Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Miscellaneous Asides About Modernism....

I have been swamped lately. Too swamped to focus on the formal chapters of my work on modernity and its enemies.

But I do feel I owe you folks something, so let's offer a few informal insights.

First, this item from Rand Corporation researcher David Ronfeldt, co author of brilliant works about terrorism and western strategy like IN ATHENA'S CAMP: Preparing for Conflict in the Information Age.

"David, I particularly like your turning to discuss the interplay between liberalism and modernism. For what it's worth, I've always liked Karl Mannheim's old book "Ideology And Utopia" for its discussion about how the chiliasm of the Anabaptists, the Hussites, and Thomas Munzer represented an initial, pioneering form of the modern utopian mentality. Their spiritualization of politics signified a break-through whereby previously spiritual ideals became fused with the mundane demands of the lower social strata and were said to be realizable in the here and now:

"It is at this point that politics in the modern sense of the term begins, if we here understand by politics a more or less conscious participation of all strata of society in the achievement of some mundane purpose, as contrasted with the fatalistic acceptance of events as they are, or of control from 'above.'
"

Of course Ronfeldt has a point. But in fact there are many ways to "define" the transition process toward modern thinking, which has been amorphous and nonlinear. For example:

* Hobbes and Rousseau and Plato were all far more similar than many scholars will admit. All offered variations on romantic incantory purity and oversimplification of human nature. (Indeed, so do most formal mystical religious systems.) The breakout offered by Locke and Smith was to say (in effect) "you ALL are partly right, and therefore entirely wrong. It is foolish to write detailed prescriptions of human behavior that are rigidly enforced by an elite class. We must design a pragmatic society that allows each person to hold the others accountable. If it is done right, you will get all the benefits without the vile drawbacks of tyranny."

* Here's another point I raise elsewhere, having to do with literature and the weird obsession that most lit profs seem to feel toward so-called "eternal human verities"... a concept that I find utterly disgusting and chilling.

Before Thackery, almost all novels/stories/legends featured fantasy/fantastic elements. Afterwards, fantasy (and later scifi) became marginalized, as "mainstream" literature focused on contemporary minutiae of mores, conventions, personal drama and tiny variations on normality.

Why such a huge change in the format and content and topics of popular storytelling?

My theory is that the world before 1600 was always pretty much CONSTANT in its macroscopic appearance and social structures - featuring the same cast of feudal and mystical/priestly types - but unreliable in respect to individual luck. (For example, things might be going fine, then a plague or war would hit. Your kids might all die at any moment.)

At an accelerating rate after 1600, this all reversed. (At least in prosperous portions of the West.) Average people started believing that they stood a good chance of becoming grandparents. There was still an awful lot of bad luck churning around, but a majority began to feel a solid chance that war and sudden calamity just might pass them by. But meanwhile, society was growing less stable. Your kids might stand a better chance of seeing the future. But that future started to become vastly more contingent in the way it might look and feel. Your descendants would generally see a new world rocked by macro social changes that often shook elites from their perches.

This may have been what influenced the change in fiction, from being generally about fantastic subjects/situations to focusing in upon contemporary minutia, featuring a fanatical devotion to normality... a pretense that change did not matter.

.
I could go on. There are dozens of other possible ways of looking at the zeitgeist shift toward modernity. One that I contend is reaching a crisis point as we speak. The most modern nation of all is filling rapidly with panicky reactionaries of left and right who share a common anti modernist agenda.

There doesn't seem to be any sense to why this should be happening right now. For example, terrorism - the much vaunted fear of this decade - is inarguably FAR less disturbing and/or threatening than nuclear war was! There is no way that any of the most inflated estimates can suggest we are in as much immediate danger, as people and as citizens, as we were thirty years ago. (Though that may change in a decade or so, dramatically.)

In fact, evidence suggests that this panic is being engendered by the very success of modernism, bringing us to the brink of a singularity, or something like it.

Are you familiar with that term? It is a broad and marvelous topic having to do with the rapid pace by which the modernist agenda may accelerate and bring about truly fantastic transformations. For a lovely intellectual feast, drop in at: http://www.singularitywatch.com/articles/jsinterview2003.html

You'll see what I mean when I say that modernism itself is always in danger of turning weirdly romantic!

