Today’s ‘New Renaissance’

“Eppur si muove” (and yet it moves)
– Galileo Galileo
“There must be some kind of way out of here,
said the joker to the thief.”
— Bob Dylan (“All Along the Watchtower”
sung by Jimi Hendricks)
Is it possible for ‘progress’ to be a good thing
and a bad thing at the same time?
— PapaDan

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Good News and Bad News
In their book “The Age of Discovery,” published in May, 2016, Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna defined our current age as a “New Renaissance.”  They observed that the forces at work during the period 1450-1550 in Europe (i.e., the “original Renaissance”) were very similar to the forces that are shaping our own time here in the 21st century.

During the “original Renaissance” (the one we learned about in school), Da Vinci, Brunelleschi, Columbus, Copernicus, the Medici, Galileo, Michelangelo, Luther — just to name-drop the top level of superstars of the time — shaped the western world’s understanding of, well, everything.
Newly acquired knowledge and capabilities changed the world through:
• scientific discovery,
• advancements in art and architecture,
• observations and predictions of the behavior of the universe,
• unprecedented global navigation,
• and new views of the relationship of humans to ““the church” (and, therefore, to God).
All these had significant effects on employment, manufacturing and distribution, wealth and poverty, political power, belief and behavior, health and longevity, life and death, and the structure of society.

Oh, yes, and one more thing — arguably the most significant thing — Gutenberg’s printing press.   This invention made it possible for people everywhere to KNOW about all of those ‘Renaissance’ effects more quickly and cheaply than ever before and to acquire that knowledge UNFILTERED.  Before the use of those small metal letters, oil-based ink, and flat white paper, knowledge was the primary possession of The Church, since it alone had access to The Bible and whatever other knowledge that could be transmitted by written language.  Before that time, The Bible and other documents were produced slowly and laboriously in rooms full of monks who copied the text by hand with quill pens, creating the only copies of existing knowledge.  Church leaders decided who could see those documents and controlled their contents.  Gutenberg’s gizmo changed pretty much everything.  The centralized ability to control knowledge and, therefore, to control people, began to diminish dramatically.

Looking back, most people have agreed that these developments — this rebirth and dramatic expansion of knowledge to “the masses”  — represent the single greatest combination of human advancement and improvement in the lives of real people in the history of civilization.

Right?

And, of course, as the distribution of paper with little squiggly marks on it increased, it also enabled a dramatic increase in education of all kinds AND an expansion in the ability of people to participate in their governance and political decision-making.  Those are good things.

Right?

The Rest of the Story (as Paul Harvey used to say)
Last fall, a column appeared in the Washington Post, written by David Von Drehle.   In that piece, he made some simple observations and obvious comparisons that led him to a startling conclusion.  He started with our Gutenberg story — how a goldsmith in Germany found a way to reproduce identical copies of important information and distribute that knowledge cheaply and quickly across the world without the control of the “main-stream media” of the time.  He observed that nothing was ever the same after that invention.

So, what specific outcomes happened as a result of the use of the printing press?  He reminds us:
•   Lay people could own and read their own Bibles,
——-> The result was the Protestant Reformation
•   Scientists could record their observations to share with other scientists
——-> The result was the Scientific Revolution
•   Inventors could share their innovations with other inventors
——-> The result was The Industrial Revolution
•   Philosophers could spread their ideas to activists
——-> The many results included one particular document written in a distant European colony that begins, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union …”

So, does any of that sound familiar to those of us who are paying attention here in the 21st century?  The comparison?  Von Drehl asserted, “When Apple unveiled its first smartphone in 2007, the company sparked a communications revolution likely to be as transformative as Gutenberg’s. It’s the nature of such seismic change to shake the institutions of culture and society to the ground.”

So, what happened?  The election of 2016 happened.  Von Drehl observes that 2016 was the first American election truly dominated by mobile communication and social networking.  As a result, information, the ideas that follow from that information, and the conclusions drawn from them were “set free.”  This development has made the world a much tougher place for people who have derived their power and influence from an ability to control information, ideas, and opinions, — like the leaders of political parties.  So, here comes Von Drehl’s dramatic conclusion:

Steve Jobs Gave Us President Trump
https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/steve-jobs-gave-us-president-trump/2017/09/05/f4f487e4-9260-11e7-aace-04b862b2b3f3_story.html?utm_term=.f61b89c59bd2

WHAT??!!!

