Big Brother at Wired

Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired, has an article in the July issue, “The End of Theory,” about massive computing and changes he foresees in the scientific method. It’s part of a group of articles titled, on the cover, “The End of Science.” His third paragraph begins, “Sixty years ago, digital computers made information readable.” I wasn’t around then, but I’m pretty sure my parents were reading information before 1948.  Actually, humans have been reading information since the invention of alphabets about 5000 years ago. Perhaps he meant machine readable, a truestatement. But he didn’t say that and by eliminating the crucial adjective, he indulged in a little millenarian hyperbole.

Millenarians believe their time on earth is the most important time in all of history. Everything before was dark ignorance, everything after will be brilliant. They show up during major social upheavals. Millenarians in the 17th Century believed the American and French Revolutions would lead to a Golden Age of global freedom, world peace, and for some, Armageddon. Current Web millenarians believe Internet connectivity will significantly change every aspect of our lives and thus lead to a Golden Age of global freedom, world peace, and for some, the Singularity, a non-religious word for Armageddon.

One technique for promoting a Golden Age is to imply that nothing much happened before the current era. That’s what Anderson is doing when he assigns the invention of reading to computers. That’s what Big Brother did in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:

It was always difficult to determine the age of a London building. Anything large and impressive, if it was reasonably new in appearance,
was automatically claimed as having been built since the Revolution, while anything that was obviously of earlier date was ascribed to some dim period called the Middle Ages. The centuries of capitalism were held to have produced nothing of any value. One could not learn history from architecture any more than one could learn it from books. Statues, inscriptions, memorial stones, the names of streets – anything that might throw light upon the past had been systematically altered. (Part I, Chapter VIII)

 Nineteen Eighty-Four of course is fiction, written in 1949, just one year after the invention of reading, according to Anderson’s theory.  That was also the year China became a People’s Republic. Two decades later, Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution replicated Orwell’s fictional end of historic truth with the systematic destruction of the four olds: old culture, old custom, old habits and old ideas. Instead of love, peace and happiness, their 60’s generation rampaged through the country, burning art and artifacts, and humiliating or murdering anyone who objected.

The technique worked. In a recent All Things Considered series on China, NPR reporters described Narrow Alley, an area of historic homes that was torn down and is now being rebuilt in the historic style as a tourist shopping center. These homes were not renovated. They were torn down and rebuilt. Anthony Kuhn, NPR’s China based reporter, commented that the Chinese have a “preoccupation with newness. A feeling that old things are just not worth saving.”

The middle-aged Red Guards are now the parents and leaders of China. They spent their formative years burning history and destroying anyone who honored the past. It’s survival of the fittest, I suppose. If we let Chris Anderson tell us now that reading didn’t exist before computers, sometime in the future we may actually believe it.

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Jul 2008

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