paperback about Franz Kafka. I was seated at a cafe reading a book called Vertigo (1999) by the Anglo-German travel writer W.G. Sebald. My backdrop was Las Vegas’ version of Venice: The Venetian Hotel and Casino’s Grand Canal with its indoor mall of modern stores and restaurants.

Sebald’s Vertigo is a layered, richly historical travel book primarily describing a railway journey the author makes in October 1980 from the Austrian city of Vienna to the Northern Italian towns of Venice, Verona, Riva-del-Garda and Dezenzano. Alongside his own travels, Sebald writes about the Northern Italian adventures of three famous historical personalities: the Marie Henri Beyle, otherwise known as the novelist Stendhal, Franz Kafka and Giacomo Casanova, the 18th century Venetian memoirist. Sebald's Vertigo is as much about Casanova, Stendhal and Kafka as about Sebald himself and sometimes it is difficult to know if Vertigo, which jumpcuts backwards and forwards across time and space, is also a work of biography, autobiography or fiction.

In some ways, it would have been more appropriate to have been reading about Kafka at at Las Vegas’ New York New York resort, located over the strip from the MGM Grande. This theme hotel and casino is a virtual representation of New York with its three dimensional New York skyline, its Brooklyn Bridge and, most memorably, its version of the Statue of Liberty. Seeing the Statue of Liberty from the strip invariably reminds me of Kafka’s book Amerika. Published posthumously in 1927, Amerika is Franz Kafka’s story about a second chance in turn-of-the-century America. It reminds me of the book’s opening sentence has always resonated for its sweeping simplicity. In addition to the words, there is music here, as well as the promise of widescreen cinema. These words transform America into rich media:

As Karl Rossman, a poor boy of sixteen who had been packed off to America by his parents because of a servant girl had seduced him and got herself with child by him, stood on the liner slowly entering the harbour of New York, a sudden burst of sunshine seemed to illumine the Statue of Liberty, so that he saw it in a new light, although he had sighted it long before. The arm with the sword rose up as if newly stretched aloft, and round the figure blew the free winds of heaven.

Imaginative paperback writers – Kafka or W.G. Sebald, for example – possess this knack of transforming places into rich media. Literary traditionalists might object that real writers write books not screenplays or audio shows. But I would argue that we remember images from books, not words. In this sense, then, the paperback book is a more modern version of a Sony Walkman or an  Apple iPod.

I don’t know how Kafka would respond to the idea of a paperback book as an interactive media player. In Vertigo, Sebald writes, amongst other things, about Franz Kafka’s visit to Northern Italy in September of 1913. Sebald describes an incident in which Kafka, who he calls Dr K, went to the Cinema Pathe di San Sebastiano in Verona as a “refuge” from his mental unrest. Imagining Franz Kafka at the movies – seated in an audience of Veronese strangers, staring at foreign moving images of his own city on a distant screen – is itself a curious notion. Sebald deduces that Kafka watched a 1913 pioneering German movie by Paul Wegener and Stellan Rye called The Student of Prague (de Student von Prag), the Faustian tale of a student called Balduin who innocently sold his reflection to the devil in exchange for the promise of a beautiful woman. The outcome is a nightmare for Balduin since his doppelganger, the image of him now owned by the devil, wreaks havoc in Prague. The Student of Prague is one of the earliest examples of silent psychological movies and influenced later German Expressionist works like F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu and Fritz Lang’s 1921 Destiny (Der Mude Tod) – which Alfred Hitchcock, in Francois Truffaut’s 1984 book Hitchcock, acknowledges made a “special impression” on him as a student going to the movies in the early 1920’s in his native London.

According to Sebald, Kafka mental state in 1913 was particularly precarious due to a relationship he had begun in the spring of that year in Berlin with Felice Bauer, a woman to whom he would become engaged in 1914. Sebald suggests that Kafka personalized his viewing of The Student of Prague by imagining the fate of the student hero as his own. The idea of losing possession of oneself, of not being able to control one’s own history, is a constant theme not only in Kafka’s writing but also in his life, particularly in his relationships with women. His curse, like that of Balduin, was to always be looking at himself from the outside. His fate was to be a viewer – and he makes us, as his readers, into watchers too. Like Scottie Ferguson, Hitchcock’s fictional voyeur in his 1958 movie Vertigo, Franz Kafka is into looking. Perhaps, then, the movie theater was a sort of home for him and that we should naturally think of Kafka as being at the movies.

Such were my thoughts, earlier this month, while reading about Franz Kafka in Las Vegas.

THE LAW OF FORGETTING

Venetian_imageThere is real memory and there is digital memory. There are laws about remembering and there are laws easy to forget. There is Moore’s Law and there is The Law of Forgetting.

Here in self-seducing Silicon Valley one can rarely get through a day without some idealist parroting Moore’s Law to justify this or that new business model. The Moore-in-the-law is Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel, and his law states that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every two years. The consequence of Moore’s Law is that the memory capacity of the personal computer doubles biannually, thereby perpetually stoking the engine of the Silicon Valley economy.

The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus suggested that the opposite of every supposed truth represented an equally valid truth. So what is the antithesis to the truth of Moore’s Law? It is the idea that the more memory we pack onto our digital devices, the less memory we have for other things. This is called the Law of Forgetting.

I stumbled upon this Law of Forgetting earlier this week, while listening to a speech by Jaron Lanier at Berkeley’s Hillside Club. Lanier is a Silicon Valley technologist, best known around here for inventing something called “virtual-reality”. But his Hillside speech was more memorable for what he forgot to say than for anything he actually did say.

Lately, Lanier has become a critic of Silicon Valley’s self-seduction which he describes, memorably, as “digital narcissism”. According to Lanier, Silicon Valley has embraced itself with the notion of perfect technology, perfect bytes, the perfect digitalization of music. The inventor of virtual-reality says, with Heraclitean logic, that the reality of things is quite the opposite of what everyone in Silicon Valley says. Personal computers, Lanier argues, are “pretty shitty” -- they require us to pretend that they work while simultaneously creating a “volunteer slave economy” of users, all ironing out their bugs.

Lanier’s digital narcissism theme is intriguing.  But the Silicon Valley renegade forgot to speak about the past. While sketching his ideas about digital narcissism, Lanier forgot to mention the Narcissus of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a naïve young man whose sad ending might be interpreted as a warning to all those naïve young Narcissuses of Silicon Valley. And Lanier failed to remind his audience about Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissicism (1979), the classic study of an entire culture in love with itself.

The truth of California's Silicon Valley is of collective amnesia. Most of us in the Valley, including critics like Jaron Lanier, can’t remember anything from the pre-digital past. That old jeremiad Christopher Lasch described this as the “waning of the sense of historical time”.  We are governed by the Law of Forgetting. We know the future, but we don't know the past.