We may have just invented the wheel
Today's political disruptions are understandable in the context of the digital revolution's powerful changes
It takes time to adjust to any disruptive technology — even the wheel. (Photo by Lowe, Boston Library collection)
One morning early in this century, I sat in a conference center north of Manhattan with a few dozen people involved in the media industry — magazine publishers, broadcast executives, marketing leaders and perhaps a couple of other journalists — and got schooled on where we stand in history by an older fellow named Marty Sklar. He had been the creative head of “imagineering” for Disney — sounds like a cool job, right? — so he clearly knew a thing or two about how to reach and inspire audiences. That’s why he had been brought in to speak to a group of media leaders struggling to understand what the web was, or what it might become, and how to get readers to use something called a search engine.
“So the internet has altered things, hasn’t it?” he was saying. “And I’ve heard people in your kind of work say that it’s as big as the invention of moveable type, which, as you media people like to say, changed the world. But you’re wrong.”
We might have been even a bit hopeful at that — thinking that maybe this wise man about to reassure us that everything would work out just fine for the so-called legacy media. I love the smell of ink on newsprint, incidentally.
“Digital is not like Gutenberg,” Sklar said. “It’s like the wheel. And the wheel has just been invented. You’re here for it. So what are you going to do?”
Joannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith, is often said to have unlocked the modern age in 1436 when his printing press put ideas within reach of anybody who could read — eventually fueling mechanization, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution and the rise of democracy. “Printing is the ultimate gift of God, and the greatest one,” wrote Martin Luther.1
But Luther, perhaps in enthusiasm born of being the world’s first best-selling author, seems to have overlooked another blessing on mankind: About 5,000 years earlier, humans in Mesopotamia had started using a wheel to make pottery, and then to transport stuff and then to carry people in carts.2 Suddenly, the world both shrank as people traveled farther and grew more complex as they built more. Other than learning to walk upright, have humans done anything bigger than invent the wheel?
Maybe they have, as the imagineering guy was saying, and maybe it is happening in our lifetimes. No wonder things are a bit messy for humankind these days, with political systems stressed to the breaking point, tensions mounting internationally and human-induced climate change about to put our way of life at risk as we dawdle in response. To be charitable, let’s just say that we’re trying to figure out how we roll in this new era, and it’s bumpy. So was the 15th century.
There’s something reassuring about viewing today’s troubles from a perspective that encompasses thousands of years. It’s like Rick Blaine in Casablanca, coolly casting aside the heartbreak of lost love, asserting, “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”3 She left town, he went back to work and the world still turned.
So Donald Trump and his cult imperil American democracy, Russia seems bent on obliterating Ukraine, China will probably unleash a war to seize Taiwan. Yes, and governments have risen and fallen before. Rising seas will envelop coastal cities in coming decades as deserts swallow the globe’s midsection, because humans aren’t paying attention to their catastrophic impact on the world’s climate. But so goes the march of evolution, not unlike the plunge of the meteor Chicxulub into the ocean near present-day Mexico, which killed the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.4
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t stand up to Russia and China, fight the anti-democratic ugliness of Trumpism and do all we can to save our planet from our destructiveness. But perhaps the long view may help us feel a bit less anxious about the challenges we face in our eyeblink of time on earth. This is our moment, but it is only that.
On his smart New York Times podcast last week, journalist Ezra Klein was talking with Sean Illing, a political theorist who co-authored, with Zac Gershberg, The Paradox of Democracy: Free Speech, Open Media and Perilous Persuasion,5 which is sort of a history of media disruption over the centuries. But the conversation really focused on how changes in technology can change ideology, and thus affect politics, especially in a democracy.
There’s always a lag time before humans adjust to a revolution in the way we communicate, Illing was explaining, using as an example television displacing print as the world’s main source of news. Print, he noted, is the domain of ideas; TV evokes an emotional response. Digital information, being immediate and ubiquitous, creates its own responses, and we’re just beginning to sort them out.
The shift from print to visual has played out potently in our politics in recent decades. Among other results, it has made the politicians who can elicit an emotional response more successful than those who focus on rational persuasion. “Politics flows out of culture, and culture flows out of technology,” Illing said. And while nobody voted for the technology that gave us either TV or the internet, it has changed the way we govern ourselves — because now politics is dominated by impressions and feelings rather than by positions on issues. Most Americans support the issues championed by Democrats, polls show, but just now, it seems that Republicans are doing a better job of speaking to their feelings.
In their book, Gershberg and Illing take particular note of Marshall McLuhan’s concept, spelled out initially in the early 1960s, that humans use technology to extend their power. Applying that to the digital revolution, we can conclude that we have extended our capacity to understand the world beyond what previous generations ever could have imagined. But McLuhan also noted that these so-called “extensions” at the same time create what he called “amputations” — like, the automobile extended our ability to travel quickly but also left most people unable to ride and care for a horse or drive a buggy.6
Most of us have trouble adjusting to both our extensions and our amputations. For example: The internet enables messages to be tailored to discrete groups, which has encouraged the fragmentation of society and the polarization of politics — which pleases us when we see our interests served, but annoys us when identity politics caters to others. So we carp that everybody belongs to an aggrieved group that is demanding a response from our elected officials, and we bemoan the loss of an old system that was less focused on our differences — but that (we tend to forget) worked for some but shortchanged many.
