Meet the two-world hypothesis and its havoc
29/05/2013 Deja un comentario
The sewing machine was the smartphone of the nineteenth century. Just skim through the promotional materials of the leading sewing-machine manufacturers of that distant era and you will notice many similarities with our own lofty, dizzy discourse. The catalog from Willcox & Gibbs, the Apple of its day, 1864, includes glowing testimonials from a number of reverends thrilled by the civilizing powers of the new machine. One calls it a “Christian institution”; another celebrates its usefulness in his missionary efforts in Syria; third, after praising it as “honest machine,” expresses his hope that “every man and woman who owns one will take pattern from it, in principle and duty.” The brochure from Singer in 1880, modestly titled “Genius Rewarded: or, the Story of the Sewing Machine”, takes such rhetoric even further, presenting the sewing machine as the ultimate platform for spreading American culture. The machine’s appeal is universal and its impact is revolutionary. Even its marketing is pure poetry: “On every sea are floating the Singer Machines; along every road pressed by the foot of civilized man this tireless ally of the world’s great sisterhood is going upon its errand of helpfulness. Its cheering tune is understood no less by the sturdy German matron than by the slender Japanese maiden; it sings as intelligibly to the flaxen-haired Russian peasant girl as to dark-eyed Mexican Señorita. It needs no interpreter, whether it sings amidst the snows of Canada or upon the pampas of Paraguay; Hindoo mother and the Chicago maiden are to-night making the self-same stitch; the untiring feet of Ireland’s fair-skinned Nora are driving the same treadle with the tiny understandings of China’s tawny daughter; thus American machines, American brains, and American money are bringing the women of the whole world into one universal kinship and sisterhood”. “American Machines, American Brains, and American Money” would make a fine subtitle for The New Digital Age, the breathless new book by Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, and Jared Cohen, the director of Google Ideas, an institutional oddity known as a think/do-tank. Schmidt & Cohen are full of same aspirations, globalism, humanitarianism, cosmopolitanism, that informed Singer brochure. Alas, they are not as keen on poetry. Book’s language is a weird mixture of the deadpan optimism of Soviet propaganda (“More Innovation, More Opportunity” is the subtitle of a typical sub-chapter) and the faux cosmopolitanism of The Economist (are you familiar with shanzhai, sakoku, or gacaca?). There is a thesis of sorts in Schmidt and Cohen’s book. It is that, while the “end of history” is still imminent, we need first to get fully interconnected, preferably with smartphones. “Best thing anyone can do to improve quality of life around the world is to drive connectivity and technological opportunity.” Digitization is like a nicer, a friendlier version of privatization: as the authors remind us, “when given access, people will do the rest”. “The rest,” presumably, means becoming a secular, Westernized, democratically minded. Of course, more entrepreneurial: learning how to disrupt, to innovate, to strategize. (If you ever wondered what gospel of modernization theory sounds like translated into Siliconese, this book is for you.) Connectivity, it seems, can cure all of modernity’s problems (…..) Great beacon of hope, described as “America’s Chief Contribution to Civilization” in Singer’s catalog from 1915, did not achieve its cosmopolitan mission. (How little has changed: a few years ago, one of Twitter’s co-founders described his company as “triumph of humanity.”) In 1989 Singer company, in deeply humiliating surrender to the forces of globalization, was sold off to a company owned by Shanghai-born Canadian that went bankrupt decade later. American machines, American brains, American money were no longer American. A day Google, too, will fall. Good news is that, thanks in part to this superficial, megalomaniacal book, company’s mammoth intellectual ambitions will be a preserved for posterity to study in a cautionary way. Virtual world of Google’s imagination might not be real, but the glib arrogance of its executives definitely is.