Abbot's Journal, Vol 60 June 13, 2007

by Norman Fischer | June 13, 2007 at 3:15 PM

Abbot's Journal, Vol 60 June 13, 2007

... read David Levy's lucid and interesting paper about how busy and fast life is getting as technology speeds us up. He quotes interestingly and at length Vanaver Bush and Josef Pieper. Bush, famous for inventing most of the conceptual framework that underlies modern computing, was actually most important as a science administrator, an early head of the National Science Foundation. Bush foresaw the explosion of information, that it would make useful knowledge and creative thinking less rather than more possible, and saw computing as a way of processing the more mechanical aspects of thinking, so that creativity could be freed up against the onslaught of too much data. But — at least on the everyday level for the ordinary person — it hasn't worked out this way. There is less rather than more time to think. More distraction, information overload. Pieper, a German Catholic theologian (who sounds a lot like Heidegger in his deeply skeptical view of science and technology, modernism in general) argues after the World War II German defeat that Western Civilization needs a new way out of the blind alley of materialism/rationality, into an opening of spirit. 

David traces the history of this social speed-up, which began, he writes, early in the 19th or late in the 18th century, with mechanization of tasks. Scale of production required new theories of management. Where before all work was regulated in a face to face manner, with individualized, nuanced supervision, now there had to be mechanisms to control at a distance: so was born modern management, record-keeping (invention of the vertical file cabinet) the "science" of decision-making etc. By the 1920's it seemed that the new machinery and new modes of management had caused production to outstrip demand, and in the U.S. a national crisis was perceived: what will happen when people have everything they want or need? Would it be the end of the economy? A national survey, run by Herbert Hoover, was commissioned to study the problem. It concluded that there was nothing to worry about, that desires were in fact limitless, so that new desires need only be identified and encouraged in order for production to once again increase. ("the survey has proved conclusively what has long been held theoretically to be true, that wants are almost insatiable; that one want satisfied makes way for another. The conclusion is that economically we have a boundless field before us; that there are new wants which will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied," Hoover wrote). Hence modern advertising. The rest is history.

So, an interesting question: is there a natural limit to desire?

Now new things are created to anticipate desires that don't yet exist. The Ipod for example. Who ever wanted, or dreamed of wanting, an Ipod in 1982? But now there's a massive desire.

Saw Clint Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima," movie abut the Japanese experience defending that island during the war. A tremendous movie, better than his "Flags of Our Fathers" which chronicles the same battle from the American perspective. A realistic yet sympathetic portrayal of the Japanese, based on actual letters home that had been buried in a bunker on the island during the war and recently discovered. The Japanese on Iwo Jima were pretty much doomed from the start, without supplies, reinforcements, or air support, and the movie ends with the last remnants of the men, half starved, making a suicide charge. Lots of suiciding soldiers throughout the movie, as one after another men give way to fear and despair. What's most astonishing is the complete lack of understanding on all sides in this as in any war, almost a form of mass psychosis. What could be more obvious than that the people on the other side are more or less the same as the people on our side? Yet each side necessarily demonizes and caricatures the other. Reminds me of the effort years ago of so many people (Dick Baker, Michael Murphy, later on Lyn Hejinian, and many other poets and artists) to understand and befriend the Russians. But there's also a trap in this: to make out the enemy (or ourselves) to be more noble than they are. (In "Iwo Jima" two Japanese soldiers, after great agonizing decide to desert and surrender, believing that the brain-washing they had received about the devilish, cowardly, yet cruel Americans couldn't possibly be true. They are shot callously, almost as a joke, by the American soldiers assigned to guard them).


Norman Fischer