Dependent suburban lifestyles

Johnny Sanphillippo at Granola Shotgun shares the experience of walking through Thousand Oaks, a typical Southern California neighborhood:

I’m just a geek who likes seeing how people occupy the landscape. … I believe our institutions and society are all in a lot of trouble and I’m trying to figure out how to ride out a difficult set of challenges in the not-too-distant future. …

One of the things that the front lawn guy was fired up about was attempts by the state to force all towns to accept infill development and higher densities even when residents didn’t want it. The idea that every home might have a second unit constructed in the back yard or that multi-family buildings would proliferate within subdivisions of single family homes was anathema. I totally understood his concerns. Personally I have no desire to impose such things on anyone. However… many of the homes next door and along his street already had backyard cottages and were, by any measure, already physically “multi-family.”

This house is currently for sale. It’s advertised as having, “a large detached casita with a living area, bedroom, bathroom and separate wet steam room!” The photos show the interior of the casita with a sink, tiled kitchen counters, cabinets, and a standard size refrigerator, but no stove. A stove would make this an illegal and culturally repugnant accessory dwelling unit. But a casita… That’s a luxury guest suite for treasured family and friends.

The 4,900 square foot (455 square meter) main house has five generously proportioned bedrooms each with its own private bath and all are large enough to hold all manner of furniture and activities in addition to a bed. Every bedroom also has an exterior door to the garden. There are two additional baths in the house. The massive kitchen has two breakfast bars. There’s a giant bonus room, home office, wine cellar, laundry… The attached two car garage is supplemented by a detached four car garage and enough driveway space for who knows how many more vehicles. The Google aerial view shows two full size recreational vehicles parked along the side driveway. This “single family home” is actually a small apartment complex in most regards. But as long as only one prosperous family inhabits it… no problem. …

Thousand Oaks has all the symbolism of farm life, minus the productive agriculture and supportive community. And driving everywhere, every day, for everything is mandatory. The residents may not know it, but they’re all just as dependent on the “Nanny State,” multinational corporations, global financial institutions, and just-in-time delivery systems as people living in high rise towers. It’s a great place to live if you like this sort of thing and can afford it. But it’s just as vulnerable to external shocks of all kinds as the urban environment they fear.

He hits on some of the real problems with suburban living, which is that in practice (meaning, on the level of daily, lived experience) you’re (a) less likely to encounter other human beings than in the city (b) less likely to feel the fulfillment that comes from healthy human relationships (c) less able to access neighborhood cultural/educational activities and resources, and (d) more “cooped up” than most city dwellers. To have to drive anywhere to have any of these experiences is a thin sort of independence in theory, and often, in fact, frustrating dependence in practice.

Consider the lilies

John Muir’s A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf shares the stories of his travel from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico, which started in 1867—just two years after the Civil War’s end. Muir was 29 or 30 at the time of the encounter below, near the Cumberland Mountains leaving Tennessee:

As I turned to leave, after bidding her goodbye, she, evidently pitying me for my tired looks, called me back and asked me if I would like a drink of milk. This I gladly accepted, thinking that perhaps I might not be successful in getting any other nourishment for a day or two. Then I inquired whether there were any more houses on the road, nearer than North Carolina, forty or fifty miles away. “Yes,” she said, “it’s only two miles to the next house, but beyond that there are no houses that I know of except empty ones whose owners have been killed or driven away during the war.

Arriving at the last house, my knock at the door was answered by a bright, good-natured, good-looking little woman, who in reply to my request for a night s lodging and food, said, “Oh, I guess so. I think you can stay. Come in and I’ll call my husband.” “But I must first warn you,” I said, “that I have nothing smaller to offer you than a five-dollar bill for my entertainment. I don’t want you to think that I am trying to impose on your hospitality.”

She then called her husband, a blacksmith, who was at work at his forge. He came out, hammer in hand, bare-breasted, sweaty, begrimed, and covered with shaggy black hair. In reply to his wife s statement, that this young man wished to stop over night, he quickly replied, “That’s all right; tell him to go into the house.” He was turning to go back to his shop, when his wife added, ” But he says he has n’t any change to pay. He has nothing smaller than a five-dollar bill.” Hesitating only a moment, he turned on his heel and said, “Tell him to go into the house. A man that comes right out like that beforehand is welcome to eat my bread.”