Did Anybody Warn Us?
Anyone who makes even a cursory study of the process and logic that led up to the writing of the US constitution, finds some awkward words coming from the Founding Fathers.  Much of the intent of the constitution derives from ideas found in The Federalist Papers, written by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, with some help from John Jay, and the discussions that took place during the Constitution Convention of 1789.  Much discussion at that convention centered around the need to avoid the pitfalls that had caused previous attempts at democracy to fail by giving too much power to “the people.”  Here are a couple of excerpts:

  • James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper No. 10: “In a pure democracy, there is nothing to check the [influence of] the obnoxious individual.”
  • At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Edmund Randolph said, “…  in tracing the causes of past failures to their origin, every man had found [the causes] in the turbulence and follies of democracy.”
  • John Adams said, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
  • Chief Justice John Marshall observed, “Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos.”

In summary — the framers of the constitution were afraid of democracy, the extent to which it gave power to “the people.” As a result, they wrote a number of provisions into the constitution to protect the government from the ignorance and poor judgment of “the people.” The electoral college, for example, was designed as a layer of protection to ensure that the people will not be able to directly elect a president, without the guidance and restraint provided by an elite group of leaders (like themselves).  The reasoning — in the words of John Adams, “the people are likely to be easily brought under the influence of a demagogue if given unchecked power.”  Wow, did THAT ever backfire!  Similarly, the constitution, as originally adopted, provided that members of The Senate would be selected by the State Legislatures for that same reason — that the people are likely to make rash choices in difficult times without “adult supervision.”  Similar features are found throughout the document, some of which were later amended.

So today
The mobile communication and social networking made available by the innovations introduced by Steve Jobs (and others) made it possible for “the people” to access unfiltered information — regardless how wise or spurious it may be — to persuade each other in ways that appeared authoritative, and to make decisions that may or may not be in their own best interests or in the long-term interests of the republic.  Sounds like that is exactly what the founders feared.

So, here we are.

What do we do?  Does this mean that we have overdone this ‘democracy’ thing in America?  Is there something we should do to try to reverse some of its effects?  If history is a guide— and it usually is — I’d observe that the effects of the “original Renaissance” were more or less permanent.  So, perhaps, there’s no going back to a time when information could be owned and controlled?  AND I think most of us would agree that we would not want to return to a time when an “establishment” could control information and knowledge — even if WE were part of that establishment.  On the other hand, in a world of uncontrolled information, is there a way to give Americans the tools to recognize truth and wisdom when they see it and distinguish that from lies and foolishness?  Well, on another “other hand,” is it possible that “the people” stumbled on some wisdom in the Election of 2016 that some of the rest of us are just slow to recognize?  Is throwing out conventional wisdom and starting over a good idea?  We look back fondly on that achievement when they did that during the “original” Renaissance — back in the 15th century and the times that followed, right?  They overturned an oppressive and ignorant time and replaced it with some useful ideas.  In the long run, it turned out pretty good for us, here in the future.  Of course, it was pretty traumatic at the time for those who had to endure dramatic and disruptive changes, eh?  There was a period of pretty serious disorder.

So, was THAT RENAISSANCE a good idea?   What about THIS ONE?  Is it merely a difficult time we must endure to get to a better time?  Can we predict the long-term effects of the changes we are noticing today?  What will “the future” think of what we have done?  What will our grandchildren say when they are our age?  Will they be proud of us?

What do you think?

So, I guess we’re still working on it.  We’ll see.  

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6 Responses “Today’s ‘New Renaissance’”

  1. Tom Faletti says:

    Progress is not linear. The French Revolution took progress to great excess and was met with a counterrevolution that resulted in a restoration of the monarchy and a substantial, though not total, return to the concentration of power in an elite establishment. Progress was made, but not to the degree originally envisioned. A revolution that was more respectful of the concerns of those with whom it disagreed might have led to more lasting change. Or not.

    The modern revolution has also gone to excesses that helped spark the Trumpian backlash. Again, a revolution that was more respectful of the concerns of those with whom it disagreed might have led to more lasting change. Or not.

    And Trump might be a momentary blip on a story of continued and expanded revolution. The Bernie faithful certainly think so. And they may be right. Or they may win the next battle, launch further excesses, and spur a longer counter-revolution.

    You argued that the Renaissance produced lasting change, and in some respects you are right, but I’m not sure the women of the early 1800s would have agreed that it had done much for them.

