Presently I am reading a study in the cultural history of utility computing. Yawn….
But actually, it is a fascinating and well written story of our cultural desire to be faster, better, bigger, more efficient and more productive and consumptive. The book, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google, by Nicholas Carr, not just a book for those wanting to know about public utilities (phones, electricity, water, etc), or computers and the Internet, per se. Rather it tells the story of how we as a culture blend " two discordant themes running through American culture: utilitarianism and transcendentalism (pg 88)".
Carr spells out some of the fantastic dreams that would, in part, be inspired the illuminations of the White City, the 1893 World's Fair Exposition in Chicago:
Electrification, people were told would cleanse the earth of disease and strife, turning it into a pristine new Eden. 'We are soon to have everywhere,' wrote one futurist, 'smoke annihilators, dust absorbers, ozonators, sterilizers of water, air, food, and clothing, and accident preventers on streets, elevated roads, and subways. It will become next to impossible to contract disease germs or get hurt in the city.' Another announced that 'electrified water' would become the powerful of all disinfectants.' Sprayed into every 'crook and crevice,' it would obliterate 'the very germs of unclean matter.' 'Indeed,' wrote another, 'by all potent power of electricity, man is now able to convert an entire continent into a tropical garden at his pleasure.' Not only would electricity open up the ability to control these lurking dangers, but it would also be capable of taming the greatest of chaotic forces. "Electrified machines would eliminate blizzards, droughts, and other climactic extremes, giving man, 'absolute control of the weather.' Inside homes, electric equalizers' would send out 'soothing electric current, to 'dissipate and domestic storm and ensure harmony in families." (pg 88)
Toward the end of this chapter, Carr quotes Norbert Wiener, an information theoretician and mathematician, "The simple faith in progress is not a conviction to strength, but one belonging to acquiescence and hence to weakness" (pg 125).
The weight of Wiener's quote is immense and applies to so much more than electricity. The myth of progress, one of modernity's most potent lures continues. While we may want to proclaim a post-modern era, our behaviors still long for a grand narrative into which we might limply acquiesce. Just melt into and disappear into a great machine. Carr quotes, from the turn of the century (the 19th to the 20th century, that is), that "people would become cogs in a wonderful mechanism…acting in response to the will of a corporate mind as fingers move and write at the direction of the brain (pg 89)." Years later authors like George Orwell would make a living warning against just such acquiescence.
Perhaps there is a continuing struggle to find a meaningful role for the individual in the life of faith. To follow a biblical injunction to "take up you cross and follow me," seems not like a faith of weakness. To turn one's cheek, to walk the extra mile for your persecutor all runs counter to acquiescence. To take heart from the prophets, "to love mercy, love justice, and walk humbly with God," is still a challenge toward strength.
As I read Carr, I am continually drawn in to the wonder and the warning of contemporary culture. I'm half way done, we'll see what comes next…