When he came in after his hard day’s work and sat down to dinner, he solemnly asked a blessing on the frugal meal, consisting solely of corn bread and bacon. Then, looking across the table at me, he said, “Young man, what are you doing down here?” I replied that I was looking at plants. “Plants? What kind of plants?” I said, “Oh, all kinds; grass, weeds, flowers, trees, mosses, ferns,—almost every thing that grows is interesting to me.”

“Well, young man,” he queried, “you mean to say that you are not employed by the Government on some private business?” “No,” I said, “I am not employed by any one except just myself. I love all kinds of plants, and I came down here to these Southern States to get acquainted with as many of them as possible.”

“You look like a strong-minded man,” he replied, “and surely you are able to do something better than wander over the country and look at weeds and blossoms. These are hard times, and real work is required of every man that is able. Picking up blossoms does n’t seem to be a man’s work at all in any kind of times.”

To this I replied, “You are a believer in the Bible, are you not?” “Oh, yes.” “Well, you know Solomon was a strong-minded man, and he is generally believed to have been the very wisest man the world ever saw, and yet he considered it was worth while to study plants; not only to go and pick them up as I am doing, but to study them; and you know we are told that he wrote a book about plants, not only of the great cedars of Lebanon, but of little bits of things growing in the cracks of the walls.

“Therefore, you see that Solomon differed very much more from you than from me in this matter. I’ll warrant you he had many a long ramble in the mountains of Judea, and had he been a Yankee he would likely have visited every weed in the land. And again, do you not remember that Christ told his disciples to ‘consider the lilies how they grow,’ and compared their beauty with Solomon in all his glory? Now, whose advice am I to take, yours or Christ’s? Christ says, ‘Consider the lilies.’ You say, ‘Don’t consider them. It isn’t worthwhile for any strong-minded man.’”

This evidently satisfied him, and he acknowledged that he had never thought of blossoms in that way before. He repeated again and again that I must be a very strong-minded man, and admitted that no doubt I was fully justified in picking up blossoms. He then told me that although the war was over, walking across the Cumberland Mountains still was far from safe on account of small bands of guerrillas who were in hiding along the roads, and earnestly entreated me to turn back and not to think of walking so far as the Gulf of Mexico until the country be came quiet and orderly once more.


Craft v. ideology in architecture

Nick Phillips writes on architecture of the sort that we have, and of the sort that many want:

In The Architecture of Community, a brilliant, baffling book that contains equal parts text and the architectural equivalent of political cartoons, traditionalist architect Leon Krier opens with a simple proposition. Imagine that you had to choose between eliminating every building built before 1945 or every building built after 1945. Which would you choose? The total built volume of both periods is about the same—so which act of destruction would feel like the greater loss?

This proposition is fascinating because it should be a hard question, but it isn’t. Our guts immediately tell us that a world full of postwar buildings would be alienating and hollow, utile but sterile. We lean on our pre-war buildings for far more—for meaning, for beauty, for a sense of place, for the stuff that makes life not merely livable, but worth living. This is Krier’s point. Modern architecture attempted to make a clean break with the past and “start from zero.” But for most ordinary people, the result has been the opposite—an unprecedented dependence on our architectural heritage as a refuge from our architectural present.

Whenever anyone bothers to ask the American people about what kinds of buildings they prefer, they speak with a clear voice: They prefer traditional ones. In 2006, the American Institute of Architects decided to survey the general public for their view on the question, producing a ranked list of “America’s Favorite Architecture.” The list is remarkable: Of the 50 most favored buildings, a mere seven were built in postwar styles. Of those seven, two are monuments (the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Gateway Arch) and another, the World Trade Center, no longer exists. The other four are Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, the Rose Center for Earth and Space, Chicago’s Willis Tower, and, inexplicably, Las Vegas’ Bellagio casino. The remaining 43 most favored buildings all hale from the prewar period. Perhaps the public will eventually come around to the new stuff, but it’s been 70 years.

