Tech Toys

on July 30, 2010

When I was a kid in the 50’s and early 60’s, everyone in my generation knew for a fact that our world was radically different from the world of our parents and that there were things about it they would never understand.

Fifty years have passed since then without a similar youth culture arising to challenge the expectations of its elders, and the memory of what it was like is fading. Our own kids tend to minimize the importance of the “generation gap” and some dismiss our belief in it as a form of boomer exceptionalism. But the gulf was very real — and it was almost entirely a result of the technological revolution that began to transform society after World War II.

The first half of the 20th century had introduced numerous technological innovations, but none that resulted in sweeping social change. If you look at movies or cartoons from the 1920’s and 30’s, or even old family photographs, you get a strong sense that the wave of invention which began in the 1870’s hadn’t affected everyday life all that much.

People might go for a Sunday drive in the family car, but they never strayed very far from home. They might take in a Hollywood movie or listen to Roosevelt’s fireside chats on the radio, but those things merely opened a narrow window on an outside world that they weren’t part of themselves. Their own lives revolved around their home town or neighborhood, the local stores and businesses, and a familiar circle of family and friends.

But things started to change about the time of World War II. As I suggested some months ago, Bugs Bunny cartoons from the early 40’s are set in a fast-paced, modern, technological world, very different from the world of Betty Boop cartoons less than a decade earlier. And after the war, as soldiers returned home with a broader viewpoint and new possibilities in their heads, the changes accelerated.

The introduction of network television to the United States in 1946 is perhaps the most obvious marker of the new postwar world. Baby boomers who grew up with television in the home automatically felt themselves to be inhabitants of a larger world and not just of their own local communities.

Television also brought with it a crucial sense of empowerment. Movies were shown in theaters, and though you might be able to choose between buying your ticket at a Lowe’s or an RKO, that was the limit of your control. But the television set was right there in your living room and you could switch channels at will. By the late 50’s, portable record players and transistor radios meant that every teen could carry their music around with them or bring it to a friend’s house.

And technological empowerment went further than that, because the late 40’s also marked the start of a wave of do-it-yourself fads and hobbies. Returning soldiers might become passionate about hotrods, hi-fi systems and tape decks enabled ordinary people to become involved in the fine points of sound reproduction, and even television had a strong do-it-yourself element in the early days of fiddling around with test patterns and rooftop antennas.

In the 1970’s, the technological revolution moved on to computers, and in the 80’s and 90’s to the Internet, but it continued to follow the guidelines laid down in the late 40’s. It has consistently been global in perspective, oriented towards personal ownership, and perceived as a tool for individual creativity.

But the most important question for me is how this technological revolution fits into the sequence of visions — and I believe it is most naturally seen as the response of the science vision to the romantic break of the 1940’s.

The morphing of science into technology had actually begun a bit earlier, as can be seen in King Kong (1933). Kong is an epitomal symbol of the science vision, and his brute animal strength, evolutionary fitness, and violent and destructive nature exactly mirror contemporary perceptions of the universe of science.

But once Kong is taken off his island, his physical superiority counts for nothing. He is bewildered by the urban landscape of elevated trains and skyscrapers and is eventually harried to his death by a swarm of biplanes. With all due respect to Fay Wray, it wasn’t beauty that killed the beast — it was the overwhelming power of advanced 20th century tech.

And that same overwhelming power was rapidly killing the science vision itself, stripping it of its transcendence and subordinating it to human control — a process that culminated in the modern science fiction of 1939-41, in which science was almost entirely limited to technological innovation.

But even the writers of modern SF were never entirely convinced that advanced technology would remain under control. Isaac Asimov struggled with this question in his robot stories, and though Asimov’s positronic robots were guaranteed not to turn into Frankenstein monsters and destroy their creators, they also showed a disconcerting tendency to behave as if they had every right to make their own decisions and seek their own destiny.

The growing tension between the two members of the science-and-democracy partnership was a crucial aspect of the romantic break of the 1940’s. To all outward appearances, science had been reduced to a willing servant of society — and yet even human-created technology might potentially break loose and impact society in unpredictable and possibly undesirable ways.

This ambiguity acquired a real-world dimension when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan in 1945. Suddenly, it seemed possible that our most advanced technology might take on a momentum of its own and destroy us all.

But at exactly the same time as large-scale technology was assuming this fearful aspect, technology in the hands of individuals was becoming the one aspect of the science-and-democracy partnership that was still prepared to deliver on the partnership’s original promise of a better and brighter World of Tomorrow.

The late 40’s were marked by continuing economic uncertainty and a wave of political conservatism, which between them scuttled any hope of extending the New Deal to create a more abundant and equitable society. And when the economy got moving again in the 1950’s, it did so in the form of a top-down, profit-driven consumer society — a grotesquely compromised version of the utopian World of Tomorrow that had been imagined in 1939.

Even the glittering new tech toys of the postwar era were scooped up and exploited by that consumer society. And yet somehow both the do-it-yourself-ers and the computer hackers who later joined them managed to maintain an enduring nucleus of subversive thought and action, keeping alive the dream of a citizenry empowered and uplifted by its access to technology.

In its quietly seditious stance towards the larger society, the heart of the technological revolution parallels both late 19th century occultism and the revolutionary mode that began in the 1790’s. All three attracted a cult-like following and were pursued fanatically by a small group of believers who saw in them a promise of escape from ordinary social conventions and restrictions. And each was regarded more skeptically, at best, by the vast majority.

But there is also one significant difference. Political revolution and occultism, despite having useful ideas to offer and worthwhile causes to champion, were ultimately failures. The belief of the revolutionaries that changing society could change human nature proved to be tragically misguided. The occult faith in the power of mind over matter has never amounted to much more than woo-woo.

But radical changes in technology really do bring about changes in society — and they do so without any need for coercion or proselytizing.

This has been true not only of the most recent technological revolution, but also of three earlier ones — each of which was associated with the final stage of a scientifically-based vision.

The first was the Neolithic Revolution, which began in the late Ice Age and introduced not only the domestication of plants and animals but also pottery, metallurgy, and eventually monumental architecture.

The second great technological revolution is one that we in the West are less aware of, because it occurred largely while Europe was in the grip of the Dark Ages. Its chief center was in China, where it brought a surge of world-changing inventions that began with cast iron and paper in the 3rd-2nd centuries BC, moved on to metal horse stirrups and printing, and concluded in the 10th and 11th centuries AD with gunpowder and the navigational compass.

And the third began with the rise of modern science in the late 1600’s and continued through the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

During each of these revolutions, the most sweeping changes in society came near the end. The explosive growth of personal computers and the Internet in the 1980’s, for example, corresponds closely to the Industrial Revolution moving into high gear in the 1780’s — or the appearance of societies that were fully dependent on agriculture around 5000 BC.

It seems on a number of grounds that 1984 should be considered the pivotal year when society began to embrace the ongoing technological revolution wholeheartedly, instead of viewing it with ambivalence. That was when robots became heroes for children to emulate, instead of untrustworthy servants like HAL of 2001. And it was also the year that Apple made an explicit connection between technology and resistance to oppression.

The significant factor here may be that 1984 was the point at which the democracy-and-chaos partnership hit its own romantic break. That freed the adherents of the proto-countercultural holism vision and the emerging multiculturalism and creative imagination visions to start dreaming of alternatives to consumer society.

And that, in turn, allowed them to make common cause with the technological subversives — and to share their goal of a future of distributed networks, empowerment of the dispossessed, and universal human access to the tools of artistic and intellectual creativity.

Related:

A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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