In light of our upcoming symposium about the internet and democracy, I proposed to write about the riches of the internet for humanities scholars. But I do not wake in the night with visions of the Library of Congress’ American Memory website, the ability to search the Smithsonian’s collections from your study online, or even David Livingstone’s restored diary.
(Advertizing Image from Smithsonian Collection)
Instead, my mind reels with bleaker, cinema vérité versions of what we have wrought: Russia after the revolution via Hollywood; Cuba as I know it from photos of splendid American cars in a crumbling world; the patchwork of cheap Band-Aid carpentry that has held together the architectural gems of the hill towns over the past two hundred years, that I confronted as an old-house carpenter in my most recent past life.
We live far too high on the hog as a society. And I am talking about most of us, the 99%. We take the availability of things for granted, we buy and buy and buy, and participate in consumption at an unsustainable level in any version of sound economic practice that I can think of. But until now, I did not have a visceral sense of what would happen when the stuff that we feel we need, the mountains of stuff that we surround ourselves with, when the stuff we’ve been borrowing from the universe hits the fan.
I felt it would have to happen, but until today I did not imagine how the western societies will adjust to the new realities that are slowly emerging from the chaos that is the collapsing house of cards that has passed for progress in the past decades. (I say decades because I am not an economist, I am not sure when it started. I think of graphs I have seen to indicate all sorts of growth and development, from the value of the Dow Jones to the size of bank profits to the rise in global temperature to the waste stream. They have in common that they show a slow but steady increase for the past hundred to three hundred years, and start zooming up steeply somewhere in the late twentieth century.) I think, fed on nuclear disaster and global warming predictions, we have imagined that we will go down in to an apocalyptic abyss as in Blade Runner or The Road?
Instead, would our decline express itself as a retuning to a lesser, state, somehow, an earlier phase – to the world of, say, the nineteen fifties or sixties? This past weekend’s dinner conversation centered on my friends having visited liberal arts colleges with their high school junior. They were appalled at the level of luxury on manicured campuses with fitness centers and libraries sporting 24-hour coffee shops. The assembled company had attended college in the nineteen sixties and seventies (we are a rather antiquated lot), and no matter whether that had been at state schools, large research universities or liberal arts colleges, they all agreed with one who said, “think gulag by comparison.” The generations that fueled the post-post war booms, on the whole, learned to think in faded school hallways where footsteps echo and paint peels discreetly in corners, on campuses that were, on the whole, rather more shabby than manicured. A world much like our own, today, just less so.
The vision I have of returning to the ‘gulag’ of a previous era is not as pretty as the run-down campus of an earlier era. Nor is it as sanguine as the somehow comforting idea of much-patched two hundred year old houses, subdivided Moscow fin-de siècle apartments and aging sagging Cadillacs. (In which someone is always the janitor, the tinkerer, the mechanic, and I imagine it would me). The vision I now have of what we have are going to turn to is more akin to Siberia in the fifties or the crumbling concrete of many of the campuses in the Massachusetts public higher education system. It is one of bad going to worse, not of the cookie crumbling, but the Twinkie.
The amazing economic miracle that made us rich in goodies, the great leap forward enabling the development in consumer goods that brought us washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and cars for the masses, was fueled by a series of innovations in manufacturing and business: interchangeable parts, the American System of manufacturing, Scientific Management. Someone in India could fix an aging car made in Detroit so long as he had access to another aging car or bus. With planned obsolescence and cheap transportation that translated into logistical complexities, however, we have eliminated the fixable item of consumption, be it a sewing machine or a bulldozer.
Barbara Tuchman rang the bell in her 1980 New York Times article, “The Decline of Quality,” in which she announced that handmade goods had gone with the wind, and with them, quality goods. Manufacturing made things available to the masses, but those self-same things weren’t as good as the handmade things that were made before. (Tuchman was actually an optimist about human development, as she announced in the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities that same year. She was the first woman to deliver the lecture.)
Barbara Tuchman had seen nothing yet. It is estimated that, today, ninety percent of what we buy ends up back in the waste stream within six months. We use and discard, and often we don’t even use, we just get to discard: more than half of what we buy is packaging, or, even more frustrating, the thing we so happily bought breaks immediately and there is no way to fix it.
What will happen when we stop being able to fuel our continuous thirst for new? When we don’t have money to buy and ship after everyone goes broke? How long can we float on the miasma of stuff we have created? My estimate is that, this time, we’re all going to get it, not just the poor, who usually bear the brunt of downturn. Not just this minute, but sloooowly but surely.
Everything will start to break down, including “good” stuff. I haven’t looked under the hood of a Miele vacuum cleaner or Bosh dryer lately, but I am pretty certain that the interchangeable parts are not all that interchangeable now, and that they are made of plastic or, in the best case, nylon (lasts longer but not replaceable). They require precision manufacturing and we don’t have a stockpile any longer, parts are made as they are needed: find an old washing machine or wash by hand.
What will we do with the few hours of electricity we will have per day when the turbines can’t make it to the electric plant from China or Korea? How will we get around? Our vacuum cleaners will break. The new light bulbs might rate for many hundreds or thousands of houses, but the lamps don’t – you have to be lucky enough to find one that works for a year. Computer parts for cars are too delicate to repair at the shop around the corner. Use a candle or oil lamp, find an old car or bike.
If we are lucky, living less high on the hog will mean; travel less far to work, chop food with a knife, patch clothes with others from the vast mountain of material we sit on; grow food in the back yard instead of watching TV for 4 hours per day. Walk to the store instead of on the treadmill. Write a letter. Use our hands again – be inventive. Livingstone used copies of The Standard when he ran out of paper and berries for ink.
The vision I had in the night was that of the unavailability of tinkering as the time-honored solution to downturn: no more two hundred years of patching up incredibly well made houses, no endless combining and recombining of cars and buses from richer days. Instead, the machine of cheap but logistically very complex production will grind to a halt, and we will have to do without, returning to a much, much earlier era without the know-how to do it.
What does all of this have to do with the Internet and democracy? Well, the same goes for knowledge, made widely available in very complex ways. Think of another Hollywood image: the poverty-stricken radical scholar with ragged gloves, clutching a book by a candle; heat is gone, electricity is gone, and food is scarce. But at least he has a book to read, information and knowledge to fuel his thoughts that are going to spur the next round of prosperity and light. He is independent; he can float on the physical products of an earlier age. Now put an iPad in those hands and read off the doomsday scenario for democracy when books, knowledge, and information depend on the whole machine of nylon parts and computer chips working to be delivered to us.