Various other types of evidence corroborate the clear public preference for traditional architecture. And what it all reveals is a stark disconnect between what ordinary people like and what actually gets built. When famous architects build today, their intended audience is not really the general public, or even the client. It’s other architects. It’s the people who award the Pritzker Prize. It’s the academics, theoreticians, and highly-credentialed practitioners who dwell in the impregnable temple of architectural criticism.

These temples exist in every artistic discipline, and they presently elevate one precept above all others: disruption. …

The results are bizarre. For thousands of years, we built beautiful things. It is close to impossible to find a pre-20th century building capable of conjuring strong negative feelings—the worst they can evoke is indifference. But with the architect-theoreticians at the helm, we have succeeded for the first time at producing buildings that make people feel things like confusion, dread, anomie, and helplessness.

Phillips underscores what seems to me to be his primary point: “contemporary architecture reflects the migration of art away from craft and toward ideology.”

Exciting, exhilarating, and ecstatic

Jody Bottum writes on the space between “sober and dull” versus “drunk and interesting”:

Alcohol is the lubricant of social interaction: We rub against each other like rough-cut gears, the burred ratchets of unpolished clockwork, and without a little oil to ease our way, we’d grind one another down to raw metal.

Then, too, alcohol is a flavoring—something splashed on life to add a little zest. A dollop of wine deglazes the caramelized drippings and draws out the essences. A measure of beer enlivens a batter. A jigger of brandy warms a dessert. And why not? Liquor makes the banter seem wittier, the company more charming, the party more exciting.

For that matter, alcohol is an emotional regulator: a mood restorative, an attitude adjustor. A martini can pick you. A Manhattan can calm you down. A beer can steady your nerves. A shot of rye can drown your sorrows. The taste of absinthe lets us imagine the experience of decadent French poets. The swirl of bourbon, the slight viscosity as it clings to the glass, gives us clues to the thought of highflying American novelists. …

Drunks may imagine their friendships as rich and interesting, filled with drama. But to the nondrinking observer, the alcoholic’s human relationships look merely impoverished and unpleasant. The result is the opposite of unique and dramatic. Just predictably sloppy and expectedly dull: an amateur production of Hedda Gableron a rainy Wednesday evening in Sioux City, Iowa. Drinking may be fun, but drunkenness is a race between the boring and the disgusting, with death closing in fast on the frontrunners.

The dullness is what Leslie Jamison tries to address in The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, her new book about her alcoholism, and it proves a long, tedious journey up from the bottom of a bottle. …

It was all supposed to make her interesting, she explains that she thought at the time. Dull people lead sober lives, lacking interesting flavors and moods. Even more to the point, she wanted to be an artist, and alcohol, she believed, fuels creativity and insight. …

In the 1962 film Days of Wine and Roses, Kirsten tries to explain her drinking by saying that, without alcohol, she “can’t get over how dirty everything looks.” The world seemed brighter and more interesting when she was drunk. For Leslie Jamison, however, it wasn’t an improvement of the world she sought. It was she herself that she saw as brighter and more interesting. …

Neither a mark of the demon rum nor a regular dosing with magical elixir for the artistic and the interesting, alcoholism in Jackson’s novel is revealed as the boring, predictable, and mean-spirited thing it is. …

Drinking is exciting, exhilarating, and ecstatic. Drunkenness is merely dull—a dullness that rots the liver. Rots the brain. Rots the soul.

I haven’t read The Recovering, and I don’t plan to. Bottum’s review is enough for me. I’d suggest, however, that it’s not drinking itself that is exciting, exhilarating, ecstatic. It’s drinking in the context and company of great people. That’s why drinking in a proper sense is a positive lubricant, because it helps us drop some of our atomistic sensibility defensiveness and be a bit more human than we might otherwise be. The great thrill to good drinking is an experience of the other, isn’t it?

Moral culture in emerging communities

Preston Jones writes on “moral culture in Gold Rush towns” in the 19th century:

People respond to expectations. A professor who allows students to submit late papers is likely to receive late papers, even from students who ordinarily complete their work on time.

Perhaps something similar is true in moral life. When I was in the Navy, I noticed that many sailors were perfectly decent in some ports, while in other ports the same men did things they would never admit to back home. The difference was expectations. In ports where almost anything was acceptable, almost anything happened, and the consequences were degrading for all.