See Next entry on Modernism....

23 comments:

reason said...

David,
In this case I think an independently wealthy writer is a bit divorced from the real world. If you were dependent on an employer for a living and had a family to support you would understand the increasing insecurity today. People saw their their fathers train once for a career and then earn a reliable living for the rest of their lives. Individuals feel less control over important aspects of their lives today - it is as simple as that. And the rate of change is part of the problem as they see it, not part of the solution. I think you need to be more sympathic on this point.

NoOne said...

Dr. Brin said "It (singularity theory) is a broad and marvelous topic having to do with the rapid pace by which the modernist agenda may accelerate and bring about truly fantastic transformations."

Something about breathless websites such as Singularity watch, The Futurist, Ray Kurzweil etc. just irks me. Especially Kurzweil who comes across as a nut in public but not one on one. We have plenty of evidence from brain chemistry etc. that an increasing exponential is usually eventually met by a strong dampening force from elsewhere leading to a sigmoidal pattern of development. Good example is the Pentium series of chips from Intel which has tapered off after a sequence of increasing clock speeds. The dampening agent turned out to be heat production.

I suggest that Dr. Brin and others study this more carefully. In the case of the rapid pace of development today, there are bound to be huge side effects like social instability, chaotic weather patterns, damage to the environment, new diseases, and cultural regression (underway right now in the US). These cannot be avoided either and we should be better prepared for both change and chaos. What is undeniable though is that the average standard of living (measured monetarily) has never been better in all of human history

Anonymous said...

The Singularity is one of those things that you'd be a fool to ignore -- especially if you are a futurist or SF writer -- but a worse fool to . . . advocate? Have faith in? Spend time worrying about when your room is a mess?

The social phenomena that has grown up around the Singularity reminds me, unfavorably, of the advocacy that grew up around the space colonization movement of the early 80s. Lots of breezy enthusiasm, strident talk, demonization of class enemies, and a faint whiff of crankiness.

It makes me wonder how much of the enthusiasm over the Singularity comes from the same impulse that leads people to look forward to the Rapture and Second Coming, or seeking to escape the great wheel of life and suffering through achieving Nirvana.

Stefan

Anonymous said...

Link of note:

Ronald Bailey looks into links between the Neoconservative movement and creationists / ID advocates:

http://reason.com/9707/fe.bailey.shtml

Stefan

DurandalsFate said...

As I recently emailed Brin about the idea of a technological Singularity, I can tell you he's not "advocating," "having faith in," etc. the proposal.

Specifically, he said he doesn't "take any such speculation seriously." The main proponents of the technological Singularity admit it's all quite speculative, and wonder aloud whether it will take place in 2020 or 2060 or well beyond.

But for a person who writes a lot of speculative fiction, it's undoubtedly marvelous to consider speculative systems theory.

It's just a juicy topic that's fun to study and which may indeed have certain merits. It certainly is true that change is accelerating on the technological front, often in unpredictable ways.

The way the chip industry responds to limitations like current chip designs is to use their considerable power to research and develop a whole new kind of chip, and based on their past success in this area, I wouldn't underestimate Intel and AMD. They are fiercely competetive, innovative *machines* as businesses go. If it can be done, it will be.
But let's say, just for the sake of argument, that their current rush to develop new kinds of chips (if you keep tabs on this kind of thing, you know how much they're investing in it) is a failure, that they're stick for a time on the same number of transistors per unit space.

We'll still increase computing power many other ways. Cheap computing is also spreading outward, developing the most powerful network in the world (the internet), which will grow significantly whether or not independent workstations keep increasing their computing power.

Zimran said...

You are sounding hysterical, David. The notion that "terrorism - the much vaunted fear of this decade - is inarguably FAR less disturbing and/or threatening than nuclear war was!" ignores the fact that nuclear exchange was prevented during the cold war because of deterrance, and we live in a world of undeterrable suicide bombers who would quite happily detonate a black market nuke in Manhattan if they could.

