Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Great Explainers!

Our books today all hail from the same turbulent, amazing decade, the 1970s, when (believe it or not, you headstrong young things of today) it seemed to every intelligent person that some version of 'the future' was suddenly here among us, suddenly happening. The first hints of hi-tech automation, the first inklings that complex machines might actually be miniaturized sufficiently to be useful in daily life (my first calculator was very nearly the size of the laptop I'm typing this on - it was considerably heavier, and even the this text-creating program has more calculating capacity), the sinking into the collective mindset that such things as remote-controlled satellites were hovering over our heads - and most of all, the moon landings, with television footage of men actually walking on the surface of the moon ... all these things combined to give the average inhabitant of the industrialized West the real impression that for the first time technological innovations were happening faster than society was developing to handle them.

It's almost impossible in mid-2009 to convey the simultaneous combination of wonder and trepidation that impression caused in, say, 1969. In 2009, what's percolated into the collective mindset is precisely the speed, the unthinking incomprehensibility of technological change. One of the surest ways to tell that a civilization is entering its own equivalent of Byzantine decadence is this communal acceptance of incomprehension: when the average 20-something American is informed today that next year's i-phone will have 300 times the power of the one they bought last year - that it'll be able to access radio, TV, the Internet, every private database on Earth, and privately encrypted personal medical records for everyone who's ever lived, the ominous, dark response is likely to be "Wow! That's great!" (or worse, "It better, for what I'm paying"). That's one of the best ways you can tell that a civilization is overripe and ready to fall from the branch (or, more likely from a historical point of view, to be plucked): when the very last thing that average 20-something American would ever ask in such a circumstance is "How? How is that even remotely possible?"

But half a century ago, such decay had only just barely begun - the citizenry was still robust, still directly engaged in their own forward invincibility, and plenty of its members were indeed asking "How? How are these new things possible? What will they mean to my life?"

I think that, as much as anything, explains the incredible crop of great, extremely rewarding books from this period whose aim is to explain things, to lay out the history of various branches of knowledge, carefully illustrate the trends and thought-currents, and put it all in perspective. These books are all, at heart, responses - responses to the feelings of upheavals rocking Western society during their decade.

The first and most influential of them all kicked things off in 1969: Sir Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, which sold gazillions of copies for over a year. Clark's book - magnificently illustrated, as are all these books - grapples with what 'civilization' actually means, what brings it into existence, what occludes it, what characterizes it, how it grows. This broad framework gives Clark a perfect vehicle to wander around all of Western civilization from the Middle Ages to the present day, and that's just what he does - literally. He wanders into churches, museums, historical sites, always engagingly synopsizing and illustrating his points. And his points boil down to one main point, although he's characteristically unassuming about it:

At this point I reveal myself in my true colours, as a stick-in-the-mud. I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellectuals of our time. I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction, I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven't changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence we must still try to learn from history.

In other words, Sir Kenneth is a humanist, in the finest tradition of humanists since the breed was born. But in 1969 there was one ghastly extra dimension to humanism that Colet, More, and Erasmus never faced:

Our other speciality is our urge to destruction. With the help of machines we did our best to destroy ourselves in two wars, and in doing so we released a flood of evil, which intelligent people have tried to justify with praise of violence, 'theatres of cruelty' and so forth. Add to this the memory of that shadowy companion who is always with us, like an inverted guardian angel, silent, invisible, almost incredible - and yet unquestionably there and ready to assert itself at the touch of a button; and one must concede that the future of civilisation does not look very bright.

Clark is talking here about the prospect of nuclear war that overshadowed everything for the whole of the 50s, 60s, and 70s - and future historians will have a tangled task on their hands, trying to chart the extent to which that prospect penetrated into every aspect of the social and intellectual life of those decades. It was different from the terrorism-inspired anxieties of the present day (inaccurately so, since the real chances of a hostile nuclear detonation in 2009 are about a hundred times greater than those in 1969) - it was the threat of the world ending, and it created a tension that certainly played its part in generating these books. Every age has its own doomsday scenarios, but unlike the present day's fear of uncontrolled global warming, the fear of nuclear war was a fear of what technology could do - cutting-edge technology that virtually nobody could understand.

