October 12, 2011

Energy vs. Analysis

Dear DAA65:

If you've been following the discussion on this blog, the essay below will not contain very much new information; and I agree that we've probably worked over Steve Jobs ad nauseam, and should probably let the poor bugger rest in peace. However, I wanted to collect my thoughts in a more coherent form, so as to present what I feel is a generally ignored slant on the Wall St. protests. Or at least, I can't find any mention of this thesis anywhere, which is hardly surprising. The idea of a Stage 1 and Stage 2 of protest movements, and the possibility that the "screen culture" and the social media promote the first and then undercut the second, is to me an intriguing possibility, and I'm thinking it may even be correct. But that it would not be raised in the media (whether virtual or hard copy) should hardly come as a shock, given the enormous "religious" pull of technology as a supposed panacea in American history--as dear to the Left as it is to the Right. Anyway, I offer this reorganization of my previous scribblings as food for thought. As follows:

Like most folks reading this, I want the Wall St. protests to succeed, though at this point I'm not exactly clear as to what that would look like. Minimally, the arrest and trials (preferably at the World Court in The Hague) of numerous CEOs for financial terrorism; confiscation of the wealth of the top 1% and the redistribution of it among the rest of us; immediate withdrawal of all troops from Iraq and Afghanistan; reduction of the Pentagon budget by 90%; massive reparations, plus heartfelt apologies, to Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Chile, Iraq, and several other countries, for the horror we visited upon them through the CIA and our foreign policy; and so on. In terms of what needs to be done in order to turn America around, these are admittedly very small steps—baby steps, really—but one has to begin somewhere, after all. However, this is to get ahead of ourselves. Right now, as far as Occupy Wall Street goes, anything might happen. Historically speaking, demonstrations that seemed tame suddenly caught fire, as in the case of, say, the Russian Revolution. So it’s hard to predict the outcome of these protests in any definitive way.

That being said, I confess it doesn't seem likely that these protests can reverse 400 years of a culture based on “hustling,” as I call it in my most recent book, Why America Failed, or the post-Civil War consolidation of corporate America. Which brings to mind a quote from Lincoln: we must "disenthrall" ourselves, he said. Are we now clutching at straws, and getting all enthralled? Look at the enthrallment over Obama in 2008, and how he turned out to be the very opposite of what he said he was. (Basically, a George Bush who can speak English.) I hear Michael Moore saying how these protests will sweep the country, and I think: but you thought Obama was going to sweep the country. Maybe it's time to look at our tendency toward enthrallment, and figure out why “sweeping” is not very likely.

A friend of mine, a journalist, was down at the Washington, DC, protests a few days ago and gave a talk about formulating a new foreign policy for the United States. Only 50 people attended, he told me, and of those only two were under 60 years of age. This for me is an ominous sign. Where can these protests wind up, if they are only about euphoria and youthful energy, and if a sober analysis of American history and our situation today is not a factor in the current uprising?

So much is made of the role of the “social media” in these types of uprisings; I remain skeptical on a number of grounds. I mean, Facebook didn’t play much of a role that I know of in Paris during 1789; and where is the Egyptian “revolution” now? But it goes much deeper than this. Even if we credit the social media with being able to mobilize youthful energy, this is only Stage 1 of any successful protest. Stage 2 is really being able to know and analyze what this country is about, or what a new US foreign policy might consist of; and on this score, the very things that made Stage 1 possible now ironically serve to make Stage 2 extremely difficult, if not impossible. For it is because of these media, and the cumulative impact of television and the Internet in our lives, that young Americans are literally unable to think. They don't know what the difference is between information and knowledge, nor do they really understand what an argument is; and thanks to the new telecommunications technologies, they now have the attention span of a gnat. Printed books take time; they are designed for thinking and reflection, whereas screens are designed for scanning, for bouncing around, for “Whassup, dude?” And if these folks should happen to attend a lecture, they typically sit there and check their e-mail or text-message their friends. In such a context, Stage 2 of the protest is not likely to come about.

All this current worship of Steve Jobs is a symptom of massive cultural dysfunction and decay, in my view; but not just mine. There is by now a large literature on the damage caused by the Net, Google, Facebook, and so on, even detailing the negative impact they have on synaptic connections in the human brain (cf. Nicholas Carr, Sherry Turkle, Christine Rosen, et al.). Nevertheless, I think we are still a long way from really grasping the incredible damage wrought on ourselves, and our culture, by the googlification of American society; from understanding that Gates, Jobs, and Zuckerberg have been little more than cultural undertakers.

This is something I deal with in Chapter 3 of Why America Failed, devoted to the history of American technology. One can of course argue that there are good and bad technologies, or good and bad uses of technology; this is the conventional wisdom on the subject. But the truth is that technology is never neutral, never value-free: as Marshall McLuhan (among others) argued decades ago, any particular technology carries a value system with it, and introduced into a culture it will change the nature of that culture quite profoundly. In short order, thanks to Jobs & Co., we've gone from a literate culture that had a human depth, and a sense of self, to a screen culture that has neither. All that remains is the flickering image of the moment—not exactly the stuff of revolution, or even serious protest. Really, what could be more congenial to the American corporate state? If I could get myself appointed Dictator of America (benevolent, of course), my first order of business would be to require that (a) everyone own a cell phone, and be using it almost constantly; (b) everyone be signed up on Facebook and Twitter; and (c) everyone be taking Prozac or Zoloft on a daily basis. I would reign in perpetuity, no doubt about it.

©Morris Berman, 2011