Pining for the Neolithic

Water's edge - Lexey Swall, NYT.jpg

The New York Times is again up to its old apocalyptic tricks. Today it has published yet another in a long, hot summer's worth of climate-hysteria screeds, this one by journalist Roy Scranton, who gives every appearance of wishing to forego his computer, flush toilet and AC (amenities he claims to value) in order to go Full Neolithic. Says Scranton:

The paucity of historical evidence and the eradication of native peoples’ culture by European colonizers make it difficult to reconstruct precontact indigenous life in all its detail. What evidence there is, combined with anthropological insights into similarly premodern cultures, strongly suggests that despite having to persevere without the miraculous comforts, devices and potions upon which we thoughtlessly depend, they almost certainly lived lives at least as meaningful, complex, rich and joyful as our own.

As for benighted, progress-obsessed Westerners like Scranton and presumably at least some readers of the New York Times:

We humans of the Anthropocene Era, inhabitants of a global capitalist civilization built on fossil fuels, slavery and genocide, are used to living with the fruits of that civilization.

At least two questions arise. 

Why is Roy Scranton frittering away his summer in the lap of luxury on Maryland's Delmarva Peninsula, where, he tells us, he penned this most recent lament? And if the lives of those in premodern cultures are “at least as meaningful, complex, rich and joyful” as ours in the capitalist West, why does global mass-migration move only in one direction—towards the Delmarva Peninsula?

D̶o̶n̶'̶t̶ Do Evil

Google China - Guang Niu, Getty Images.jpg

The National Post is this morning reporting that, after several years of humming and hawing, Google has quietly tipped off the fence and agreed to launch a version of its search engine in China that allows for state censorship. As usual, the choice is between principle, in this case the defence of free speech, and the siren song of the Chinese market. "Google is waking up to smell the coffee," consultant Andy Mok is quoted as saying. “Not being in China is a huge strategic miscalculation. The liberals of this world obviously will recoil at the idea."

Mok is right. Liberals will indeed recoil, as well they should. Not since IBM sold the Third Reich its punch-card technology has a U.S.-based data-management behemoth knowingly acquiesced to a foreign dictatorship on such an epic scale.

The silver lining? We can stop pretending that the whiz kids running Google are uniquely virtuous.

On Lost Recordings

Joni Neil - United Artists Films.jpg

The news that 1960s-era concert recordings of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young have been "unearthed" by archivists at the University of Michigan will, alas, be of immediate interest only to a small subset of Boomer fanatics and the entrepreneurs who profit from them. Recorded at Canterbury House on what was then professional gear (i.e. quarter-inch, 2-track, analog tape), the sessions are reportedly "being shopped to record labels for an official release." Nobody ever went broke underestimating the symbiosis of Boomer affluence and Sixties nostalgia.

But seen from the vantage-point of Western civilization circa 2018, where no one under the age of 35 remembers a world without on-demand digital media, every element in this once-familiar narrative about lost recordings has the feel of a vanished world. It is easy to envisage white-gloved Michigan archivists threading brittle tape through vintage recorders as though they were handling the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is even easier to imagine that their preeminent concern will be to digitize the contents of these recordings ASAP. One can practically hear the recording engineers exhaling as the last audible traces surrendered by the last reel of tape are duly converted into WAV, AIFF and FLAC files, burned and cached for posterity.

It was Frankfurt-School theorist Walter Benjamin who first suggested, in 1936, that the aura of a work of art was destroyed when it was reproduced mechanically. He wondered what would happen to, say, the mystique of the Mona Lisa when everyone who ever showed up at the Louvre to view it had already seen thousands of copies on posters and tee-shirts. Ironically perhaps, Benjamin's anti-consumerist critique would have appealed greatly to the University of Michigan arts students who likely attended the Canterbury House concerts all those years ago—earnest young men and women who were listening "critically" to folk-music LPs in their dorm rooms and debating why, among the many other musical mysteries of the day, cloud illusions had prevented Joni Mitchell from knowing clouds at all.

In some respects, Benjamin's powerful insights today seem merely quaint. It has been a long, long time since the distinction between an original work of art and a reproduction was anything more than semantic—outside the precincts of high culture, at least, where an original Van Gogh or Picasso or Pollock still fetches nine figures. In our wired world, the concept of aura has collapsed almost entirely. The texts, photos, music and videos that today proliferate endlessly on our portable screens and playback devices are not copies but, indeed, originals. In our brave new world of virtually cost-free digital artistry, limitless data storage and unfettered distribution via the internet, we appear to be less anxious about losing the cultural treasures of the past than about a future in which nothing will ever again be forgotten. The ubiquity of smartphones among young concert goers today makes it impossible to imagine a future in which a lost recording of Justin Bieber or Katy Perry is discovered, or if it is, that there won't already be thousands just like it posted online.

It is mind-blowing, to borrow a trope from the Sixties, that this famine-to-feast revolution in cultural consumption has taken place entirely within the adult lifetimes of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. To judge from the reverent tones with which our news media are covering the discovery of the Canterbury House recordings, we have not yet fully jettisoned the idea that the salience of artifacts from Antiquity (i.e. the period before the 1990s) derived from their historical and cultural specificity. But we surely will. And when we do, only the stubborn eccentrics among us will quibble with the self-evident superiority of a culture thoroughly digitized, de-contextualized, de-aestheticized and available on-demand to anyone with a smartphone.