Forwards and back

“Tis all in peeces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all Relation”

Tom’s friend, John Donne & his poem “Anatomy of the World”.

“We sail out of the harbour, and the countries and cities recede”

Virgil, The Aeneid

The idea of “postmodernism” is betwixt: full of forward and backward looking, rootless because our present seems to breed such obvious discontents, clashes, and inequities, whilst painting a picture of warp-speed technological advance from beta to 3.0 – Karl Popper-esque building on building, until Darwinianly replaced – and displaying with obvious effect the rewards which come with riding on its narrowing comet-tails.

The result of the Postmodern malaise can be nostalgic in nature when considering our future: born-again Christianity and the aggressive branches within Islam are two constructions that prioritize the absolute value of ancient words and laws in imagining a future “end” sometime (are they a “product” of postmodernism?). And in polar opposition to this – the classical “post” modern position – the disappearance of many controlling ideas – the notion that the cosmos may have purpose, the phrase the “death of God” sums this up, or that governments can have genuinely equality as an aim – has taken away an encyclopaedia full of foundation myths, the very basis of much social solidity and support, and most essentially a “centre”. What’s left is mobility, the market, the shareholders, suburbs, and the greatest income inequality for 200 years.

“When the compasses, the set-square, and the ruler are askew, all the calculations made with them and all structures raised according to their measurements, are necessarily out of true and ready to collapse.”

Montaigne “Apology for Raymond Sebond” 1580

The nostalgic component of the postmodern illness is easily sensed when travelling, seeing a “simpler” way; the slower diurnal rhythms and communal ways (and the rich palimpsest of histories I feel myself clutching at) of Italian towns are a beguiling example. The picture-book families at dinner, the wonder of Gonzaga palaces, are seductive social myths. But even here an amateur futurist, or a shrewd businessman, can see that fissures are growing. Western society is shifting towards cities, despite the New Myths of technology’s “mobility”; labour is increasingly centred on large conurbations that cannot always take the strain. The physical stuff has moved to China. Divorce rates are at 50 per cent in Italy.

So if the pull of a well-designed Renaissance Italian town is to its centre, the pull of ill-designed Europe (and America) is to its financial centres, not to remote working, or decentalized business, or politics; or community building around the town square. And the city’s “gated” god is the New, not the Established.

This is the foundation point of the other side of our dissatisfactions with the Postmodern: the refusal to entertain that previous ideas can help now; the idea that what is lost is lost – our world has changed too much for the lessons of history, or the previous structures of society, to provide solutions to a globalizing, monetarily-nomadic, culture and set of cultures moving rapidly into a physical/virtual hybrid whilst its very environment, the Earth, sinks not so slowly, and overheats all too quickly. The Death of History, a neo-con called it.

The optimism of Rousseau, and the Enlightenment seem distant myths today, as antique as Virgil, or Tom. The twentieth century did for most ideas of social revolution with one exception: science and technology, which increasingly (perhaps always, though the process now seems more extreme) appears part of that un-revolutionary concept, business.

Things were different in Tom’s time. Down the road in Padua, Galileo was studying, adding to the Copernican “revolution” and moving us further from the “centre” of things yet seemingly closer to the true nature of our real selves. Science, telescopes, microscopes, perspectives, controversies about the very nature of our existence in the world, were shocking – but seemed progressive, and were undoubtedly a transformation in human understanding, part of Thinking as well as Business. Now we know that progress comes at a heavy communal cost: we’re often stuck with ourselves, alone and (sometimes) centred, and waiting for the 4.0 update, or the latest Google “alert”.

[People] “showing a greater fondness for their own opinions than for the truth…sought to deny and disprove the new things, which, if they had cared to look for themselves, their own sense would have demonstrated.”


I think this morning that my journey is a pleasant, and probably very conservative, exploration of the nostalgic postmodern betwixt because I don’t want to seek out all the new foundations we’re building (post-God, nihilistic and virtual) without also holding on to some of the past that is fast speeding away. Examples of this are everywhere, anyway. Instead I am clutching…at my age, perhaps.

“Everything we believe in has become hollow; everything is conditioned and relative; there is no ground, no absolute, no being in itself. Everything is questionable, nothing is true, everything is allowed.”

Karl Jaspers. Der Philosphicshe Glaube, trs Karsten Harries.

In Padua I will have to further confront Galileo, Alberti: science, perspective, the infinite universe, God. Today I am thinking about all this because of one pink objet trouvée. Someone has left yesterday’s “Financial Times” newspaper – from England, I think – on the next table. In one section, “Digital Business”, a special report, the front-page headline is “Where Do We go from Here?” In my case: Este. In technology’s case: Version 7.0.

