Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Do we live in a time of pygmies?

Gideon Rachman had an interesting column in the Financial Times, wondering whether we live in a time bereft of intellectual giants.

Compare these lists, he created, of "greats" living in 1861, 1939 and 2011:

Darwin, Marx, Dickens,

John Stuart Mill, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky
Lincoln, Gladstone, Bismarck and Garibaldi

Einstein, Keynes, TS Eliot, Picasso, Freud, 
Gandhi, Orwell, Churchill, Hayek, Sartre

Nouriel Roubini, Joseph Stiglitz, Christopher Hitchens, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Mandelbaum, Maria Vargas Llosa, Abdolkarim Soroush, Hu Shuli, Jacques Attali

Even allowing for historical perspective to have done its job of sorting out, it is kind of startling to realize how few are the giants, if any.  And, what does that say of the quality and relevance of intellectual life in politics, economics, or literature?

Think about it in terms of the previous post: the lack of imagination we bring to bear to the problems of a collapsing system.

Mr. Rachman suggests that it may be that it may be largely a matter of heroic narratives of the individual being supplanted by what are, now, large, networked collaborations.  Christopher Columbus v. Neal Armstrong, so to speak.

I think it may also be that we fail to see the acceleration of technical progress, because we don't seem to need new concepts -- we can re-use the old ones.  My great-great-grandfather saw the coming of the railroad, the telegraph, the steamship, cheap steel, cheap oil, cheap newspapers, and the industrial corporation.  Each was a novelty.  My grandmother saw, in her lifetime, the telephone, the airplane, the automobile, the movies, radio and television, electrical light and electrical appliances, the zipper and velcro.  Each was a novelty.

That progress continues and accelerates, but the conceptual novelties are absent: cellphones are still phones.  The only reason I know that progress is accelerating is because things are disappearing.  The telegraph is gone.  The newspaper may soon be gone.  The phonograph.  Film cameras.  The letter.  Bank checks.  Books?  My generation is measuring technical progress by the disappearance of things.

We are at the end of things, in many ways, and progress by disappearance accentuates that experience.  It doesn't promote a vision of what is to come.

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