Civilisation was an enormous success and found its way into countless homes. The next great-explainer phenomenon that came close to matching its success was J. Bronowski's 1973 The Ascent of Man, a massive and again generously illustrated tour of the author's idiosyncratic and highly personal look at what could be called the spiritual anthropology of the human race. Bronowski knew many of the great physicists who helped to make that overlooming threat of nuclear war possible, and he everywhere in his book cautions against surrendering to just the kind of complacency we now take for granted. In one of the book's most affecting passages (whose words will be familiar to all you West Wing fans), he visits the remains of the ash-pit at Auschwitz and strikes his own version of a defiantly humanist position:

It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods...

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.

"Knowledge is not a loose-leaf notebook of facts," Bronowski insists. "You cannot possibly maintain that informed integrity if you let other people run the world for you while you yourself continue to live out of a ragbag of morals that come from past beliefs."

That note of irritation is important; it's sparked by the tendency - already beginning to be visible in the early '70s - of many people to pull inward and throw up their hands when confronted with what looks like too much complexity. Firmly situated in an era primed on international competition, our combative author naturally pictures this complacency as a fatal misstep in a race that's a long way from being finished:

The ascent of man will go on. But do not assume that it will go on carried by western civilization as we know it. We are being weighed in the balance at this moment. If we give up, the next step will be taken - but not by us. We have not been given any guarantee that Assyria and Egypt and Rome were not given. We are waiting to be somebody's past too, and not necessarily that of our future.

I shouldn't let all this talk of technology and art obscure the fact that this wave of great explaining volumes also encompassed other disciplines. By far the most studious and technical of our volumes today is Jonathan Miller's 1978 The Body in Question, in which he surveys the history of medicine and medical knowledge. Miller is considerably more acerbic than the rest of our authors, and often his prose is the most arresting:

To sum up, then. At one time or another we have all been irked by aches and pains. We have probably noticed alterations in weight, complexion and bodily function, changes in power, capability and will, unaccountable shifts of mood. But on the whole we treat these changes like changes in the weather: as part and parcel of living in an imperfect world. The changes they cause in our behaviour are rarely noticeable - not inconvenient enough to interfere with our routine. We retreat a little, fall silent, sigh, rub our heads, retire early, drink glasses of water, eat less, walk more, miss a meal here and there, avoid fried foods, and so on and so on. But sometimes the discomfort, alarm, embarrassment or inconvenience begin to obstruct the flow of ordinary life; in place of modest well-being, life becomes so intolerably awkward, strenuous or frightening that we fall ill.

Falling ill is not something that happens to us, it is a choice we make as a result of things happening to us. It is an action we take when we feel unacceptably odd.

Miller's dispassionate precision makes his book challenging and fascinating reading even now, when medical science has progressed as far beyond that of 1978 as 1978 was beyond 1078. You'd think another branch of learning that's undergone a similar morphing would be natural history, since the last forty years have seen a devastation of the natural world not equaled since the Cretaceous. An estimated 30,000 species are rendered extinct every year in our modern era, and the end of such a process is as certain as if it were written in stone. But the certainty of such a future actually serves to highlight both the bravery and the genius of the greatest of our explainers today: Sir David Attenborough, whose 1979 Life on Earth is one in a long line of similar volumes he's produced in his long career of acquainting the busy humans of this planet with the mind-staggering splendor and complexity of all the other living things who live here. Attenborough is the only one of our present writers who has continued to produce an unbroken string of fascinating, stimulating volumes, and Life on Earth is no exception. It traces all the forms and families of living things, although it all inevitably comes down to the human race:

This last chapter has been devoted to only one species, ourselves. This may have given the impression that somehow man is the ultimate triumph of evolution, that all these millions of years of development have had no purpose other than to put him on earth. There is no scientific evidence whatever to support such a view and no reason to suppose that our stay here will be any more permanent than that of the dinosaur ...

