Thursday, October 4

Happy Birthday

Sputnik I
launched October 4, 1957

IN other news, I read ESPN too much. Gregg Easterbrook:
Although the great technical achievement of 1957 -- the artificial satellite -- and the main consumer-industrial product of that year -- the Edsel -- seem crude in retrospect, great artistic achievements of that same year, such as "West Side Story" and "Doctor Zhivago," seem magnificent in retrospect....

Now think what has happened in technical and artistic trends in the 50 years since 1957. Scientific endeavors have made fantastic strides in quality, complexity and significance. Consumer product quality has increased dramatically -- new cars are packed with features unknown in 1957 yet are far safer and more reliable, and the cell phone in your pocket and the computer you're reading this on, to say nothing of the Internet it's transmitted over, would have been viewed as supernatural by the engineers who built Explorer I. At the same time, the quality of art has plummeted. There hasn't been a musical of artistic merit to open on Broadway in many moons -- right now, it's all vapid dreck. (In fact, I think the show "Vapid Dreck," based on a remake of a remake, opens at the Brooks Atkinson soon.) And although good books are still written, what truly great novel has been produced in the past decade or two? Fifty years ago, technical stuff was buckets of bolts and art was splendid; now, the technical stuff is splendid and the art is in poor repair. This tells us something -- I just wish I knew what.

Well, for starters, that you shouldn't write about the Arts.

Easterbrook and I were born the same year, and if I may say so his point of view strikes me as something shy of inevitable. I sure don't look at cell phones or plasma screens and think what marvelous strides scientific endeavors have made "in significance", and I don't think that improved handling and crush zones are miraculous developments. In fact, I've watched them occur over the years with the same perspective as Mr. Easterbrook, and I think it's reasonable to state that the pace of technological advancement in the past fifty years should not really astonish someone who grew up under the tutelage of people who had experienced the previous fifty. I have the internets. I grew up with color teevee. My first-grade teacher watched the launch of the first American in space on a television brought into class for the purpose. She'd grown up riding a buggy to a schoolroom with no electricity or running water.

I don't mean to trivialize advancements in micro-miniaturization or industrial production, but it seems to me that many great scientific advancements of the last fifty years--the acceptance of plate tectonics, the rise of ecological science, improved notions of human health--are partly or wholly the result of shifting mindsets, (which were often opposed by earlier versions of Mr. Easterbrook's global-climate-change denial) and that much of the rest--in astronomy, genetics, communications--are the result of new tools developed at a not-unanticipated pace. The Sputnik team might be surprised to learn, fifty years on, that we've yet to harness nuclear fusion, but I suspect the two-way wrist telephone wouldn't lead to their establishing a cargo cult.

Which is to say they differ from today's glibertarian exaulters of consumer electronic gizmos. Computer technology did not march forward because consumers wanted it; it marched forward because business and governments did, and at some point some bright boys figured out how to convince ordinary citizens to need them. Weapons technology proceeds apace even though it doesn't make your Ford Escape any safer (though properly applied it could improve the aesthetics). As for the Arts, they're best left alone if we can't avoid playing a species of Fantasy Football with them, but if we must we might harken back to the green real grass fields of our youth and note that our fourth grade teacher said the exact same thing, except she added that her six-year-old niece could paint better than the Modernists. We will also note that in 2007 daubing the Next Natalie Wood with ochre and having her break into inexplicably impromptu song with a "Puerto Rican" "accent" is damned near aesthetically prohibited, an advancement we consider on par with automatic parallel parking, at the least.


joel hanes said...

Easterbrook shouldn't write about science either, since he understands science rather less than he understands the arts. I wish his editors understood this.

Aaron said...

I'm increasingly convinced that Easterbrook shouldn't write about much of anything at all.

Houston said...

If I ever write a book, I'd like to call it "Loose Luddite in Aisle Five." It doesn't matter what it's about.

Morgan P. said...

Judging the quality of a generation's art by the quality of their musicals is like basing one's opinion of a restaurant on the kids' menu. The kids' menu is there for the juvenile elements of society that haven't yet learned to appreciate great food. Musicals are for people who have taste in neither great drama nor great music.

There is magnificent art to be found in every era, every generation, if you look with the right kind of eyes and an open mind. Of course, I'm foolish to expect an open mind of Mr. Easterbrook.

Chris Vosburg said...

Easterbrook seems to cite Sputnik as the fuse lighting of the technology explosion, but when you come right down to it, space exploration has languished, as other technologies-- driven largely by the invention of the transistor-- have flourished.

When I was a kid, I thought for sure I'd finish life off-planet, and was heartbroken to see what the "space race" degenerated into, especially the moon missions. As I watched the astronauts hit golf balls, go for a drive in the family car, litter, and take pictures of themselves, I thought bloody tourists but still held out hope of serious exploration, and colonization-- until the Challenger blew up and in the wake of the downscaling, realized that I wasn't going anywhere.

Worse, in light of recent Earthside developments, I want more than ever to get the hell off of this mudball.