Do you honestly beleive that the threat of a rogue nuke being detonated downtown by a suicide bomber is not scary? Do you honestly beleive that such things are not being developed, or are for sale? Do you honestly beleive that folks who are thinking about how to prevent this are wasting their time?

I guess you can try to claim that the upcoming singularity is the cause for people worrying about terrorists detonating nukes in Midtown, but there is another, simpler explanation. If you try hard, you may figure out what it is.

Anonymous said...

'I can tell you he's not "advocating," "having faith in," etc. the proposal.'

Note that I wasn't accusing DB of this. I had in mind folks I used to run into at SF conventions, and still do in various on-line venues.

Like a fellow on Slashdot who suggested that we shouldn't worry about environmental degredation because in a few years we'd have nanotechnology to clean everything up.

Frank said...

I suppose a global nuclear war that can destroy an entire planet and everyone on it, is somewhat less disturbing then the "incidental" nuclear/biological/chemical attack by extremists.

To humanity as a whole, terrorists are not an immediate threat, I hope.

As far as the rise of modernism through the ages is concerned; I would say that people are just doing what they have always done namely placing artificial layers between themselves and nature's rawness. From mystical layers in the beginning to technological and judicial ones in the present.

A development from emphasis on the virtual to emphasis on the real.

Both of those layers seem subject to an increase in complexity though and maybe a society can only handle so much of that.

Any singularity event may have to mean adding layers to ourselves in order to be able to handle that complexity.

(okay, I don't know whether that last part actually meant something but it sounded good to me :)

Anonymous said...

FYIage on the Singularity:

The unpublished 111th issue of Whole Earth Magazine was to have been devoted to The Singularity. PDF files of many of the articles are available online. There are pieces by Vinge, Doctorow, Sterling, and Jaron Lanier.

http://www.wholeearthmag.com/

I contributed a survey of singularity-related SF, but it didn't make it into the archive. I suggest that the first SF story to hint at the singularity was Pohl's "Day Million," which is about a virtual reality love affair between a cyborg space traveller and a transgendered otter woman. It takes place beyond what might be called a soft singularity. There's been no technorapture, but things have changed so drastically that the lives and thoughts of Day Million people would be essentially inexplicable to us Day 731,825 types.
Stefan

Anonymous said...

Here's Bruce Sterling on the Singularity, including a comment about its particular appeal to the techno-intelligentsia:


http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.09/view.html?pg=4


Some say that Singularity SF is today's cyberpunk-like fad, and there won't be so much of it once Moore's Law stops holding up.

DurandalsFate said...

"Note that I wasn't accusing DB of this. I had in mind folks I used to run into at SF conventions, and still do in various on-line venues.

Like a fellow on Slashdot who suggested that we shouldn't worry about environmental degredation because in a few years we'd have nanotechnology to clean everything up."
-=-=-=-=-
Funny you should mention that. One time Brin was asked about the Singularity in a chat session:

vvvvvvv
xponent: what do you see as the next great idea?
DavidBrin: What, you want it for free???? Seriously, people are all
agog on the info age and Vernor Vinge's concept of the Singularity
(See.. Marooned in Real Time, a great book!) when accelerating
knowledge might make us all gods. Well beware transcendentalism!
Remember atomic power was supposed to make energy too cheap to meter?
Or when we were all just about to head off for space colonies?
There's a lot of gritty hard work we'll have to accomplish in order
for the promises of a new age to come true.
^^^^^^^

Now, frank:
"Any singularity event may have to mean adding layers to ourselves in order to be able to handle that complexity."

Well, see, that's just the thing: the only way to handle the complexity will be to take it into ourselves, or become part of it.

It would be a shift somewhere on the level of the introduction of intelligence as a primary adaptive tool, instead of the various weapons available through simple DNA evolution. Not something that necessarily means the death of the old system, but which has an obvious series of advantages over the previous adaptive mechanism.
Individual intelligence to solve problems simply outran all other forms of evolution -- until today, we could end the planet with the flip of a switch... and the moon, too, for good measure.