But although denying that we have a special position in the natural world might seem becomingly modest in the eye of eternity, it might also be used as an excuse for evading our responsibilities. The fact is that no species has ever had such wholesale control over everything on earth, living or dead, as we now have. That lays upon us, whether we like it or not, an awesome responsibility. In our hands now lies not only our own future, but that of all other living creatures with whom we share the earth.

But as entertaining as Miller or Attenborough (and there are other such specialists, plenty of them) are, the main thrust of these great explainers is that great burgeoning thing first coming into clear view in the 1970s: the plastic world of technology, growing and building on its own complexity in ways even its own architects couldn't predict. Since the avatar of that technology was the space program, it's no surprise that the best of our explaining texts today comes from James Burke, who was the BBC's chief reporter on the Apollo missions. His 1978 book Connections traces the sometimes torturous genealogy of a handful of the modern world's most crucial inventions, such as telecommunications, nuclear power, plastics, and transistors.

Burke makes the genealogies fun, and his book is so lively and light-touched that it makes delightful reading even when treading in the deepest waters. And perhaps as a direct result of Burke searching out so many trends as they wind their way toward the present, he sees some of the forces bubbling underneath his own time more clearly than our other authors. Reading Burke's book, especially its concluding chapter, you're struck by how eerie it is: here's this extremely intelligent and imaginative man, in possession of all the facts currently available, groping blindly toward a something he can just barely see coming, a something that represents the next step in so many of the technological evolutions he's been exploring:

Now that computer systems are within the price range of most organizations, and indeed of many individuals, an avalanche of data is about to be released on the man in the street. But what use are data if they cannot be understood?

We all know what that something is: the Internet revolution, the massive, world-straddling, utterly unforeseen interconnectedness of software technology that shrinks, expands, fuels and shapes our world - a revolution virtually none of its beneficiaries understand anymore or care to. Burke was (and still is, thank goodness) the quintessential questioner, and even forty years ago, he could see the possibility of that technological indifference well enough to lament it:

The high rate of change to which we have become accustomed affects the manner in which information is presented: when the viewer is deemed to be bored after only a few minutes of air time, or the reader after a few paragraphs, content is sacrificed for stimulus, and the problem is reinforced. The fundamental task of technology is to find a means to end this vicious cycle, and to bring us all to a fuller comprehension of the technological system which governs and supports our lives.

That vicious cycle hasn't been ended, and I sometimes wonder if it even could be anymore - and whether or not anybody under the age of 60 would even want it to be. Earnest, unabashedly believing humanists like Clark, Bronowski, and Burke seem antiquated today not merely or even mostly by their inquisitiveness but by their enthusiasm. In 2009, swamped to its eyeballs in the irony epidemic born of the late '80s, caring about anything more substantial than 'skinny' jeans and X-Box is socially appalling. Recently in a gathering of young people in their late teens and early 20s (dancers mostly, but still, not actually lobotomized), I started talking about the fact that North Korea is controlled by a madman in possession of nuclear missiles. The whole living room responded virtually in unison with a "Dude, chill" that would have made Bronowski weep.

But whether this is Byzantium come 'round again or just the darkness before dawn, it's still intensely comforting to go back and re-read these massively engaged and learned volumes. They pulled together all the vast achievements of the past, hammered them into spirited and often quite lovely prose, and then looked forward - sometimes with alarm, sometimes with excitement, but always with a sense of engagement. There's something hugely refreshing in that.


Sam said...

This is a brilliant post, I think. I love the excerpts, and especially like Burke's distinction between content and stimulus. That seems to precisely define the battle being fought on the Internet (in all media venues, actually).

All the current-day explainers write books like The Outliers and Free, which are fundamentally devoted to explaining how people can make money. Not a real heartening scene...

steve said...

Preparatory to writing this post, I was actually looking around for present-day great explainers - thankfully, I found a few! There's David Quammen, of course, and Timothy Ferris ... and even Alan Dershowitz! There are enough, in other words, for a sequel-post!