"But I could be wrong"
Tim Wilson (Music Video, 2007)
Well, gentle reader, I warn you even before you read on, that this is not a happy essay. I write about failure here, and failure is never an easy thing to read about, or even write about. Especially if it’s about a failure of an age; and especially about an age that has just begun – a new millennium. An age is characterized by the ideas, which mold it, and by the men and women who create these ideas. We also look behind us to see if we have indeed advanced, or perhaps regressed. So let us look at what is past first.
The last half of the nineteenth century, issued in a time of genius, and ideas, which characterized that century. In all areas of human endeavor, science, the humanities and the arts, fundamental, even seminal, ideas changed the actual subject disciplines they followed. In Science and Philosophy people like Helmholtz, Einstein, Farraday, Maxwell, Planck, Thomson, Currie, Jeans, Hertz, Darwin, Mendel, Metchnikoff, Pasteur, Lyle, Virchow, Russell, Whitehead and Wittgenstein, to name only a few, advanced Physics, Astronomy, Optics, Mathematics, Philosophy, Geology, Biology, Medicine and Logic. Their ideas, such as Electric Induction, Electromagnetic field theory, The Electron, Relativity, Radioactive decay, Photoelectric effect, Quantum Mechanics, Philosophy of language and Mathematics, Genetics, Germ Theory, Evolution and Phagocytosis, just to name a few, revolutionized their respective disciples of study and created new avenues of thought. Similarly, Freud, Jung, Charcot, Marx and Engle, again just to name a few, created theories that stimulated new lines of thought in Psychology and social economics. Likewise in Literature and the Arts, masters like Frank Lloyd Wright, Hesse, Caruso, Rodin, Dali, Malvina Hoffman gave new dimensions to the Arts and the humanities. In just about all fields of human endeavor significant progress was made, and most of these geniuses, born late in the century brought many new ideas into the next century with them. But by the middle of the twentieth century, the creativity of the previous windfall began to sag, or rather disappear entirely. Why? Was there something else happening that also had an effect?
Yes! The end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century brought in the industrialist and the entrepreneur! Industries and automation began to grow on the ideas of the previous century. Pure science began to be practical science, Art for Art’s sake began to be commercialized Art. The age of technology had begun. And with it all the perverse techniques to distort ideas also began. The military industrial complex was once more born. Industry changed pure science into pure gold, like the ancient alchemists using the philosopher’s stone. And the military and the State began to warp the social sciences. Psychology’s advancements were turned into brainwashing and propaganda, for the military; or into the new techniques of “advertising” in the commercial setting! Physical theory, and even poor Einstein’s theory of E=mc2 were turned into weapons of mass destruction. But ideas didn’t die altogether, they only metamorhed into ideas of technological implementation. Why delve into pure science or theory when practical devices were so much more profitable? A thinking phase-shift had occurred; practicality had displaced theory. Greed had displaced altruism. Seminal ideas were replaced with seminal money making schemes. Competition for gain grew, while cooperation for knowledge all but disappeared; after all, patents are so lucrative, aren’t they?
Even medicine changed, the research that Claude Bernard frowned on became the name of the game. Statistics could prove just about anything, if you chose your populations correctly! And the drug companies prospered!
So we come to the latter part of the last century, which all us baby boomers look back on with so much fondness. It seems that the colleges and Universities were among the last to catch on to the gravy train. But never fear they wouldn’t be outdone! As I remember it, even by the sixties most of us were still striving to try to do something for the benefit of humanity; and perhaps the lessons of Vietnam would help us keep it that way. But alas, we were a dying breed. By the eighties, the Universities had sold out. Their business schools had become the all important sources of the leaders of the Nations. Competition for these had hit an all out frenzy. CEO’s, EEO’s and whatever else, became the Einsteins, Plancks and Darwins of the new millennium. Automation transformed into computers and software, and you know who became king of the mountain!
So here we are, at the dawn of a new millennium, or maybe, of a new Dark Age? What are our new ideas? The internet – the land of pornography, slander and gossip; or perhaps a new way to destroy people’s reputations; or perhaps, a new algorithm to help defeat the all-pervasive identity thieves that have prospered even better than the descent people; or maybe a new way to destroy the terrorists that seem to be everywhere; or perhaps a new method for the poor to provide funding for the rich, so they can become president? No, maybe a new space program, that will help take the middle class into space (after all they deserve some fun too on the taxpayers money)? Maybe we can find a way to recycle the billions of books that the IT industry has created to do the same thing in code ten thousand different ways! You get the point – there aren’t any new ideas – not while people are more interested in dollars than human lives!
How many kids today even recognize the names I mentioned above? Not many, let alone what they actually accomplished! Like the old Spaniard writer, José Ortega Y Gasset, said in his speech on the "Mission of the University" 1 we are creating a new kind of barbarian; a student that becomes a scientist, a lawyer, a doctor, whatever, but is devoid of the cultural part of his humanity. Our Universities fail because our people have failed to realize that without trust and cooperation, our whole culture will degenerate into just what it is becoming – a vacuum. We are no longer humans, we are consumers, or maybe just plain slaves - slaves to our own stupidity. A stupidity that we see everywhere on the new improved HDTV boob tubes that are rotting our children’s minds and creating a race of automatons that only know how to eat, sleep and make money. Even love making has become obsolete for the rich and middle class (it keeps them from making money), since only the desperately poor have time for that, after all, their kids will only end up becoming the new unwanted misfits of society.
Get the picture yet! Our society is not turning out right even with all the money we’re making, and the prosperity that technology has given us. So here we are again, have we progressed? I think I already answered that. We have become a new kind of barbarian, even worse than Ortega Y Gasset’s barbarian, a cultureless human who has traded its humanity for the almighty dollar. The symbol of our age is the tinsel town dumb blonde, with a mind as empty as the vacuum our society has created - but I could be wrong!
* "The Old Dark Age" was a time during which mankind was enslaved by the religious frenzy of Christian Dogmatism; the New Dark Age is the enslavement of mankind to the "Almighty Dollar".
1 "Mission of the University", José Ortega Y Gasset, 1944, Princeton University Press.
Señor Ortega was a philosopher, politician, newspaper editor and intellectual leader of the Spanish Republican government. He went into exile after the Spanish Civil War, and later lived in Portugal for a while. He wrote many books on Philosophy and social comment. He died in 1955.