When Technology Displaces Culture
William Irwin Thompson
When printed manuscripts were first introduced, they appeared as incunabula and were made to look like medieval hand-illuminated vellum rather than printed paper. When new Victorian hand guns were introduced, they were covered with vines and made to look more like a plant than a weapon.
When printed manuscripts were first introduced, they appeared as incunabula and were made to look like medieval hand-illuminated vellum rather than printed paper. When new Victorian hand guns were introduced, they were covered with vines and made to look more like a plant than a weapon. When the new technologies were all displayed in the Great Exhibition of 1851, the building in which they were displayed, the Crystal Palace, looked like the greenhouse of a great country estate.
The nineteen-thirties Broadway musical song, “My Funny Valentine” by Rogers and Hart became a signature piece for Jazz musicians in the fifties. Over 1300 different versions of it have been performed, the most famous of those being the versions by Miles Davis and Chet Baker, and, for the next generation, Keith Jarrett. The thirties popular song became to avant garde fifties Jazz musicians what the traditional folk song had been for Dvo?ak and Ralph Vaughn Williams.
When television was introduced in the early fifties, it became filled with old black and white Westerns of Gene Autry and Hopalong Cassidy.
So it is often the case that the content serves as camouflage for a novel structure. This is a perfectly natural process in evolution, which can take an ancient gene or organ and rework it into a new function or ability. “Eyes are largely built from building blocks designed for other things. The lenses of vertebrates use proteins that bacteria developed to deal with stress; the flexible guanine mirrors that make a cat’s eyes glow in the dark provide gas-proofing for the swim bladders of fish.”
The idea that there is form on the one hand and content on the other comes from a mentality we owe to literature. But technology is now our culture, and so McLuhan was right: the medium is the message. Our gadgets of TV, netbook computers, cell phones, BlackBerries, and iPods are not instruments to express a culture; they are a culture; they are the culture.
McLuhan also pointed out that each new technological extension is an amputation. If we have cars, we do not walk to the corner store. Artificial intelligence, therefore, is part of our oft-noted American dumbing-down process and has served to make humans less intelligent. I am old enough to remember a better educated high school culture and recall a time when Americans weren’t so dumb as to make Sarah Palin the most successful non-fiction writer in publishing history.
So it was natural on James Cameron’s part to take a collection of movie clichés from Dances with Wolves and Star Wars—as well as other memes spliced in from the Hollywood gene pool that John David Ebert pointed out in his blog Cinema Discourse—and use them as the basis for his technological tour de force, Avatar, which has become the greatest earning movie in history. Avatar’s success, like Sarah Palin’s, is owed to its superficiality. Even the addition of 3D could not hide the movie’s lack of depth. With clichéd plot and stock characters, Cameron was not making a film version of a novel, but another Western as a moral allegory of the military industrial complex versus the Gaian tree-huggers of the New Age.
But like ivy vines on the iron legs of Victorian sewing machines, the moral allegory itself is yet another level of camouflage. The Great Spirit and the natives are the products of a computerized entertainment technology. Disney may have pioneered this territory, in which the cute animatron figures of Disneyworld are controlled by an invisible technological complex, but the film Avatar, like Fantasia before it, is one of those works of popular culture that mark a transformation of the polity. Fantasia marked the end of the authority of high culture and used classical music and the poetry of Goethe as camouflage for the structure of pop culture’s takeover. How many Americans now have ever heard of Goethe or realize that The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is one of his poems?
In Avatar, Cameron has presciently given us a description of the Obama administration and the Democratic Party. Although we naïve liberal progressives thought we were voting for a change from the military industrial complex of Bush and Cheney, Obama has proved himself to be its loyal avatar sent among us to win our trust and trick us out of our votes. Now as President, he has not only “reached across the aisle,” but shifted sides as he first rescued the banks through Geithner and Summers, then rescued the medical insurance companies, and is now ignoring our mass unemployment, suffering, and economic stagnation to ask for giga-billions to shore up the military and keep the imperial war machine going against the Islamist natives fighting the Great Satan of Uncle Sam.
In taking entertainment technology to a new level, Cameron has also presciently described the end of the university as the cultural authority. Once to be a scholar you had to be part of the Church; later scholars could escape to an academe that had become its own high church. Since World War Two, the university has been a place for intellectuals to escape from the business world. But now business has taken over academe, and even the Creative Writing departments must conform to the corporate interests of the publishing and media industries—a complex in which a Rupert Murdoch owns them all.
Academic administrators are now managers from the entertainment industry; they see which majors are popular money-makers and have begun to eliminate the losers from the humanities curriculum. Classics, philosophy, English: these are to be replaced by programs in Media and Communications—Sarah Palin’s major of choice. Retiring faculty are not replaced with young professors, but are replaced by inexpensive Temps who are paid for piece work without benefits and have to commute between several colleges to make enough to scrape out a meager living. Soon the bloated middle management of Associate Deans will eliminate faculty who have failed to turn themselves into celebrities by replacing them with Time Warner DVD series and Kindle downloaded textbooks—for which they will probably earn a percentage or finder’s fee for delivering the contract. Expensive sports complexes will continue to be built to inspire the business majors with corporate team spirit and love of their alma mater. After all, academic sports are the entertainment industry at its Saturday best, producing new athlete superstars for future Superbowls and a theatre for dazzling new corporate ads.
In the near future the ultimate entertainment industry will not be to produce subversive avatars to infiltrate the native culture, but to offer a choice of temporary cultures for us to inhabit for the thrill of it. Reality TV will be passed up by the appropriation of reality—otherwise known as politics. Comfortable in our electronic couch, we can inhabit our clichés and call it America, the greatest show on Earth.
Avatar: When Technology Displaces Culture was originally printed within Wild River Review.