Saturday, November 12, 2011

Technology and Changing Power

In Citizens: a Chronicle of the French Revolution writer, Simon Schama asserts that the first hot air balloon may have initiated the French Revolution. In 1783 at Annonay, France the Montgolfier brothers sent up the first balloon, and later the Aeorstat Revellion at Versailles with crew of sheep, duck, and rooster, and later a manned flight. It captured the public imagination.

Schama believes it allowed French subjects to imagine themselves as Montgolfier, lofted above the earth and freed in some way from worldly bounds.

Every revolution is precipitated by some new invention.

The Renaissance brought perspective in painting and then the printing press. Marshall McLuhan said this:

Print technology transformed the medieval zero into the Renaissance infinity, not only by convergence - perspective and vanishing point - but by bringing into play for the first time in human history the factor of exact repeatability. Print gave to men the concept of indefinite repetition so necessary to the mathematical concept of infinity. 1

The uniformity and repeatability of print permeated the Renaissance with the idea of time and space as continuous measurable quantities. The immediate effect of this idea was to desacralize the world of nature and the world of power alike. The new technique of control of physical processes by segmentation and fragmentation separated God and Nature as much as Man and Nature, or man and man. 2

The discovery of the New World later in the Renaissance opened up new physical territory and exploded the myth of a flat world. A cognate was found in Renaissance perspective which removed the mystical, godlike space in art the church fed the masses. Renaissance people now wanted rational art and narratives. that ended the unified, all-encompassing space of Medievalism and ushered in the measurable, logical world of Man, in which Man was the center of this world, and God was confined to Heaven.

Turning points in history come in with changes in the political and social sphere, but they are founded on new technological inventions, devices that change the way people look at the world. The old ways of command and control can't work any more, and the power structures in place are shaken to their core.

Take the photograph. Daguerre created the first silver negative in 1839. Photography's reliable reproduction of reality made citizens no longer dependent on accounts of reality fed to them by the press and its government in the way With a new reliance on themselves to observe naturalistic reality in all its starkness, Europeans created the revolutions of the 1840s.

With the end of the 1848 climax of the revolution the Second Industrial Revolution began, in which mass consumption, made possible with advanced industry, was in bloom. People were not only free to revolt but to consume. McLuhan mentions the transience of the photograph.3 An analogy to it is the limited-use commodity, such as the raft of souvenirs created in the mid-19th century. The early Renaissance, prior to printing press and perspective nevertheless brought in a degree of human nature into the art of Giotto, Masaccio, Donatello, and others. From this "invention" came the workshops and guilds, which created a mass market for art for wealthy patrons.

Now we have the very mass media of the Internet and social networking. They have their down sides, as they isolate some of us into an unreal world. And Facebook friends are not your real friends. They do, in fairness though, remove the unilateral nature of earlier mass media. We are not dependent on what NBC has to tell us. We can search the Net for hundreds of news sources. And without social networking we would have no 2009 Iranian uprising, no Arab Spring. The Internet and social networking do not have a command structure as the networks do. Every point (person, that is) is equivalent to every other. As others have said, the dissemination of knowledge is limitless, like Renaissance infinity and the printing press, but much more so. With it power of the elites is weakening into more democratic expression.

The last technology for this essay is the conversion of analog to digital.

NYU Professor, James Carse, once told his class that he opened up his country house and found a leak in the well. So he put his hand over it. But the water shot out at another hole, so he put his hand over that to plug it up. But water came out of two new holes. He said he couldn't figure out the source of the leak until he realized the water was coming from everywhere. And that's the case here. The information revolution is unleashing a wellspring of knowledge in a democratic way. It can't be stopped. It's what we do with information that's the test.

A more abstract development in technology is the conversion of transmissions from analog to digital. Analog technology is structural in its processes. It depends on a hierarchy of steps A - B - C on variable waves. It's frequencies have a theoretically endless number of values. It's cognate would be social organization of the past with kings at the top, then bishops, ministers, knights, merchants, commoners; or president, prime minister, cabinet, and down to voters. Analog depends on a chain of command along a linear path. Its, well, analog in the social and political field is hierarchical power. That is until now.

With digital technology, everything is reduced to binary code...ones and zeros. It is dependent on sampling. Marcos Novak says:

In a world of fields, the distinction between what is and what is not is one
of degree. There can be as many sampling points where something is not as
there are where something is. Sampling involves an intermediate sense of
reality, something between real and integer numbers, a fractal notion of
qualified truth, truth-to-a-point. An object's boundary is simply the
reconstructed contour of an arbitrarily chosen value.4.

While binary leaves itself open to an either/or outlook and can be used to continue a bipolar world view, inviting class conflict, racism, social Darwinism, sampling takes the ones and zeros of binary along a bandwidth of qualified truth, as Novak says. It is not structured the way analog is.

Humanity is becoming more networked, more egalitarian like this digital bandwidth. We are evolving more into one community, certainly not in the short term, but as an impetus for centuries to come.

Stuart Kurtz
November 12, 2011

1. McLuhan, Marshall, Understanding Media, (M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England, 1964, 1994, Ninth edition 2001)pg. 116.
2. Ibid, pg. 176.

3. Ibid, pg. 196.

4. Novak, Marcos, Transmitting Architecture: The Transphysical City, Edited by Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, (published 11/29/1996) Digg Technorati Delicious StumbleUpon Reddit BlinkList Furl Mixx Facebook Google Bookmark Yahoo

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