    Establishment forces are usually surprised by disruptive new technologies, but they eventually figure out how to use them to their own ends, so they are only temporarily disruptive of the established social order. Trump has done that masterfully (whether by design or not), by harnessing the revolutionary technology of the Internet to present himself as standing against the establishment (“drain the swamp”, etc.) even though he was actually re-establishing the establishment in major positions of power. The technology itself (books, the Internet, etc.) is neutral; its effect depends on who uses it and how.

    So to return to the broader question: History is not linear, but it is also not cyclical. It moves in spirals. As someone once said (attributed to Mark Twain but no one has produced any evidence that he actually said it), “History never repeats itself, but it rhymes.” Is the next rhyme a return to the counterrevolution, as in France of the 1800s? Or a continued expansion of the power of women and people of color as in the eras of women’s suffrage, women’s liberation, and civil rights? The technology can’t answer that question. Only people, by their actions, will.

    Tom

  2. Daniel says:

    Thanks for the comment, Tom. Yes, maybe history rhymes — that would be better than repeating, eh?

  3. Joseph Faletti says:

    Dan,
    As someone who sees (and captures in software) inter-connections between all things, I know that tracing a single path through the hair ball of history and saying — Voila! Here’s the line of causality! — is perilous.

    Here’s a different thread in the hair ball: Coincidentally (but not causally), just yesterday I read in The Nation this argument that the roots of Donald Trump actually go back 500 years to Martin Luther compounded by the American Revolution! (How Martin Luther Paved the Way for Donald Trump: https://www.thenation.com/article/how-martin-luther-paved-the-way-for-donald-trump/)

    So perhaps it’s just that some of the “fruits” of the Renaissance continue to grow (or do they continue to rot on the hard ground of humans’ inhumanity)?

    Another thread: But by a similar argument to this, one could equally blame every previous “populist” dictator on the printing press until now when it’s Steve Jobs’ fault.

    This argument also conflates the gains of The Age of Reason/Enlightenment, starting in the late 1600s leading to American Democracy, with the gains of the earlier Renaissance. Perhaps if TODAY is a New Renaissance that took only 10 years to go at the speed of the 35-year old Internet from the 10-year-old smartphone to impending 4-year-old chaos, we can only hope that the New Age of Reason will soon follow at a continually accelerated pace in 10 (maybe even 4?) years and produce the New American Democracy! For that to happen, We the People must believe in and depend on We the People’s reason/rationality in a way that the Founding Fathers did not. We can only hope that reason fed by information will eventually (soon?) overcome the nonsense/noise that is always included among the bits of sense we produce.

    But I think the big problem today, like in Luther’s time, is the notion that ANYONE may believe in ANYTHING they choose without reason (although putatively based on personal analysis of some supposedly authoritative body of information) and that that belief alone assures their future success without accompanying acts of community/morality/citizenship and reason, thus disconnecting the reward from the quality of thought and effort required, and from the human consequences of those beliefs. This has lead to today’s ability of too many People in Power to lie, cheat, and steal for the supposed greater good that is really just for personal benefit.

    Has anyone gone to jail yet for the massive bank frauds of the 2000s? At least a few people are headed to jail for the frauds of 2016. So there is still hope for humanity!(?)!

  4. Brytni Soto says:

    I love this piece! ” Steve Jobs (and others) made it possible for “the people” to access unfiltered information — regardless how wise or spurious it may be — to persuade each other in ways that appeared authoritative, and to make decisions that may or may not be in their own best interests or in the long-term interests of the republic. Sounds like that is exactly what the founders feared.” As a parent, something that immediately comes to my mind is the information people find on vaccines; it therefore, shapes a person’s decision to vaccinate or not. We have access to an unparalleled amount of information, but how do we determine what is right? With social networking, we believe what we want to believe- because after all, Wikipedia said so. I am sure every generation thinks, “oh, good luck to THAT generation!” From Elvis and rather risqué dance moves, to a generation now who celebrations public figures who are famous for doing nothing and kids who grow up searching ‘eyebrow trends’. (Seriously, it’s a ‘thing’). I know we as a people adapt, but we need a revolution. We need our kids, and our kids’ kids to make big changes! There is power and value to having access to information, but when do we place unnecessary fear in the minds of the masses; all in the spirit of transparency? I believe honesty is important, but we need to get back to core values when we talked to each other and we weren’t afraid of standing up for what we believe in for fear of being annihilated over the internet. I don’t know how to fix it, but I can tell you that doing nothing won’t help!

  5. Andy Faletti says:

    Uncle Dan- sorry this is too long…
    1-I like your eloquent description of our current predicament: Steve Jobs (and others) made it possible for ‘the people’ to access unfiltered information – regardless how wise or spurious it may be – to persuade each other in ways that appear authoritative.”

