Sunday, June 26, 2011

Some Thoughts on Sir Kenneth's Civilisation

Civilisation: A personal view by Kenneth Clark
BBC documentary from 1969, (the year I was born) on the development of Western Civilization.
I watched this because it has been (arguably) put forth as one of the greatest documentaries ever made. It was the first of a new breed of documentaries that presented an educated opinion rather than just being factual. In many places that opinion is both jarring and demands of the viewer the development of an opinion of their own.
I would highly recommend this series. It is challenging and cerebral in a way that few current programs are. The latest educational programming tends to shy away from opinion and speculation in favour of CGI special effects and gimmicks to explain mechanics. The site filming around some of the greatest pieces of architecture and art are also breathtaking... and you get to see a young Patrick Stewart doing some Shakespeare complete with hair. Civilisation can be seen on youtube and found online in many places.
Here are some of the moments in the series that spoke loudest to me, along with my own thoughts on the matter. Where possible I write what was said, the time into the episode it was said, and offer a link where you can watch it.
“I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room.”
This episode about the pomp and splendour of enlightenment Italy ends with a memorable scene in which Clark talks about how vacuous and trivial much of the art this wealthy period produced actually was. He ends with observations about the salon culture of the time and the obsession that many of the richest had with creating the largest, most grandiose salons in which to hold gatherings.
Clark’s idea that we can develop ideas that can forward the human spirit, the fact that there is indeed a human spirit at all, is very comforting to me. One of the pitfalls of being a post modern man is that I tend to see humanity not as a caste of fallen angels capable of miracles, but rather as an overly intelligent, viral horde of naked apes intent on destroying their own world for selfish, individual gain.
Our economic system is a vicious joke designed to consume itself again and again while we hold ourselves enthralled by it. It relies on permanent growth that must be exponential if we are to deem it successful. It is a disaster by any analysis; a necessary evil that we force on ourselves to explain and justify our empty existence, much like we used to do with religion. As soon as we developed sufficient technology to make nature seem irrelevant, this was inevitable. But at least with religion we are left with artistic works of edifying brilliance that speak to the creative ingenuity of our species. Our current gospel of materialism and greed will leave us with landfills of happy meals and plastic toys.
In this final scene, as the camera pans away from Clark in a room that appears large, then huge, then enormous, then mind numbingly, tediously gigantic, I couldn’t help but realize that we, as a species, will keep doing what we’re doing until we’ve destroyed everything we have. We’ll never stop because ultimately, we think that self regulation is a kind of failure; a failure of the imagination, a failure of our success as people individually. We are voraciously turning the world into that giant room.
But somewhere I’m going to hold to the idea that a quiet me, in a small room, with no extravagance or ostentation, can do some small thing to advance the human spirit, because I hope, one day, we’ll be able to prune and tend to that spirit, and see it as something noble and personally meaningful, rather than a viral disaster. Civilization requires growth, and some sense of continuity. We’re throwing the entire world into a pot and watching it boil. If continuity is broken, so is any future chance of civilization; the rebirth can’t be too catastrophic, or it will end in death.
“Shopping is not art.”
“Purchased experiences aren’t genuine.”
(A book that puts its finger on how I’m feeling about our pre-any meaningful awareness culture.)
“In the world of action a few things are obvious, so obvious I hesitate to repeat them. One of them is our increasing reliance on machines. They have really ceased to be tools and have begun to give us directions. And unfortunately, machines from the Maxim gun to the computer are, for the most part, means by which an authoritarian regime can keep men in subjection.”
I’m a big fan of technology, but only when it empowers, not when it limits human development. I’m seeing the way technology is being adopted by many people in their everyday lives to be not so different from the authoritarian science fiction of the twentieth century; Huxley and Orwell ring loudly in this quote.
A smaller world has meant greater control. Records of people in all countries have reached new depths of detail, and while strident attempts to regulate and protect privacy have been made in many western cultures, they have been eroded most recently by the individual desire to become famous online. The digital mob is the latest in a series of evolutions surrounding personal electronics and public spaces. You can’t observe an event without seeing huge numbers of people in it recording it for their own purposes.
The recent Vancouver riots were recorded by many people, and have resulted in a reflexive look at how we monitor our behaviour. Orwell and Huxley both hinted at this willingness to support the state at a personal level by observing and recording our fellow citizens. In this case, it is bringing people to justice, but it is a small step from recording for your own use to calling a dodgy cell phone video valid evidence.
Many assumptions are tied in with technology use, and many of them tend to support the ignorance and expectations of simpletons. The vast majority monitor the population with their personal electronics in hopes of seeing someone do something stupid that will advance their own standing as a purveyor of culture (but what an empty, vapid culture it is). In the natural course of things, electronics will continue to enhance the ideas of whatever person handles them. Videos will auto-edit to specific moments (probably requiring an angry kitten and someone being kicked in the crotch). I’ve seen people observe these asinine moments repeatedly online with no thought for meaning or a narrative; these moments have become an end in themselves.
In a vast electronic sea of stupidity we now revel as a species. Work is considered beneath us, we must game at everything. If it isn’t play, it’s meaningless, even cruel. We don’t care for developing a discipline any more, why bother? If we’re just looking for a knee-jerk laugh or repeated stupidity that engages our lowest sense of humour, why develop story? Or meaning? Or an extended, complex understanding of... anything?
The electronic medium that continues to surround us and is supposed to enhance us does more to take us away from simple truths and, for the digital serf in a digital mob, is merely a replacement for television; a tool used to pacify and encourage a sedentary population. And now it’s a means of social control as well.
I’m not saying that the electronic medium can’t be used to enhance the human experience, merely that the vast majority of ignorant people who are enhanced by it, are enhanced idiots who are louder and more influential than any idiots in history.
In this miasma, governments will be able to mine data and organize their societies with greater accuracy and control than ever before. Sir Kenneth is bang on with this one.
“We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion just as effectively as by bombs.”
From his last monologue before the end of the series, Clark has just read Yates’ “The Second Coming”:, what he fears is a prophetic poem.
Said during the middle of the cold war (as I mentioned before, the year I was born), the idea of destruction by bombs resonates with anyone alive in the later half of the Twentieth Century. Throughout the series Clark has talked about how Western Civilization hasn’t been a continual evolution but rather a series of rebirths.
Genius can’t exist in a continuum, but works on a natural cycle of growth, destruction and rebirth. As I sit here listening to legions of lawn mowers destroying the air and see rows of SUVs in driveways pointing to a meaningless and even damaging expression of wealth, I’m reminded of those giant rooms, and how disinterested most people are in change.
When I listen to educators talking earnestly about harnessing the power of games to create an enthralled classroom of students, or pre-empting fun itself in order to use it as a tool for indoctrination in an industrialized system, I realize that we aren’t interested in genius. We aren’t interested in developing disruptive thinkers (a natural by product of genius). What we want is mediocrity at a consistent level, a measurable level. Once the bar is set, we want to work to the bar again and again; systematized thinking breeding the perfect system. Clark’s angles on mechanization and big-room thinking all play to this.
We’ve made the world into one of those giant rooms. We stifle creativity with lawyers and encourage mediocrity in thinking in education, business and government. We encourage citizens to be sedentary, servile and uninformed. We use their ignorance to sell them what they don’t need, with no regard for what it is costing their own descendents; we glorify greed as a virtue. Ignorance creates governments of convenience, incapable of tackling the pressing issues of our time.
Our current civilization will collapse in a spectacular implosion of ignorance, fuelled by the digital mob’s insistence on business as usual, and machines in big rooms will make it happen, unless we choose to redevelop what it means to be human.