Saturday, January 24, 2015

Lukacs and the "Law of Accelerating Returns"

Alan Jacobs has a nice little post on what he calls "Kurzweilian Whiggery"--Ray Kurzweil being the prominent "futurist" who is all kinds of optimistic about how technology will solve the world's problems and help us live eternally (as disembodied minds, anyway*). Jacobs pushes back against the assumption that change and progress are always speeding up--in particular, Tim Urban's assumption that "so much more change happened in the most recent 30 years than in the prior 30" due to the so-called "Law of Accelerating Returns."

In response, Jacobs proposes "a thought experiment, in the form of a few questions."
Did automobiles change more from 1955 to 1985, or from 1985 to 2015? 
Did television change more from 1955 to 1985, or from 1985 to 2015? 
Did household appliances change more from 1955 to 1985, or from 1985 to 2015? (Think for instance about the prevalence of air conditioning.) 
Did space exploration change more from 1955 to 1985, or from 1985 to 2015? 
Did military weaponry change more from 1955 to 1985, or from 1985 to 2015? 
Did cancer treatment change more from 1955 to 1985, or from 1985 to 2015?
Jacobs' thinking aligns with that of historian John Lukacs throughout much of his work. Lukacs pushes the point even further than Jacobs. In his history of America in the twentieth century, A New Republic, Lukacs points out that most of the transformative conveniences of modern life were actually invented before the Great War started in 1914. Since then what we've mostly seen are not completely new inventions, but simply improvements on previous inventions.

In a little while, I'll be doing a thought experiment with my students. I split the class into three groups. Each group brainstorms particular kinds of inventions: one group thinks about various means of transportation, another thinks about household luxuries/appliances, and a third thinks about means of communication.

Then I ask them to guess when each thing was first invented: before 1865, after 1914, or in between? It's an illuminating activity because it helps them realize how little was invented after 1914.

Consider these pre-1914 inventions: the telephone, the phonogram, motion-picture technology, the radio, the automobile, internal plumbing, refrigeration, washing machines, the lightbulb, the airplane, the elevator... the list goes on. If I recall correctly, Lukacs--originally writing in 1984**--suggests that the only comparably significant things invented after 1914 are air-conditioning and the personal computer. Now you could add the Internet, and maybe you could make an argument for the microwave and nuclear power.

But, in any case, the point still stands: practically everything we use just improves on inventions made before 1914. That's remarkable.

There is an important distinction to note between the arguments of Tim Urban and Lukacs: Urban, using Back to the Future as a reference, is dealing specifically with how the average American's life changed, whereas Lukacs is referring to the original invention of a transformative technology. Obviously there's a lag between the latter and the former--decades passed, for instance, between the invention of the telephone and the existence of telephones in middle-class households.

This reflects Lukacs' greater emphasis throughout his works on how thinking itself has slowed down in the twentieth century, even as the material conditions in which we live seem to be changing so drastically and dramatically. In a number of his books, he notes that the most revered and revolutionary thinkers at the beginning of the twentieth century--Freud, Marx, Darwin, and Einstein--retained positions of unparalleled renown at the end of the century. Of course, each figure's reputation has waxed or waned over the years, but it remains the case that the thinking of these four figures--and contentious debates about that thinking--continue to dominate our intellectual landscape well over a hundred years later. Lukacs points out that in no previous century of the Modern Age could this be considered the case.

In other words, despite the obsessive optimism of Kurzweil and the futurists, we live in a remarkably stagnant age. This is so, Lukacs says, because we are not really living within an age, properly speaking. Rather, we are living in what he calls a "dark interregnum" between ages. The widespread usage of "postmodern" is one sign of our interregnal state--a self-conscious recognition that we are living past the end of the Modern Age.

No one in the the ancient or medieval world knew they were living in Antiquity or the Middle Ages. These designations came about later, as labels applied in hindsight by the self-consciously modern inhabitants of the Modern Age. The division of the world into ancient, medieval, and modern is a construction of the modern imagination. But this does not necessarily make these designations arbitrary or artificial--because consciousness is a part of reality, rather than a superimposition onto it, and it is only through constructions of models or stories that human persons can grasp reality.

So, despite the varied, sometimes ambiguous, and often contradictory uses to which it is put, the term "postmodern" matters. It reflects and is itself a part of the era in which we live--here in the residue and remnants of modernity. Our ideas, our philosophies, and our arguments still revolve around those four figures from a century ago. This may not be so within Academia proper--Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, and others having far more traction than Freud, Marx, Darwin, and Einstein. But the former figures never have, never will push much beyond the bounds of the academic world. There are no "Heideggerian slips," no "baby Derridas." Nor will you ever find Fox News fulminations against the hidden Foucaldian agendas of liberal politicians.

In the culture at large, those four from the last century remain the inescapable giants of our new century. We venerate them, or we denounce them. We worship them, or we criticize, castigate, and condemn them. The one thing we do not do--cannot do--is ignore them.  Because here amidst the ruins of the Modern Age, all we have left are the tired old thoughts of dead old men.

*A plug for the wife's workplace: On Volume 118 of Mars Hill Audio, Gilbert Meilander interacts with some of Kurzweil's thinking and does a good job of explaining the metaphysical implications of bodiless thinking.
**The original edition was published in 1984, while a second, lightly-revised and retitled edition came out in 2004.