    2-Also: “can ‘progress be a good thing and a bad thing at the same time?”
    Yes, “Progress” is often not “Progressive.” esp. when defined by corporations (or politicians) selling us something

    Sadly for me, programming computers starting in HS ’74 before ‘coding’ was ‘popular’, an early adopter of Macs and later “Mac Addict,” I saw Steve Jobs and ‘my’ great Apple Corp. become a twister of info to sell us stuff we may Not need – i.e. biggest of the tech commercial interests. Ask older Steve J.: were Mobility and Immediacy truly a definition of the time, or did someone make a “next great(?) thing” and then have to sell millions for their own benefit…?

    That’s the problem – we have to be able to discern when ‘progress’ is worthwhile and when it’s not.
    Technological advances are not good in themselves. Nor should they be considered ends in themselves.

    Let’s harness technology individually and as a society in ways that serve us. For example, having the ability to have interactive smart speakers in our living room which are also listening devices to people we can’t trust…Could make it a bad idea…even if it is on Sale!
    Let’s all weigh new tech for ourselves before buying.
    Many will discern some as useful for them. Though, as you suggested in an earlier piece re: Facebook – there is So much Pressure to go the newest way for work or private life – that many others don’t or can’t think it through.

    3-You ask: “is there a way to give Americans tools to recognize truth & wisdom when they see it & distinguish that from lies & foolishness?”
    That resonates, but hurts: will we make it intact through the twittering pressure of Immediacy and Expediency?
    I take some hope in efforts to start w/ teaching kids how to evaluate what they see on the Internet – of course, adults need it more!

    Things Will evolve. Eventually the Twitter-sphere will be just the National Enquirer of the Internet. Facebook will falter as individual tool and societal force (see “My Space”), as it has no deep purpose that is necessary for us (though some may disagree) & is not true to its proclaimed mission.

    Social media will evolve. Can replacements correct mistakes of those previous? Can there be “better technology” that IS more valuable to society? Is it possible to avoid the distortions caused by the self-interests of the inventors & sellers??

    I think there is some hope. To be fair, sometimes Immediacy actually Is the societal thing, such as in rare revolutionary circumstances (Arab Spring?, urban protests?), & the technology sometimes helps, or at least fits.

    We are not going to go “back” & going forward will be different from today.
    Twitter is only 12 years old & established businesses proclaim proudly w/o irony that they are “in business since 2010!”
    Will the next go-round hit on technologies that support “progressive” results better? Even inventors do not control the uses of their products.
    But some businesses and governments and organizations can do well & good: witness governments & corporations taking stands on gay rights, racial equality, & opposing police abuse, etc.
    So there is hope that “Progress” Can be “progressive”

    And even football & basketball players have positively, intelligently, courageously applied their hefty weight to the wheels of justice
    – using both new technology (social media) and old technology (kneel down in front of a lot of people – then explain why, then give a lot of money to nonprofit change efforts – then work w/ others to continue the struggle – even make the sports establishment decide what they think about justice & democracy)
    So I know there is Hope.

    But will the Thomas Paines of the new electronic media be the predominant force??,
    or will other interests, or less-thoughtful charlatans and officeholders, be the norm?
    Andy

  6. Lauren de Vore says:

    I think too often we equate change with progress. Corporations and governments thrive on this false equivalence–remember the “continuous improvement” fad? The progress that occurred during the Renaissance with a capital R took place over many generations, and history (i.e., the passage of time) has glossed over the negative consequences of the changes that occurred during that period, giving us a false view of steady forward progress. This kind of assessment of progress sees the macro picture, at the country or population scale, not the micro-scale effects on small populations (let alone individuals). And any effort to change entrenched behaviors and norms, even those that aim to correct grievous wrongs (e.g., the Civil War and emancipation) and are seen in retrospect as the right thing to do, can (and usually does) cause great harm to people whose only crime is to be a product of their time.

    In addition, the technological breakthroughs of the recent past have led us to expect instantaneous gratification in the form of immediate results, immediate change, immediate response and feedback.We don’t even have the damping effect of waiting for the evening news or the morning paper. Instead we have a 24/7 news cycle with no time for the full gathering of details let alone considered thought and reflection before people start reacting.

    One thing is certain, though: nothing is static. We’re either moving forwards, backwards, or sideways. Only in hindsight, or from a great height, can we really see what progress, if any, has been made, at what scale, and at what cost.

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