The people who worry me are the people who treat the Singularity like the Rapture. That's not everyone who follows the concept of accelerating change, though.
It's like equating NASA enthusiasts to Star Trek geeks (not that there's anything wrong with geeks, mind you).

zimran -
"Do you honestly beleive that the threat of a rogue nuke being detonated downtown by a suicide bomber is not scary?"
That's not what Brin is saying at all. But think about this. If you have a choice between the Cuban Missile Crisis and 9/11 plus nukes, what do you think poses a greater threat to civilization and humanity?

Not to mention... nukes are hard to get. Much harder than we assumed. A detailed report by the Rand Corporation confirms this.
Plus, there is a very low likelihood that the state apparatus generally needed to acquire the technology for a nuclear weapon would not be likely to let some free-wheeling radical smuggle it around. The chance for detection, however low you may think it is with the state of our Border Patrol, is unacceptable.
What if the bomb is intercepted before it goes off?

A state that has the will and the means to acquire a nuclear weapon will not likely trust it to anyone they don't have under very strict control, and they especially won't use a delivery method that is SO much slower and riskier than tested missile technology to deliver such a weapon. The weapon represents a HUGE investment and a grave risk to the foreign policy of any country that wields it threateningly.

"Do you honestly beleive that such things are not being developed, or are for sale?"
No, I don't. Even the best-funded terrorist organizations can't develop nukes on their own... not even close. And if nukes were for sale, states would acquire them long before a terrorist group would.
Nukes for sale? Come on. It's taboo enough to sell ICBMs.

"Do you honestly beleive that folks who are thinking about how to prevent this are wasting their time?"
Well now, Mr. Brin didn't say that either. He simply suggested the immediate risk to us is not as great as it was in the Cold War.

I mean, let's look at the difference here:
* one or possibly a couple of nukes, assuming a terrorist can even get his hands on a working weapon
or...
* thousands of nukes traded in an all-out exchange, including a general world war just for kicks... and we knew our enemy had both a huge military and a massive nuclear arsenal

John said...

A number of writers have speculated that a universal tendency to Singularity explains Fermi's Paradox (post-singular entities don't go a wandering ...) [1]

I disagree with David Brin on the unlikelihood of the singularity. We "know" that it's possible for an entity as smart as a human being to exist (example: me); and we know how severely limited human cognition is. I don't see any fundamental reason we couldn't substantially improve on the human mind.

I don't think such a think would be a "deity", but it probably would find us rather dull (hopefully charming though). A world of such things might not have much future for us. So, singularity enough.

BTW, I don't think I'll be around to see the above happen.

[1]http://www.faughnan.com/setifail.html

John said...

PS. Stefan -- can you put your SF Singularity review somewhere online? If it didn't make the WEM #111 archive we may presume you have copyright. I'd be glad to host it for you.

I don't recall the Pohl story, I'm surprised to hear he made the #1 spot in your review!

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with Zimran above and cast my vote for Brin. Zimran replies...

"You are sounding hysterical, David. The notion that 'terrorism - the much vaunted fear of this decade - is inarguably FAR less disturbing and/or threatening than nuclear war was!' ignores the fact that nuclear exchange was prevented during the cold war because of deterrance, and we live in a world of undeterrable suicide bombers who would quite happily detonate a black market nuke in Manhattan if they could."

Zimran's hyperbole only proves Brin's point. We should fear terrorism, but only because people like Zimran empower opportunists who seek to exploit terrorism for personal gain--genrally to advance a plutocratic agenda here in America.

Terrorism is not "undeterrable." A given suicide bomber might be, but it takes nation state support to get "the bomb." In nearly every case terrorism is ultimately a rational act on the strategic level even if on the tactical level it comes off as irrational--mostly because it usually includes suicide by the attacker and the death of random innocents. But, suicide attacks on innocents are not at all uncommon in history, so, at a rational level, they are not that surprising.

People feared nuclear war even though we assumed the rationality of the Soviets. We new their aims. And there was always that MAD (mutual-assured destruction) thing that ultimately made a nuclear attack irrational so long as everyone assumed everyone else had the resolve to go through with retaliation. I believe that it was the nihilism-inducing aspects of the Cold War that spawned this new age of anti-modernism in America and produced countless Zimrans.

