Sunday, June 21, 2020 5:52 PM
Breadth of Freedom (2020Jun21)
In the 1950s, the Pulps, as they were called, were considered a bad influence on children, along with Comic Books. This was the mind-set for which the Fifties are famous: some topics of conversation were forbidden, and others very definitely frowned upon.
But even the 1950s were broader-minded than the preceding decade—and this could be said of each the 20th Century’s decades. The acceleration of transportation and communications made ‘decades’ the new normal for a changing world.
Prior to the Industrial Explosion, humanity was regional, parochial, and only managed significant change in terms of centuries. And prior to the early cultures of the Mediterranean, change in humanity’s condition is measured in millennia.
Today’s Americans measure change by four-year presidential terms (whether they are first or second terms is immaterial). But the 1950s stands out as the last-gasp of a slower, more-ignorant American public. Communities still considered themselves close-knit enough for conversational taboos to keep uncomfortable ideas and issues from coming to light.
I am most impressed by the human habit of being irritated by a change in subject-matter. In olden times, saying anything unusual was a good way to get beat upon—if you weren’t a witch or a troublemaker, you were just simple in the head.
We have no conception of the communal irritation that ‘free’-ish thinkers were subjected to. The phrase Fulton’s Folly is still known, echoing down history as a reminder that his entire community laughed in Fulton’s face for years while he developed the first working steamboat.
In Salem, centuries earlier, women were being executed for looking funny at someone. We have no idea of the power of peer pressure, in the days when a community was tighter than most modern families.
It is only the disruption of Science and Reason that have levered humanity out of its built-in communal dysfunction—and I know, if civilization should happen to crash, that freedom-from-bullying will be the thing I’ll miss most.
The effects on me are curious: I would be at risk in many countries—not realizing that religious talk can be fatal, or other unconventional thoughts that may be illegal or dangerous to express—and it wouldn’t be safe for me to bring my library to many countries. Even in more conservative American regions, I could easily disgrace myself, just by being my usual discursive jabbermouth.
But one really has to read science fiction to get the full scope of the revolution in thinking—publicly-debated, social thinking—that liberal America (and most of Europe and Japan) enjoy. Asimov, Clarke, Sturgeon, et. al. were writing for the pulps in the fifties—because the idea of leaving the Earth was one of those ‘Beat-that-guy-up’ Ideas that ‘serious’ people had pooh-poohed forever.
Soon after, several things happened: People left the Earth, and the USA was spending billions to catch up. Arthur C. Clarke was awarded the patent for TelStar, the first telecommunications satellite in geo-synch orbit, because he published a pulp story that described it in exact detail —which kinda shut up all the naysayers. Then there was Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” and Kurt Vonnegut’s take on the far side of sci-fi—and humanity.
The amazing concept of interchanging numbers with characters, into something called ‘programming’—for a thinking machine, no less, was kept a deep secret, from the end of WWII onward. Had the Nerd Revolution not been swept off their feet by Intel, and further titillated by the globe-spanning power of the Internet, Computer Science might yet be a state secret, rotting in storage like Indy’s Ark.
Instead, we have an explosion, not only in new tools of digital magic—but an explosion of concepts, borne of the instantiation of such things as databases, real-time feeds, multi-player gaming, etc., etc. Alan Turing probably never considered the swath of established businesses (and business practices) that digital technology would erase from history, like horse-buggy-whips. Digitalization is changing more than business—it is changing the world. I hope no one was attached to our existing socio-economic culture—‘cause it’s going fast….