Thursday, August 28, 2008

Culture Making Ch 3 -- Teardowns, technology, and change

I often judge the quality of a nonfiction book by it's capacity to spark within me those "oh yeah" moments of syncrhonicity ... when I suddenly see connections with life and other readings that I've done (thought perhaps, that quality is more a judgment of my mental state at the time, but that is another topic entirely).

Reading chapter 3 of Crouch's Culture Making sent off fireworks of connections in my mind. He begins by talking about how change happens.... that change is unavoidable. Sometimes change is subtle in the form of Maintenance (a new coat of paint in the room, new roof, new strings for the guitar).... sometimes it comes in the form of tearing down something ... the tearing down of something may represent a cultural failure. Crouch uses the ideas of Stuart Brand (How Buildings Learn, The Clock of the Long Now) to show that the longer it takes to change something, the more lasting the impact is.

For instance, fashion is ephermeral. This year, more modest clothes are in. Next year it will be shorter skirts and outlandish ties. Shaping the world of fashion may not have much impact. We still live with the impact of the political changes that took place in the late 18th century; however the movement from wigs and breeches to loose hair and pantaloons is pretty irrelevant to us.

What of revolutions? Even revolutions are the product of a buildup of centuries of ideas and social tensions. They don't happen overnight. In one sense, 9/11 began with the crusades and the Barbary Pirates, and Charles Martel, and a host of other tensions building up over centuries. The American revolution began with the Magna Carta and the British Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and centuries of political thought.

And even thought revolutions are quick, they're usually more destructive than creative. “And like earthquakes, revolutions are much better at destroying than building. There is an important asymmetry here, whose roots go all the way down to the laws of physics: It is possible to change things quickly for the worse. It only took two hours after the collision between a 767 and the South Tower of the World Trade Center to destroy it. But no one can build the World Trade Center in two hours. The only thing you can do with Rome in a day is burn it.” (58). I'm reminded of John Adams, who was worried by Tom Paine's Common Sense “the writer has a better hand at pulling down than building.” (David McCullough biography, 97). So, Adams in 1775 began writing his Thoughts on Government, already working on building the new government, before the revolution even began. His work became foundation during the Constitutional convention in 1787, over 20 years later. The point is this...that we ought be very cautious in our ardency for radical change....radical change rarely helps. The American Revolution was helped by geniuses who knew how to build and thus tempered the radicals who wanted to watch things burn.

I think Crouch would have benefitted from looking at the economics of this, however. In a sense, to create anything, we must destroy something. To make omlettes, we must break eggs. To make guitars and violins, we need to cut down some trees and we need to shape raw materials into varnish and stain and glue. The concept of the opportunity cost is at play here.... to do something, we must sacrifice the opportunity to do something else. I think this is at play when he talked about horizons of opportunity in the previous chapter, but such a recognition would help us when approaching the topic of destruction.

Surely there are those who simply enjoy watching the world burn (see my post on Thuggery, trolldom, and the Joker ethos). However, there are some cultural artifacts whose time have passed and they must die. Clay Shirkey, in Here Comes Everybody, talks about Abbot Johannes Trithemius, Abbot of Sponheim, who in 1492 published De Laude Scriptorum, a defense of the scribal tradition. He defended the tradition of having professional scribes take copy manuscripts painstakingly by hand, rather than using the faster and more economical moveable type printing press. His argument centers around what will be lost if the tradition vanishes: a profitable use of time that sharpens the mind and bends the spirit toward God. However the irony was, he published the tract using a printing house.

Here then is a case of destruction....not out of wanton need to destroy nor out of cultural failure. The Scribal tradition was a grand success, but it was eclipsed by superior technology and a new tradition. It was time for the tradition, as it stood, to die. Even so, it didn't die completely. It carries on in some few enthusiasts who are passionate about calligraphy and hand illuminated manuscripts.

All said, I think a more nuanced discussion of this issue of change and destruction might have been helpful.

Even so, Crouch is asking all the right questions and wrestling with the right issues. A fascinating read up to this point.

Soli Deo Gloria