However, terrorism has been marketed (yes, that's the appropriate term) as being irrational--stateless even, which is ludicrous. This is only because opportunists needed a new, pervasive threat endowed with as much nihilistic impact as nuclear doom. In the vast majority of cases, terrorists are merely servants of nations or other identifiable interests who seek to conduct asymmetrical warfare against us for a specific reason. These interests know they can get away with it because we lack resolve to deal with it at the root level. The Zimrans of the world never look past the act to the cause in order to determine an effective response, which creates a field fertile for opportunism.

For whatever reason, cowardly members of wealthy oil plutocracies (primarily Saudi Arabia) decided to fight Israel and America (for supporting Israel) by funding proxy warriors (i.e., Islamist radicals), who were willing to kill themselves in attacks and take all the credit/blame for them. In response, we rewarded these plutocratic elites by taking out Iraq, which was only a nation-state treat to them. It was never a nation-state threat to us and only a marginal terroristic threat to even the Israelis.

If we had implemented a UAD (unilateral-assured destruction) policy for terrorism years ago and served notice to Riyahd, Bahgdad, Tehran, and Pyonyang years ago--maybe even carried it out by nuking Riyahd in 2001, we wouldn't be talking about terrorism right now. That I can guarantee. But, when plutocratic opportunists (such as those who now fill the White House) are willing to use war as an extention of domestic policy by other means, they must call on the many anti-modernist Zimrans to provide a vanguard of obfuscation for them. 'Nuf said.

Frank said...

Anonymous -
"I believe that it was the nihilism-inducing aspects of the Cold War that spawned this new age of anti-modernism in America"

One may certainly wonder what would have happened had the cold war lasted to much beyond the "live for the moment" + "greed is good" eighties. This decade represents a high point in nihilism.

Some people may even put the blame for this on the rising modernism, seeing nihilism as an extreme version of it. It's a slippery slope perhaps. Modernism asks us to give up a lot of things and with a stimulus like nuclear annihilation we gave up maybe too much.

David Brin said...

Bizarre that anyone would even remotely try to claim that today's terrism threat could be compared to the Damoclean threat of imminent nuclear war that hung by a thread over our heads for decade after horrible decade. The person who says this must be either under 25 years old or capable of incredible amnesia and rationalization.

Yes, deterrence sounds nice and neat and perfect... in retrospect. But there was NEVER any guarantee that people would behave rationally, according to game theory! 6,000 years of human history... AND recent events re terrorism ... show that people are NOT reliably rational. We came very close to frying the planet, many times. And that is vastly worse than any present day terror scenario. Even a dirty bomb or two,

Ask me about five years from now and the answer may be different. And I am very busy HELPING design new systems that will intelligently prevent future terror scenarios. I am in this fight.

But right now, the real damage done by Al Quaeda calculates out as lost human lifespan spent going through excessive security, along with polarization and ridiculous paranoia in a country that is prosperous and at peace.


As for less angrifying comments, please, I am a moderate about the Singularity, like most other things. The parallel with 80s space colonization is apt. The readiness of so many to romanticize what is deep-down a relentless process of pragmatic problem-solving (e.g. the Singularity = the Rapture) is one we all have to watch out for.

Indeed, it is one of my points! Our personalities are demonstrably far more romantic than modernist! If you give a modernist reformer any adulation, he or she will rapidly become a guru-like figure, cranky and tyrannical. Close-minded and doctrinaire. Take Freud and Marx, who started out brilliant and became cult-leaders. Take Ehrlich and Nader. Nearly all the neocons.

The enemy of modernism is not any particular ideology of left or right. It is human nature itself.

Anonymous said...

By coincidence, I just took a break from reading a Stephen Jay Gould essay ("How the Vulva Stone became a Brachiopod") which starts with a description of Francis Bacon's concept of "idols" that those who would analyze the world should beware of:

idola tribus = Idols of the Tribe
idola specus = Idols of the Cave
idola fori = Idols of the Marketplace
idola theatri = Idols of the Theater

The idols of the cave are those of individual experience.

