‘The big education for me is that civilisation is fragile and can be destroyed in a heartbeat' - Jeremy Brade, former peacekeeper in Sarajevo.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Great Leap Backwards

Preparations for the Great Leap Backwards began in October 1927. According to Wikipedia that’s when the first feature film talkie was released - The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson.

From this small beginning the world changed forever as a number of social trends began to march in step.

Firstly the moving image became an important part of life all over the developed world. Not just for entertainment, but news, information and commentary. Although books had become much cheaper and lending libraries were popular, the moving image gripped its audience in a way books would never emulate.

Cinemas were built in every town, cities had lots of them. Only a few decades later the moving image entered our homes via television. The conquest was complete.

Secondly as the twentieth century progressed and in spite of wars and financial disasters, the developed world began learning how to feed and house even the poorest of its citizens.

These two factors brought out something fundamental about ourselves, an issue we must have missed while still hypnotised by the moving image. Something to do with how we deal with the real world – how those dealings can be subverted by security and physical comfort.

In a way this something is merely the circus of bread and circuses, but much more powerful, intrusive and sinister. As the moving image and comparative prosperity took hold of our lives, intellectual curiosity began to wane.

Today, nearly eighty years after that first talkie, we are losing the urge to know in favour of an urge to be entertained. With it comes a deep-seated love of show and display - a love of theatre. As if life’s edge has been dulled by comfort and prosperity, as if a less basic need slipped into the driving seat while we were queuing up to watch the latest blockbuster at the Odeon or switching on the box for an evening of family entertainment.

Display has always been important to us, as it is with other animals, but without the sharp edge of survival – well the arts of display seem to be all we have left to push us on into our brave new world.

Perhaps we thought intellectual curiosity was enough to spur us on in spite of our full bellies, but apparently not. Curiosity is intimately linked with survival and we’ve dealt with survival. For now. Folk memories of genuine poverty and real hardship are disappearing from the reach of living memory.

The recent Scottish Referendum was pure theatre, rational argument very much noticeable by its absence. Instead we had the unedifying sight of political theatre and its emotional power to get those metaphorical bums on seats. From economic summits to Prime Minister’s Questions, from elections to great debates, it’s all theatre.

Even the mad murderers of ISIL seem to be gripped by a grisly sense of theatre. Black uniforms, sinister headgear and black flags. All theatre. Grim, deadly, insane and even juvenile in some respects, but still theatre.

Science is certainly drifting towards theatre and away from a knowledge culture. Climate change is pure theatre, always was. Take leading actors on the climate stage. Al Gore, Vivienne Westwood, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sting, Emma Thompson... 


But it's just theatre – nothing else, nothing deeper, nothing demanding, nothing intellectual. Forget the science - the names topping the bill tell you all you need to know about the show. Apart from who dunnit.

Climate impresarios rope in celebrities, fashion designers, artists, pundits and assorted thespians with limited knowledge of the science because they don’t need it. They have their lines off pat. It’s what they do, why they are able strut their stuff on the climate stage without knowing anything worth passing on.

Staying with science - how about physics? Multiverse theories? They look like theatre to me. The vast drama of the cosmos, the thrilling strangeness of untrammelled scientific conjecture, the mysterious depths of untestable notions. Bums on seats matter, even in relatively small and publicly supported theatres such as this.

All the world’s a stage – literally. Yet if people are to be liberally rewarded for acting a part, for learning a narrative instead of the truth, then we cannot use the cold blue light of reason to show us the way to anywhere worth visiting. 

So lots of drama but no happy ending.


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Paddington said...

As is often the case, I have to disagree with you, at least on science. I work with many scientists, who just want to to make sense of stuff. That's where the multiverse ideas come from.

Wildgoose said...

Sadly, I tend to agree with what you are saying. Although I suspect that a great deal of the problem you identify is down to reduced attention spans. Very few people can really concentrate on something amidst all these myriad distractions.

There's a line in Peter Shaffer's play "Equus" that has always haunted me. The two psychologists are discussing their troubled charge and describe the boy's father as "an old-school socialist; relentlessly self-improving". We used to have that. It's still there, but it seems much diminished to me.

A K Haart said...

Paddington – if we didn’t disagree there would be no debate. I'm sure it's healthy.

I noticed that when some scientists retired they became more cynical about what they used to do and the value of it. Good scientists they were too, but our field became very bureaucratic.

Wildgoose - although I didn't mention them in the post, I was thinking of the Everyman books which must have had a significant role in self-improvement.

Paddington said...

I have also to agree with Wildgoose. I see signs of distraction among my children and students. They are so inundated with information from their phones that they find more than 15 minutes of study or reflection to be impossible.

Sackerson said...

Thirded. The information torrent plus instant gratification and distraction look set to turn increasing numbers of people into ADHD cases.

Paddington said...

I'm sorry. I lost you after the third long word.