This came to mind as I read the diaries and memoirs of women who went to gold rush communities in Alaska and the Canadian Yukon in the late nineteenth century. Mary Hitchcock was a curious New Yorker; Elizabeth Robins an actress and writer. Martha Black arrived pregnant and estranged from her husband; Anna DeGraf was a seamstress.

Gold rush lore evinces images of restless, grizzled miners and thriving saloons. Certainly, boom towns like Skagway (Alaska) and Dawson (Yukon) had their wild sides. Anna DeGraf saw “gold fever, greed, and lawlessness,” and she notes that she was harassed a few times by drunken men. Yet her story is mainly about cooperation and kindness. The same is true of the other women’s memoirs and diaries. Each of them ended up in situations where they would have been almost powerless against one man, let alone many. Yet their writings say little of vulnerability, even in areas beyond the reach of police.

For all of the experiences of oppression and subjugation that undoubtedly took place to some degree in frontier communities, Jones offers insights into the ways in which moral culture can be fruitfully developed in frontier communities. These aren’t earth-shattering insights, but they’re important ones if we’re trying to “get things right” in fostering a healthier culture. And relevant for our future lunar and Mars colonies.

Literary societies

I recently came across Lawrence Biemiller’s March 1997 profile of two Lancaster, Pennsylvania college literary societies. Biemiller’s piece appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I’m excerpting some of it below.

In the 19th century, many American colleges brilliantly combined the humanities (liberal arts) with the mechanical-industrial (servile arts) to create a new form of education meant to be accessible to any young person—not only the elite that the Ivy League institutions had long catered to. What’s less well known is the extent to which young people themselves often led the way in creating, shaping, and really breathing life into this new model. Biemiller’s piece tells some of that story as it related to Franklin & Marshall College:

Generations of Students Learned Oratory and Debate in 2 Literary Societies

Lancaster, PA. In the Goethean Literary Society’s first formal debate, in June of 1835, students argued the question, “Ought imprisonment for debt to be abolished?” The debate took place in York, Pa., at what was then called the High School of the Theological Seminary of the German Reformed Church. The society’s minutes record that the question “was decided in favor of the negative both as to the merits of the arguments and those of the question.” Afterward the members chose a topic for the following week’s discussion: “Has not the civilization of mankind been as much affected by the influence of the fair Sex as by any other cause whatever?”

So began an extraordinary run of debates and orations that continued on three different campuses for more than a hundred years, from Andrew Jackson’s Presidency to Dwight Eisenhower’s. Along with its twin sister, the Diagnothian Literary Society, the Goethean Society prospered as the “high school” moved to Mercersburg and changed its name to Marshall College. At weekly meetings the societies’ members delivered speeches and poems and argued the issues of the day, from whether women should hold public office and whether the Roman Catholic Church was “an enemy to liberty” to whether man “is the creator of his own destiny.”

Both societies assembled libraries and built Greek-revival meeting halls. There they met for hours each Saturday morning, mixing parliamentary procedure with splashes of ritual and secrecy and with floods of declamation. In January and February of 1842, for example, the Goetheans addressed a range of issues. “Would it be beneficial for the United States to admit Texas to the Union?” “Is England justified in carrying on war against China?” “Would it promote the interests of the United States to elect Henry Clay, President?” The minutes for February 23 add a contemporary-sounding note: “A Resolution was offered by Geo. L. Staley, prohibiting the chewing of Tobacco in Society on the ground of its disrespect and insult to the dignity of Society.” The resolution failed, but “Mr. Brewer then moved a vote of censure to Mr. Staley for presuming to offer such a resolution.” It, too, failed, and the members moved on to choosing the next question for debate: “Would it be beneficial for the Northern and Southern States, if they were peaceably disunited?”

The two societies continued to thrive after Marshall merged with Franklin College in 1853. The new institution, Franklin and Marshall, commissioned a Gothic-revival building with a soaring tower here in Lancaster; the literary societies put up matching halls, one on either side. The halls had first-floor rooms for the societies’ libraries—larger than the college’s—and also rooms for their “cabinets,” or museums. Upstairs were the spacious meeting rooms, frescoed by local artists. The college’s curriculum was then centered on classical texts, history, and mathematics, but the societies offered students opportunities to practice writing and public speaking and to consider subjects from politics to the nature of mankind.