The idols of the theater are the "impediments based on older systems of thought" as Gould puts it.

Idols of the marketplace are limitations due to language, not bias due to commercial interests. (I wonder if Bacon might have expanded the definition if he knew how drug companies tinkered with research.)

Idols of the tribe cover parochialism . . . the tendency to rely on human concepts of scale and time to explain the universe.

Fascinating stuff, especially from a guy who lived 350 or so years ago.

Stefan

Frank said...

after remarkes by David Brin like:

"The enemy of modernism is [...] human nature itself."

and

"Our knowledge of more recent tribal societies suggests that we are internally wired for some degree of fealty to chiefs and shamans."

and

"Far deeper inside us is the expectation that priests should keep secrets, domineer, and cast incantations. Very authoritative and convincing."

and

"If you give a [...] reformer any adulation, he or she will rapidly become a guru-like figure, cranky and tyrannical."

I was wondering whether perhaps the mentioned behavioral traits could be linked to something like a superstimulus.

Are we like birds that prefer a fake larger egg over one of their own real ones, or like a moth to a flame ?

If so, such a primitive inclination would surely only be "active" in simple (or simplified !) situations ?

Tony Fisk said...

Still waiting?

Well, I guess the man did say at the start of this piece that he's been a bit swamped lately (I hope the 'gators aren't proving too snappy, David, and that we'll hear from you soon).

Meanwhile, all you other moths flitting around, waiting for the candle of part 18 to be lit, might heed the suggestion of someone in this group a while back, and check out WorldChanging (if you haven't already).

The site is a rich and well considered source of information on environmental issues. It is well worth a visit for it's own sake, but the following articles are of particular relevance to this discussion (with crossovers, even!).

The The Power of Investing in Intellectual Infrastructure begins with an ironic observation about long-term planning in conservative circles. There has been some discussion here about the use of terms 'romantic' and 'modernist', and I liked Stuart Brand's 'fast and slow' analogy: much more constructive than thinking in terms of dichotomous extremes! (which is not to detract from the current piece)

A Green Pope? mentions this blog in passing.

Finally, Spring an Environmentalist Hoax is good for a chuckle.

The Commoner said...

I am the "anonymous" who posted above in response to Zimran. I just thought I'd share this swell little piece of text I found at the very beginning of Louisiana's state homeland security strategy. At least it doesn't compare terrorism to nuclear war.

"With the vicious terrorist attacks of Sept 11th, America’s skyline and fiber were changed forever. No longer shielded from evil by two great oceans, Americans find themselves vulnerable to jackals that despise and threaten the very beliefs, values, and freedom we hold so dear. The choice is simple; we can join as a nation in strength or cower as individuals in fear...we choose to stand united."

Talk about invoking the primitive tribal response!

Anonymous said...

In some ways, this discussion is as much about perception of risk as it is about modernism. David Brin characterizes modernism by contrasting it with an imagined past in which life was unreliable and dangerous but the power structures -- aristocrats and priest/shamans --fairly constant. This, of course, is a modernist myth (a point I am prepared to prove at tedious detail if challenged -- as a medievalist, I have to begin most classes each semester with this argument). Not only was there ample and serious variation in political authority and religious behavior, the Islamic science provided a strong experimental tradition, and life expectancy was no worse than it was until the nineteenth century. There was no change in the sixteenth century in which people suddenly felt they were more likely to become grandparents -- the plague still occurred almost annually until 1666, surgery was still awful, and there were not antibiotics. What occurred instead were religious and technological changes -- and our construction of a barbarous past is mythology to justify those changes.

If modernism is defined as a spirit of openness at war with secrecy, then it must be recognized as a technological change as much as a philosophical one. Elizabeth Eisenstein's marvellous book, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe argues that our notions of openness depend critically on the printing press; in manuscript culture, scientists tried to spread their ideas, but copying was slow and expensive; and hand-copying was innaccurate with no easy forms of correction (language is heavily redundant and self-correcting; numerical observations are not). The philosophy of openness depends on the technology. She further suggests that the Reformation was part of the consequence of print -- ideas spread more easily, and theological debates could be resolved more easily by individuals (a process begun pre-print by groups like the Lollards, but dramatically accelerated after Gutenberg).

