Technological innovation is the only shared story that makes sense anymore

“This fall, one of us spent a day touring three of the Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC: the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of American History, and the Air and Space Museum. Only the last seemed to make “sense.” That is, only the Air and Space Museum offered a relatively coherent narrative. Moving from room to room, the museum’s story was fairly straight forward. From early-modern seafaring, to the Wright brothers, to World War II aerial combat, to nuclear deterrence, to the age of unmanned aerial vehicles, the world has been caught up in an age of ineffable aeronautical adventures. And the United States is the late-modern vanguard. Emblazoned on the tails of fighter jets and the bellies of missiles was the national story of technological flight.

Walking through the National Museum of American History, on the other hand, made no such sense. There was no coherent overall narrative. It was strictly an episodic experience, like watching the History Channel for a day. (No surprise: The History Channel is a prominent museum sponsor.) The National Museum of Natural History—dedicated to the cultural keeping of “nature”—was even more fragmented. Offering no history, no narrative, it simply assembled a pastiche of stuffed mammals, winged butterflies, arctic photographs, and tropical fish around an acquisitive centerpiece, the Hope Diamond.

After leaving the Mall and its museums, this tourist left with a clear message: Technological innovation is the only shared story that makes sense anymore. Neither the “imagined community” of the nation-state nor the Earth, which for aeons has grounded humans narratively and otherwise, has the symbolic power to make history cohere, at least in the United States. Even natural scientists, as the Museum of Natural History made clear, are engineers taking flights into the statistical improbabilities of human evolution and considerably warmer futures. “History” is technological innovation, a story told best through the marvels hanging from the ceilings of the Air and Space Museum.”

–Ned O’Gorman and Chad Wellmon, “Media Are Elemental: Marvelous Clouds

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Blind to continuity, it makes a very poor prophet

Upon the occasion, this morning, of reading two fascinating articles from the New Yorker.

“Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.

The upstarts who work at startups don’t often stay at any one place for very long. (Three out of four startups fail. More than nine out of ten never earn a return.) They work a year here, a few months there—zany hours everywhere. They wear jeans and sneakers and ride scooters and share offices and sprawl on couches like Great Danes. Their coffee machines look like dollhouse-size factories.

They are told that they should be reckless and ruthless. Their investors, if they’re like Josh Linkner, tell them that the world is a terrifying place, moving at a devastating pace. “Today I run a venture capital firm and back the next generation of innovators who are, as I was throughout my earlier career, dead-focused on eating your lunch,” Linkner writes. His job appears to be to convince a generation of people who want to do good and do well to learn, instead, remorselessness. Forget rules, obligations, your conscience, loyalty, a sense of the commonweal. If you start a business and it succeeds, Linkner advises, sell it and take the cash. Don’t look back. Never pause. Disrupt or be disrupted.”

—Jill Lepore, “The Disruption Machine” (June 23, 2014)

“Members of medieval guilds typically progressed in rank from apprentice to journeyman to master craftsman—distinctions still used by some trade associations today. Prime Produce will also incorporate three tiers, but based on levels of commitment, rather than on experience and proficiency. As a rite of passage, new members will each receive a pair of slippers to wear while inside the space—a “differentiating mechanism,” Chavez said, between members and visitors.

[…]

Thus far, at least, Prime Produce’s membership has considerable ethnic, gender, and occupational diversity. And rather than making political deals, it will seek leverage in the pooling and collective management of resources, in the synergy of the members’ slippers and their ambitions for good works. Despite various delays and hitches, no one has yet dropped out. “The ingredient that plays a central role in all this is trust,” Qinza Najm, an artist who plans to work in the basement studio, told me.

Before the afternoon in Hell’s Kitchen was up, another master-member, Marcos Salazar, joined everyone on the roof. He was taller than the others, his attire less laid-back. Salazar is a consultant and life coach who works with people on cultivating “purpose-driven careers, businesses, and lives.” He also organizes events for social entrepreneurs in the city, and plans to hold some at the Prime Produce space when it’s ready.

“I’ve heard a lot about guilds,” he said.

But when I asked about the slippers, he shrugged and looked at the founders uneasily. They smiled. They hadn’t told him about that part yet.”

—Nathan Schneider, “The New Guilded Age” (October 12, 2015)

Keep in mind that I stumbled across Lepore’s article because some New Yorker intern probably wrote an algorithm that cross-references keywords and tags to summon “related stories” for the reader’s (that is, my) benefit. That said, it is fascinating that the medieval model of the guild is being invoked as a conscious resistance against the vagaries of innovation… while being the place where innovators can gather and be innovative. It also does not escape my notice that the chaotic dispersal of hierarchical class status that we call capitalism is being met with a “differentiating mechanism” that is no less hierarchical, but anointed in a patina of structural stability. Is this (algorithmically-produced) connection an example of the durability and continued relevance of older forms of social organization? An example of the old disrupting the new? A reminder that even the most residual structures of feeling may be repurposed as emergent by the dominant hegemony? Is the New Yorker ironically commenting, via its digital tech coding, on the circular nature of free enterprise? Or am I, by virtue of allowing myself to be guided to these connections by the household gods of the New Yorker’s web platform, the snake swallowing its own tail, being worn as an ornamental bracelet by the hermetic spirit of cultural commentary?

Geniuses and storytellers

“The problem for geniuses writing conceptually-driven fiction (however timely it may be) is that concepts, and the connections between them, are platonically timeless. Human connections, on the other hand, are made of nothing else but time—memory, reflection, the slow accumulation of time shared. Maybe what we need are fewer novels by geniuses, and more stories by storytellers.”

–Jessi Stevens, “Against Realism

The truest thing you can say

“We have a great educational system that is—it’s really a triumph of the civilization. I don’t think there’s anything comparable in history. And it has no defenders. Most of the things we do have no defenders because people tend to feel the worst thing you can say is the truest thing you can say.”

Marilynne Robinson in conversation with President Barack Obama

The invasive species of English

In The Fall of Language in the Age of English, Mizumura, a leading contemporary Japanese novelist who was educated (from high school through graduate school) in the United States and returned to Japan to become a writer, asks a fundamental question: what is the position of non-English-language writers (particularly non-European writers) in a global world so thoroughly dominated by English that no writer can escape its weighty impact? In the opening chapter, which describes her experience at an International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, she points to a hierarchy among literary languages, in which languages at the bottom are dying at an unprecedented rate, like animals and plants affected by severe environmental change, with English overrunning and homogenizing what had been a highly diversified linguistic landscape.

What Mizumura calls a “universal language” is not determined by the number of its speakers of that language but by the number who depend on it for their survival. Outside of the Anglo-European sphere, a linguistic and cultural hierarchy has emerged in which English, with its access to the latest knowledge and technology, stands at the top, while national and other local languages stand below; most nonnative English writers strive to be bilingual, but it is a severely asymmetrical relationship. Historically, in Mizumura’s words, “the universal [now English], which society places above the local, is assigned the heavy responsibility of aspiring to the highest excellence, not only aesthetically but also intellectually and ethically. In contrast, even if it has a writing system, the lower-ranking local language is primarily intended for only uneducated men and women.”

–Haruo Shirane, “What Global English Means for World Literature

 

 

“We often underestimate the common reader.”

“If readers trust that the effort of learning to read a strange or difficult writer is worth it, then they may put forth that effort. Brains are stubborn, and sometimes resist being changed. I threw Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! across the room three times when I first read it. Eventually, I put in enough work that the book was able to teach me how to read it. And then we were in love, eternal love.”

–Matthew Cheney, “Anecdotes on Literary Popularity and Difficulty