In those years orators and debaters were judged more on composition and delivery than on content. Henry Kyd Douglas, a Diagnothian who attended the college in the 1850s, reported in his diary on speeches at the society’s programs: “…5th Oration, J. B. Tredwell on ‘The Dawn of a New Era.’ This was nicely written and nicely spoken. Jim is a pleasant speaker but has not enough animation. 6th Oration, ‘Christian Martyrdom,’ by J. M. Mickly. This was a first rate speech and although he did well last year, he has made quite an improvement. His production gave evidence of thought…” Douglas’s own oration that day—May 28, 1858—was titled “Tombs of the Illustrious Dead,” and it was well received. “I never saw such an abundance of bouquets,” he wrote. “I got 12, and Mr. Tredwell even more. They came in showers.”

The few orations that survive are more interesting as samples of 19th-century writing than because they offer insights into their authors’ lives; even the poems are almost entirely impersonal. The topics are general and often grand: “Marriage,” “Justice,” “The Past Character and Recent Prospects of Pennsylvanians.” The prose is confident. …

The Goetheans, whose records are more complete, elected and received acceptance letters from John James Audubon, James Buchanan, Samuel T. Clemens, Grover Cleveland, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Ulysses S. Grant, Washington Irving, Thomas Mann, Jean Sibelius, and Daniel Webster, among others. …

The museum curator noted the acquisition of a tortoise shell, a bottled snake, a rock from “a cave in Minnesota territory,” and “a specimen of peacock coal, beautifully colored.” The curator added that Professor Agassiz, as yet, has given us no information concerning the gar-fishes he borrowed from us several years ago.” The corresponding secretary, the curator added, had written to the professor “in a style not to be mistaken.”

The literary societies at F&M outlived most, remaining active into the 1950s. Like societies at Davidson College and Princeton University, they left behind handsome halls that still carry their names, perhaps reminding current students of the charge with Edmund Eck opened an oration titled “Who Are College Students?” It begins beautifully: “We are the embryo of stars, in the process of development, which are to illuminate the dark world when those before us have disappeared.”

This caught my attention because of Penn State’s experience with the Washington and Cresson Literary Societies. These were forerunners of both Penn State’s fraternity and sorority systems, and Penn State’s library, and much like Franklin & Marshall’s societies these provided the basis for bringing many young people together to form a critical and “unplanned” part of their collegiate experience.

We’re better people when we’re there

Gracy Olmstead writes:

In his latest book The Art of Loading Brush, Wendell Berry talks about the intuitive aspects of agrarianism: that there are many things agrarians do and uphold not for specific scientific reasons, but because they know in their bones that it’s “best.”

“I think that agrarianism had, and where it survives it still has, a sort of summary existence as a feeling—an instinct, an excitement, a passion, a tenderness—for the living earth and its creatures,” he writes in his introduction.

Chuck Marohn highlighted this same intuitive genius in ancient urban planning during his most recent podcast for Strong Towns. As a history lover and engineer, Marohn has observed patterns in urban planning that have been passed down through millennia, patterns that built a deep logic and beauty into the places they sculpted. “Human habitat is pretty ordinary,” he notes. “We need certain things, and those’ll be within a certain distance of each other. Buildings will be arranged in certain ways and will have certain attributes, because it makes places safer, and it makes places more social. It has all this ‘spooky wisdom’ built into it.”

“Spooky wisdom” is the term Marohn employs: “the idea in quantum mechanics, at least as it’s developed today, is that we know these things work—but we really don’t know why.” “We write equations out of our understanding of quantum mechanics,” he explains, “we can test those equations, they test out true—so clearly we’re onto something—but we don’t know why it works. … And what I’m suggesting is that the more I have studied and looked at human development patterns pre-modernity, the more I just find spooky wisdom. Things that work, and I can’t really explain or understand why.”