But this does not explain the remarkably persistent myth of a static middle ages with early death and early aging an inescapable 'fact.' Why does modernism need this myth?

Brin compared the relative risks of terrorism and nuclear war, rightly mocking present fears. (I would throw in the claim that any rational government would be far more terrified of automobiles than terrorism -- according to NHTSA, 42643 people died and 2 889 000 people were injured in America in 2003 from automobile accidents -- casualties an order of magnitude greater than the September 11 attacks, and occurring regularly).

Humans perceive risk very badly. They fear events out of their control -- people believe that they can control whether or not they are in a car accident or not by their own skills, while they feel helpless to avoid terrorism. part of the debate on this thread over nuclear risk is whether it could be controlled -- how capable and morally responsible were the governments with the weapons. People also fear the unknown -- it is probably safer to live near a nuclear plant than downwind of coal plants, but burning coal is reassuringly familiar. And finally, as an politician knows, fear of risk is a potent motivator.

I would suggest that perhaps Chrichton and Atwood tap into this psychological sense of risk. Scientific (modernist) openness is more limited than we sometimes admit. However eagerly scientists share their knowledge, there are educational prerequisites to understanding them -- and, in an age of blossoming jargon and mathematical sophistication, those prerequisites keep growing. Furthermore, understanding scientific points does not automatically lead to the sense of control that minimizes the perception of risk. Even as a fairly informed citizen, I do not feel I exercise much control over what projects granting agencies support (especially in these ideological days), let alone how technology is used. I do not have access even to widespread journals since an MA in math is not a sufficient credential to join in error-correcting scientific discussions. Therefore, understanding is not an automatic antidote to the feeling of powerlessness, and powerlessness will amplify the perception to risk. Atwood focuses on women, who are still regularly if subtly excluded from scientific power structures (as the flap at Harvard makes clear); and Crichton often focuses on the poor as opposed to the rich. Modernism, if it is to be truly open, must work to open up not just understanding but power structures -- and there is a lot of work to be done in that regard. Until that is done, risk assessments -- and novels that play off the resulting fears -- will be more human than rational.

Modernism's use of a mythical early "dark age" to justify itself as modern is one form of response, to reassure people that they do participate in a society which is safer and more powerful than earlier ones. It also serves to justify continuing on the modernist past because of the 'demonstrable' reewards (I do think there are demonstrable rewards, but they are more subtle). Using fear for political gain is not jsut the technique of anti-modernists.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I must agree with Zimran.

Firstly, David's claim to represent "modernism" is made ridiculous by his opposition to Bush bringing democracy and freedom to the Middle East at the point of a gun.

While others on the forum may pooh-pooh stateless terrorists as being a marketing bogeyman by evil plutocrats, there is enough evidence out there to justify the concerns of more sober minds. Between the Pakistani nuclear design-for-sale program, North Korea, Iran, as well as old nukes from Russia going "missing" it's not unreasonable to fear that they could get into the hands of terrorists who would then use then in an American city.

And the truth is that there are many "states" that live in decidedly pre-modern times, where the rulers are really just a ruling family and filial/tribal ties are stronger than national ties. I agree that a government may not want to trust a terrorist group with a nuke, but someone, who happens to be a sheikh, may trust his nephew, who happens to be a terrorist.

Bush correctly recognized the pre-modern state of the Arab world as being the source of its terrorism product, and is modernizing it by introducing modern ideas and institutions born of the Enlightenment -- democracy, free press, open elections, accountability.

Anonymous said...

Humans perceive risk very badly. They fear events out of their control -- people believe that they can control whether or not they are in a car accident or not by their own skills, while they feel helpless to avoid terrorism.

Which I find rather ironic, given that I've had six friends killed and one crippled in car accidents that were the fault of the driver of the other vehicle.

Robert