“It is easy these days,” writes Alan Cane, “to be overtaken by the future.” He quotes Don Rippert, chief technology officer of the world’s largest consultancy, “Accenture”. The company name is meant to allude to its corporate vision and accentuate the future. Born out of Arthur Andersen (Enron’s accountants, recently) Accenture leads a life not dissimilar to Virgil’s Rome: its Empire is vast, its Caesars, rich, and its foundations mythic, lost to pre-history (or the first of January, 2001, for the more historical out there).

Rippert says: “Younger people see e-mail as something older people do. I thought it was novel, next generation technology, but to young people its: ‘you should post to my site on Myspace. You should text message me, you should instant message me, why would you want to e-mail me? I don’t even check my inbox any more.’” And thinking about this sentence, together with the following eight pages of the special report, has taken up the rest of my day.

“…new Philosophy calls all in doubt,
The Element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost, and th’earth, and no mans wit
Can well direct him where to looke for it.”

Donne, “Anatomy of the World”.

Because, of course, Rippert wants e-mail out: its death would signal so much consulting work in the next “new Media” for Accenture. E-mail is, maybe, twenty years old now. Forty if we start with DARPA basics. Printing is over 600 years old, and still going stong-ish…

I started eight weeks ago to explore Tom’s Europe, and today’s reality, using not just what I know, but also what I could find, in books, magazines, online, and through conversations, in person, by e-mail; via blogs, sometimes. Though the results are mixed, and the output eclectic, I am finding my way: I think I’m learning. I have my tools, and though they’re not perfect, they do.

But the reality of the wired world, for normal travellers like me rather than Blackberry wielding business folk whose fortress hotels come with free wi-fi, is almost as unknowing and random as Tom’s journey. Books and people still help more than my computer. Terror laws in Italy mean that wi-fi is illegal in an internet café; many don’t have individual hard-drives (preferring a central server) so using a memory stick is impossible. Wikipedia, as I have written, is “fallen”, much of its information corrupted; search, despite Google, is still haphazard: if I search for myself, this blog doesn’t appear for pages, for example. When I need to know something definite my best bet is often to phone home for an answer: just like Who Wants to be a Millionaire? with its “Phone a friend”.

And yet technology marches on, and without any self-doubt seemingly. Two years after Tom’s visit to Padua, one of its most glittering academics writes of the new discoveries enabled by the invention – in 1607 – of the telescope: four new planets emerge, and with them a techtonic shift in the way we see the world. “All these facts were discovered and observed by me not many days ago with the aid of a spyglass which I devised, after first being illuminated by divine grace,” Galileo writes in “The Starry Messenger” of 1610. [A book that was rushed back to King James in England by the Venice Ambassdor/spy , Sir Henry Wotton].

But sometimes we don’t want to see: just as Accenture’s CTO grimaces as he describes “the death of e-mail”, so Cesare Cremonini, head of Philosophy at Padua university, and Galileo’s friend, wrote to him saying he would not use the telescope, as it would “confuse him.” Another colleague, Giulio Libri” told Galileo such observations were impossible, leading the “father of science” to hope that, after Libri’s death, he would see a few of the new planets on his way to Heaven.

Technological progress, and shareholder imperative, renders us almost permanently betwixt at the moment and tells us that the latest telescope is undoubtedly the best. It is a betwixtness that renders a five year old computer almost redundant, suitable only for John and Connie to circuit bend, the outdated version 2.7. If only violins were the metaphor for now.

Instead mobility in technology and communications is at the centre of these progressions now, has been for over two decades, first with phones, now with data and information-retrieval, community-building, retail, and all the myriad other services which once were based on a fixed computer, located in a precise location. According to Andrew Hibbert of Microsoft’s Cambridge laboratories [England-branch] “computers will increasingly become a prothesis for civilisation’s overburdened memories.” Which is putting it optimistically, I suspect. But it is the vision I have as I try to imagine future travel, connected to place, culture and community through physical and virtual bonds. What I am sensing reading the FT today is not the “shock” of the new, but the profits available in constantly “changing” the new. Whether for the good or not. How nice to see that vinyl is making a come-back, though the record deck in a hi-fi store in Mantua’s centre costs two thousand euros.

Today it isn’t just the mobility in technology or the mass of knowable, digitized information that is endlessly chipping at foundation, our sense of belonging; it is also our rootlessness, and – for many – the fact of so many less myths or faiths to believe in: for many there’s now only our most personal one, The Self. As I’ve quoted before: “Europe has never existed, one has genuinely to create Europe,” said Jean Monnet, “father of Europe” and one of the main architects of the post-war European Union. Now we seem to be moving to a variation on Monnet’s theme: “we don’t exist, and we have genuinely – or plausibly – to create ourselves.”

And with what? Facebook? So much of the rhetoric of the web is about individual expression and community building; so little about what that actually means.

