Archive for September, 2010

At this point, I’ve said pretty much everything I feel a need to say about the sequence of visions over the last few hundred years. My immediate plans are to pick up where I left off a year ago with the development of the earliest visions, interspersed with entries on the latest intellectual, social, and political developments.

But there’s one big question I’m still wrestling with. That’s the matter of those mysterious “shadow” visions that seem to parallel and influence the normal visions without ever losing their separate identity.

Like the ordinary visions, the shadow visions come in three flavors — scientific, social, and inner experience — and a new one pops up whenever a normal vision of the same type starts to falter. For that reason, I originally took them to be offshoots of the normal visions — but I’ve gradually come to the conclusion they form a continuing stream of their own, one that may even be older than the ordinary visions.

There is something very primal about the shadow visions. They appeal more to the emotions than to the intellect. They invoke the symbology of blood and sex, and though they can release powerful positive aspirations, they can equally well inspire destruction and terror.

They also seem to lack any firm philosophical or moral basis. In fictional terms — and at times in actuality — they are represented by the mad scientists, bomb-throwing anarchists, and occult secret masters who aim to revolutionize the world without much thought as to what comes after.

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The story I’ve been telling for the past year is almost up to the present day, and I’m starting to think longingly of getting back to the Paleolithic. But there are still a few points left to cover.

There’s not a lot to be said about the period from 1993 to 2008. I see those years as equivalent to 1950-63, when the science-and-democracy partnership was at its peak of unchallenged dominance and chaos and holism were developing slowly at the margins.

In much the same way, democracy-and-chaos has been in the driver’s seat until just recently. The Clinton years brought us an emphasis on the touchy-feeliness of the domesticated chaos vision. The Bush years featured a late-stage, repressive, we-had-to-destroy-the-village-in-order-to-save-it obsession with democracy.

But the financial meltdown of 2008-2009 has brought the democracy-and-chaos partnership to a state of collapse. Democracy has become a hollow shell, and chaos is floundering without the steady hand of democracy to channel its hyper-individualism. Only the Tea Partiers, who pride themselves on their contempt for both government and the common good, appear to be fully in touch with the moment.

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There’s much more going on during a romantic break, of course, than simply a new “shadow” vision popping up to reject the dominant partnership. The same spirit of opposition also infuses the emergent visions, provoking them to bring forth dreams of utopian alternatives to the existing order of things.

It seems as though every dominant partnership makes its most significant contributions during its initial phase, when it is focused on basic problem-solving. But as it shifts from innovation to consolidation, a kind of ruthless pragmatism takes over. That shift is what provokes the distinctive mixture of cynicism and frustrated idealism that marks the romantic break.

The science-and-democracy partnership, for example, was at its best during the New Deal years of the middle and late 1930’s — but with the onset of World War II, this period of social reform came to an end. Democratic freedoms became the stuff of wartime propaganda even as they were being suspended for the duration. By the end of the war, the United States and its allies had adopted policies, such as the bombing of civilians, that would have to be considered war crimes by any objective standard.

The equivalent moral breakdown for the democracy-and-chaos partnership occurred between about 1984 and 1987. It was marked by the Reagan administration’s illegal arming of the Contras, the Iran-Contra affair of 1985-86, the savings and loan scandal, and the “greed is good” mentality skewered in the 1987 film Wall Street.

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“Some dishonest Booksellers, called Land-Pirats, who make it their practice to steal Impressions of other mens Copies.”
— J. Hancock, Brooks’ String of Pearls, 1668 (quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary)

“The last man in the world sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.”
— Fredric Brown

In 1984, Steven Levy concluded his book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution with a melancholy epilogue titled “The Last of the True Hackers.”

“A man who called himself the last true hacker sat in a room on the ninth floor of Tech Square,” it begins. “His name was Richard Stallman, and he spoke in a tense, high-pitched voice that did not attempt to veil the emotion with which he described, in his words, the ‘rape of the artificial intelligence lab.’ He was thirty years old. His pale complexion and scraggly dark hair contrasted vividly with the intense luminescence of his deep green eyes. The eyes moistened as he described the decay of the Hacker Ethic at Tech Square.”

As explained by Levy, Stallman saw the ethic which had emerged among the original computer hackers of the late 50’s and 60’s as a form of communal anarchism based upon “a concern for constructive cooperation.” But in the 70’s, that first generation grew up, entered the corporate world, and accepted its restrictions — most notably the enforcement of software copyrights.

Around the same time, the Pentagon bureaucrats who controlled access to ARPAnet — the earliest form of the Internet — became obsessed with security measures. And though Stallman fought “to delay the fascist advances with every method I could,” he found himself without allies.

“I don’t believe that software should be owned,” he told Levy. “Because [the practice] sabotages humanity as a whole. It prevents people getting the maximum benefit out of the program’s existence.”

That interview in the fall of 1983 marked a moment of great frustration for Stallman. But in his very despair can be seen the signs of a romantic break about to explode.

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