For millennia, humans have followed specific patterns passed down by their forbears without always knowing why. This is the essence of culture: the layers of belief and precedent, ritual and intuition that guide societal life and practice. As Maurice Telleen once put it, “A funny thing about cultures is that they produce people who understand more than they know. Sort of like osmosis.”

A great deal of the 20th century was an attempt to shape a new sort of civilization with our new technologies. Going from steam to electrification to automobiles to flight to atomic energy brought incredible transformations, but our ability to live differently on a human level (that is, on the level of our homes and neighborhoods and communities) hasn’t turned out to be as malleable as many of our economic and technological conventions.

There’s a reason that people in New York intuitively sought to protect the West Village (and pay incredible premiums to live there), and why the attempts at “urban renewal” that replaced West Village-esque neighborhoods with drab apartment blocks have been largely rejected. It’s not just the aesthetics of places like the West Village that make them beautiful, but it’s the whole way of life that those neighborhoods make possible that makes life worth living there.

Greenwich Village may once have been host to New York’s avant garde, but its longevity and conservation are testaments to the best sort of conservative spirit in every heart that says something like, “Yes, this place feels right.”

Culture as ‘legitimate naming’

Mark Regnerus’s “Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy” is worth reading for its raw data alone. But Regnerus offers plenty of analysis of the data surrounding relationships, marriage, and commitment that is illuminating. Here’s a bit that particularly stood out to me:

Almost all of us take birth control for granted, and almost all of us alive today never inhabitated a world before it. How did it change things? Giddens asserts that its uptake has, among other things, fostered the idea of sex as an “art form” and injected that into the heart of the conjugal relationship, which then made the achievement of reciprocal sexual pleasure a key element in whether the relationship is sustained or dissolved. The cultivation of sexual skills, the capacity of giving and receiving sexual satisfaction, on the part of both sexes, has become organized reflexively via a multitude of sources of sexual information, advice, and training.

Sarah could be a case study. Despite all the sex and relationships she has had, she has never pursued pregnancy or become pregnant. The prospect of mutual sexual pleasure animates her dating life, even first dates. Sexual interest, or its absence, commonly dictates what happens next, even though her ideal relationship, she claims, would develop and mature before sex, not because of it. And all of these comparatively new achievements, Giddons asserts, have been sealed in language: how we talk about sex and relationships. And that is significant.

Once there is a new terminology for understanding sexuality, [then] ideas, concepts, and theories couched in these terms seep into social life itself and help reorder it.

What he means is that when we name something in the social world, unlike in the natural world, we are not only mentally mapping it, but we are also providing the idea with a reality that then allows it to act back upon us and the wider social world, altering how we then must subsequently navigate it. Thus, the world after something has been named is not as malleable as it was before it. To identify something socially is to give it life and power, not just a name.

It has been occurring for decades in the study of sexuality, Giddens holds. The Kinsey reports, like others following on, aims to analyze what was going on in a particular region of social activity, as all social research seeks to do. Yet as they disclosed,, they also influenced, initiating cycles of debate, reinvestigation and further debate. These debates became part of a wide public domain, but also served to alter lay views of sexual actions and involvements themselves. No doubt the scientific caste of such investigations helps neutralize moral uneasiness about the propriety of particular sexual practices. Sociologist James Davison Hunter asserts similarly when he defines culture as the power of “legitimate naming.” That is, to classify something in the social world is to penetrate the imagination, to alter our frameworks of knowledge and discussion, and to shift the perception of everyday reality.

In the domain of sexuality, fraught as it is with great moral valence, this can make all the difference. It’s why there is often poignance and bitter struggle over words and terms around sex, and the politics of using them or avoiding them.

… what is very unlikely is a return to the patterns witnessed prior to the sexual revolution.

I think the most fascinating conclusion that Regnerus draws from American relational/sexual practices is that marriage will diminish as a normative force. In other words, marriage is/will no longer be understood as the natural or obvious thing that young men and women do, and he concludes that it is already in the process of becoming a “minority practice” that is in the “throes of de-institutionalization.” It will come to be seen as simply one option among many in a socially and sexually pluralistic culture, and those who pursue it seriously are likely to decrease in number.