Here is one vision of “travel’s” future from John Gage, chief researcher at Sun Microsystems: “Couple Google’s plans to map the surface of the earth to an accuracy of 20cm with global positioning systems – which means the position of the 2bn-3bn existing mobile devices could be located to within a metre – with IPV6 [the latest internet protocol] and we have the makings of a police state as well as incredible logistical power.”

Of course you have to be looking for the police state, a fear Americans (who have never known such a thing, despite the conspiracy theories) seem most vexed about: another way of seeing the potential of this technology would be to imagine a traveller arriving tomorrow in Padua who could not only orientate herself of the city, learn of its churches, cafés and the communities that she might enjoy, but once there could – every 20cm – know exactly what she is looking at, its history, in varied interpretation; and find others around who share these interests to have coffee, conversation, jokes, sex or dinner with. These interests could be about Renaissance ideas on Perspective, or lo-fi Italian rock music; fashion or print-making; Formula One or hedge-funds. That is the foundation of the betwixt community, surely?

“From 10 to 20 years ahead, your only guidance is demographics,” says Andy Mulholland, CTO at Capgemini. “what people have grown up with and what they see as normal.”

“Normal” is one of those words: in “Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking” Malcolm Gladwell says we “thin slice” the world, use an unconscious ability to detect and process “key information” in our world to make “snap” judgements and decisions. This is “normality” within the business context. A context whose temporal imperatives often seem to have merged with life itself. If technology is about speeding process, shouldn’t postmodern life be about bringing a balance, a slowing, rather than a mere copying of a machine’s processing power?

Similarly, journalists continue to valorize “teenagers” as showing us the way forward with technology. What they do will be “normal” soon enough, is the new and uncontested thesis. “Never in history have youths had so many ways to isolate themselves from the adult way as now,” Ian Limbach writes in another FT article. He continues that, far from being a brain-dead, befuddled, community, “today’s teenagers really just value technology as a means to being more connected with friends. This is about gossip, flirting and the lastest music…just 20 per cent consider themselves technology lovers…what youths do care about is feeling part of a community, building an individual identity and being entertained.” All research from MTV/Nickelodeon/MSN Research, “Circuits of Cool/Digital Playground Survey.” Published later this month. Check those sponsors and ask of their shareholder needs…

Which all illustrates that what is getting lost with our perspective on technology – a field driven by economic necessity in future-planning terms by what is “normal” for the current teenage generation – is not just the idea of “reflection” rather than the “snap decision”, but also, in this current security-conscious era, the potential “wonder” of it, rather than technology’s Trojan horse role as ultimate Big Brother or hermetic ninth circle of games-playing hell. When Sun’s chief researcher begins to sound like Galileo’s friends, not wanting to look through the telescope, then the polarities of the postmodern – looking forward and back – have vanished. He’s saying ‘I don’t like what I see’, without saying that he – more than most – has the opportunity to build our connected future another way, to see the meeting of Google, GPS, data and “place” as the most wonderful chance to reconnect us with history and people.

“I recently got a Slingbox as a present…I travel a lot so I’m excited to think I’ll be able to watch movies I’ve got on my Tivo [at home] when I’m in my hotel room…When I worked for Clinton’s chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, he was always saying: ‘Great people know Great people’, and this has become the company mantra. I’m a big fan of Facebook, the photo and software sharing site…So I carried on doing this [blogging] when we were restructuring in September 2006. One day I blogged about what was on my IPod, only to face a media storm with comments like: ‘Why is this guy going on about what’s on his IPod when he’s laying off people?’ I’m a bit more careful.”

Jason Goldberg, Chief Executive of Jobster, an online recruitment service, interviewed today in the FT.

If we are the stories we inhabit, then today our newspaper story is Orwell without Rabelais, Easyjet without Tom Coryat, Romeo without King Lear: the future without a past. And, in Jason Goldberg’s case, profit without “shame”. Clutching at the hauntings still tangible on Tom’s route seems a good idea right now. Just as affirming not just the architecture and art here, but also the books written and the lives lived through history, not just the home-videos uploaded to You Tube (which I do love). And, of course, the people to talk to at the next table.

And these clutchings would be even easier if technology’s scope was aimed at more than arranging the dating habits of mid-western teenagers, or enabling us to watch English Pop Idol in Padua, and accepted the idea that – as Paul Taylor, its “personal technology expert” writes in perhaps the only heartening sentence in the entire Financial Times “special report” – “if you have found something that works for you and delivers what you want, the best idea is to stick with it as often the ‘bells and whistles’ that are attached to new gizmos just get in the way.”

Books, conversation, thinking, reflection – and the best that technology can deliver in terms of information and bringing people together: that would work for me. I’ve got enough bells already, ringing from the many churches here, and the whistles I can do myself.

Though never as confidently as the young Italians, pausing from a mobile phone conversation, or a coffee.

About robhunt510

Writer, artist
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