And in extending our reach to audiences who may think our tweets and posts on current events are mighty clever, many of us have amputated some of our personal communication skills. The Internet Age offers the capacity to connect with millions of people and the risk of acute loneliness that can come from knowing that we’re starved for personal contact. Is our political polarization partly a result of our diminished ability to make connections at levels deeper than partisan sloganeering?
All this may be so because we’re in the awkward early stage, still, of an era spawned by the digital revolution. Our political system, created by people whose study of great philosophers informed the constitution they carefully crafted, is now increasingly dominated by people who aren’t as intellectually vigorous as they are adept at using emotion and image to capitalize on our fears and dreams. Digital news delivery gives us instant knowledge of what’s going on in corridors of power, but it also elicits hair-trigger responses — anger, frustration, anxiety. “Our brains are not yet developed to deal with the electric revolution,” Illing noted near the end of his conversation with Ezra Klein.
Maybe the best we can hope for is enough good sense and good luck that we might muddle our way through this changing world to a point in some years when we have figured out how to cope with the extensions of power and the losses of agency that the digital revolution has wrought. We may take comfort from ancient times, knowing that it was no easier then. Scientists believe that it wasn’t until 300 years after pottery first turned on a wheel that somebody attached the round things to an axel and used that to propel a person on a chariot. There is hope for us yet.
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Oshkosh, Wisc. (Oshkosh Northwestern, thenorthwestern.com)
Staunton, Va. (Staunton News Leader, newsleader.com)
Bergen County, N.J. (The Record, northjersey.com)
Carlsbad, N.M. (Carlsbad Current Argus, currentargus.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Leaded gas still polluting the sky
Unlike automobiles, aircraft don’t emit much volume of greenhouse gases. But there’s another pollutant in the sky, reports Kelly Smits in the Oshkosh Northwestern: lead. For decades, the federal government has banned new cars from using leaded fuel. But 70 percent of the lead air emissions in the United States come from general aviation aircraft. The EPA has for years studied whether lead may be damaging the health of people who live, work or play near airports; now it is set to release its first “endangerment finding” in October. More than 160,000 children attend school within 500 meters of an airport runway.
We’ve created deadly “heat islands” all over the country
A difference of a few degrees in periods of extreme heat can affect a body’s ability to regulate its temperature. Reporters Joyce Chu, Eduardo Cuevas and Ricardo Kaulessar at the Staunton News Leader found that many cities, especially in the Northeast, have created areas known as “heat islands,” where there is so little tree canopy or green ground cover that temperatures routinely soar above those in suburban neighborhoods. Especially in lower-income communities, use of air conditioning is low, and because the heat in the East is more moist than it is in the west, temperatures of 100 F. and above can be deadly. Those dangerous neighborhoods tend to be where people of color are concentrated. “Maps of city heat islands,” the newspaper reported, “are a deadly mirror of redlined neighborhoods.”
Lots of school board candidates, one issue to blame
In the 61 school districts in Bergen County, a suburban area linked to New York City by the George Washington Bridge, 263 candidates are seeking school board seats — far more than in prior years. There are lots of issues, but there’s also this, according to reporting by Mary Ann Koruth in The Record:”But the overarching issue that has dominated discussions at boards of education, despite schools battling teacher shortages, national mass shootings and the after-effects of COVID on learning and social development is sex education.” As in much of the country, many of the right-wing “parents’ rights” candidates cite supposed liberal value systems at work in classrooms, but in New Jersey, the conservatives in the ostensibly non-partisan races are also energized by a state effort under a Democratic governor to update the health education curriculum, which has been denounced by Republicans.
Rebuilding from the worst-ever wildfire season
It has been a record-breaking year for New Mexico wildfires, and now rebuilding is underway, reports Adrian Hidden in the Carlsbad Current-Argus. Arial reseeding has begun to replace trees and vegetation destroyed in the fires, and soil scientists are studying areas where burn scars may develop — places where the soil is so hardened by fire that it can’t absorb water, potentially bringing flooding as the so-called “monsoon season” of summer sets in. The Biden administration is investing $100 million for reforestation by the U.S. Forest Service, addressing a backlog of 4 million acres that need to be reforested over the next decade. “Forests are a powerful tool in the fight against climate change,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Thanks for reading this week, notably those of you who subscribe and look forward to reading every week. (Special thanks to the paid subscribers!) Since it’s summertime and everybody deserves a bit of time off, I’ll skip the “Endnote” this week, except to wish you a fine week ahead on *our shared ground, this America.