Slower generational change

Another excerpt from Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, this time on the friction between faster technology and the faster sense of change that it brings on the one hand, and the longer lifespans that the past century has brought and consequently the slower generational change that results:

Accelerating change has practically become a religious belief in Silicon Valley. It often begins to seem to us as though everything is speeding up along with the chips.

Broadly speaking, Moore’s law can be expected to accelerate progress in medicine because computers will accelerate the speeds of processes like genomics and drug discovery. That means healthy old age will continue to get healthier and last longer and that the “youthful” phase of life will also be extended. The two go together.

And that means generational shifts in culture and thought will happen less frequently. The baby boom isn’t over yet, and the 1960s still provide the dominant reference points in pop culture. This is in part, I believe, because of the phenomena of Retropolis and youthiness, but it is also because the boomers are not merely plentiful and alive but still vigorous and contributing to society. And that is because constantly improving medicine, public health, agriculture, and other fruits of technology have extended the average life span. People live longer as technology improves, so cultural change actually slows, because it is tied more to the outgoing generational clock than the incoming one.

So Moore’s law makes “generational” cultural change slow down. But that is just the flip side of neoteny. While it is easy to think of neoteny as an emphasis on youthful qualities, which are in essence radical and experimental, when cultural neoteny is pushed to an extreme it implies conservatism, since each generation’s perspectives are preserved longer and made more influential as neoteny is extended. Thus, neoteny brings out contradictory qualities in culture.

“People live longer as technology improves, so cultural change actually slows, because it is tied more to the outgoing generational clock than the incoming one.”

Portals to strange philosophies

Jaron Lanier writes in You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto against the utopian desire for achieving an abstract broader sort collective knowledge. Why? Because that knowledge would be fragmentary, and because it would denude the distinctive voices, perspectives, and spirit of the individual in favor of a bland “consensus” perspective, akin to the ways that the most alienating aspects of foreign cultures are reduced or destroyed by the empires that incorporate them:

An impenetrable tone deafness rules Silicon Valley when it comes to the idea of authorship. This was as clear as ever when John Updike and Kevin Kelly exchanged words on the question of authorship in 2006. Kevin suggested that it was not just a good thing, but a “moral imperative” that all the world’s books would soon become effectively “one book” once they were scanned, searchable, and remixable in the universal computational cloud.

The approach to digital culture I abhor would indeed turn all the world’s books into one book, just as Kevin suggested. … If the books in the cloud are accessed via user interfaces that encourage mashups of fragments that obscure the context and authorship of each fragment, there will be only one book. This is what happens today with a lot of content; often you don’t know where a quoted fragment from a news story came from, who wrote a comment, or who shot a video. A continuation of the present trend will make us like various medieval religious empires, or like North Korea, a society with a single book. …

The one collective book will absolutely not be the same thing as the library of books by individuals it is bankrupting. Some believe it will be better; others, including me, believe it will be disastrously worse. As the famous line goes from Inherit the Wind: “The Bible is a book … but it is not the only book.” …

One of the first printed books that wasn’t a bible was 1499’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, or “Poliphili’s Strife of Love in a Dream,” an illustrated, erotic, occult adventure through fantastic architectural settings. What is most interesting about this book, which looks and reads like a virtual reality fantasy, is that something fundamental about its approach to life—its intelligence, its worldview—is alien to the Church and the Bible.

It’s easy to imagine an alternate history in which everything that was printed on early presses went through the Church and was conceived as an extension of the Bible. “Strife of Love” might have existed in this alternate world, and might have been quite similar. But the “slight” modifications would have consisted of trimming the alien bits. The book would no longer have been as strange. And that tiny shift, even if it had been minuscule in terms of word count, would have been tragic.

This is what happened when elements of indigenous cultures were preserved but de-alienated by missionaries. We know a little about what Aztec or Inca music sounded like, for instance, but the bits that were trimmed to make the music fit into the European idea of church song were the most precious bits. The alien bits are where the flavor is found. They are the portals to strange philosophies. What a loss to not know how New World music would have sounded alien to us! Some melodies and rhythms survived, but the whole is lost.

I thought of Valya Balkanska’s “Izlel ye Delyo Haydutin” as an example of something strange-sounding to Western ears, but that is probably just a pale echo of whatever songs and sounds mankind offered up in the millennia before recorded histories.