Future Technology and the Arts

Future Technology and the Arts

Frederick Turner

Technology is created to serve human interests.  How will human interests change during the coming century?  Often we don’t recognize our true economic interests until we have already wasted much time pursuing obsolete ones.  The first European explorers of the Americas indeed misunderstood their own interests: they were looking for precious metals (which though abundant were never as much so as their seekers wished) when the real riches of the new world were the great precolumbian food and stimulant crops, and the fertile land and rich base metal resources of the western continents.  The gold and silver brought back by the Spanish monarchy had the complex economic effect of impoverishing and depopulating Spain and enriching its enemies, England and Holland.   In Iberia profitable farming, with the dense population it supports, was priced out of the social market, to be replaced by flocks of voracious goats that ate the vegetation, damaged the soil, and dried out the climate.  Bankers along the Rhine, the Danube, the Po, and the coasts of the North Sea and Baltic grew rich on high-interest loans taken out by Hapsburg monarchs to finance the defenses of their far-flung empires; the accumulation of capital fuelled the northern European industrial revolution, whose raw materials were the mundane bulk commodities the Hidalgos had scorned.  The true beneficiaries of the Columbian discovery were not the aristocrats, sailors and warriors but the farmers and planters that followed them, and the businessmen and industrial entrepreneurs that followed them.

The basic wealth of feudal aristocrats, what they correctly perceive it in their interest to possess, is land with an established peasant population.  The way to obtain this wealth is by conquest or marriage, and the pool of such wealth is limited: one warlord’s gain is another’s loss, there is an unchanging pie to be divided according to the courage, intelligence, charisma and luck of the individual.  The secondary wealth of such leaders is portable works of precious metals and other rare durable materials, embodying fine craftsmanship–objects that can alleviate the drabness of a subsistence economy, that can symbolize the magical powers of command and education at the disposal of the elite, that can be given as rewards for service to a faithful thane or samurai, and that can honor the God of Christendom (or the mandate of Heaven, or the pyramid of Tlaloc).  It is such goods that the conquistadors were seeking; but at the moment they found it, the game changed, the pie started to get bigger, wealth changed its colors, other currencies began to harden.  Free farmers could get more out of the soil than could serfs; traders could multiply the local value of things by the alchemy of the market; craftsmen could leverage production upward by new technologies; city republics could bankrupt counts and dukes.  The very meaning of America, as a resource and as a set of interests, changed as the European conquest proceeded.

Thus by analogy if we are to get an accurate picture of the future of technology, we must recognize the successive waves of economic energy through which our present civilization is passing, the changes of paradigm whereby the nature of wealth changes and the interests that drive human effort migrate and transform.  A modern economy is not like the old notion of a balanced ecology, in which every species occupies its own fixed ecological niche and a mysterious set of feedbacks preserves a homeostatic harmony among them; instead, it is much more like the present model of ecological succession, where clusters of species rise, replace their predecessors at the top of the food chain, and are demoted, giving way to others, and the very shape and identity of the ecological niches undergo continuous irreversible metamorphosis.  We live in a world of economic transvaluation, in which each wave of succession reaches and passes its point of maximum capital flow, employment, and cultural influence, to be succeeded by a further wave.  Obsolescence disrupts people’s lives, and at the same time society as a whole becomes–erratically but inevitably–richer and more full of opportunities for those willing to use them.  As each new wave comes along, the disparities in wealth between the rich and the poor first increase, and then decrease, leaving the average person with much more disposable income than before.

Two hundred years ago America was an agrarian nation, in which 90% of the people worked on farms and 90% of the capital commitment and cultural energy was going into agricultural production.  Prices were relatively high enough, and the production system labor-intensive enough, to support a large rural population.  Wealth was widely distributed, reinforcing the American political ethic of equality that de Tocqueville celebrated.  Then with the introduction of such devices as the cotton gin and the combine harvester, the cost of production dropped rapidly, prices collapsed, production sharply increased, the number of workers needed fell off sharply, and, after an initial increase in investment for mechanization, the capital requirements for farming relative to the rest of the economy went into steady decline.  Rural unemployment sent thousands of jobless farmers out on the roads.  Farming simply bulked less large in the nation’s economy, society, and culture: it took up a smaller share of its interests.  Today perhaps 10% of our national treasure and work goes into farming.  One odd little counter-trend, however, may be significant: there is an increasing number of gentleman and lady farmers, freed from more pressing economic necessities, who have taken up ranching or planted gardens or bought vineyards for the sheer joy of doing so.  Like aristocrats of an earlier agricultural era, who hunted, rode, bred animals, sailed, or fished, preserving in their leisure the ancient work-patterns of the hunter-gatherer past, the new leisure classes have rediscovered as a pleasure and spiritual recreation what was once the drudgery of survival.

It is already clear that what happened to farming is already happening to the extractive and manufacturing sectors.  In the developed countries manufacturing employment and capital investment rose until it tied up about 90% of the available labor, capital, and cultural energy.  At first, huge fortunes were made.  Then wealth became widely shared; the essential and collectively powerful assembly line workers could ask a decent fraction of the earnings of their masters.  Then automation, robotics, computer assisted design and manufacturing, materials science, miniaturization, “just-in-time” inventory techniques, discount retail, and global competition created successive leaps in efficiency, cutting costs, prices, and labor requirements, increasing volume, and maximizing the utility and durability of the product.  Manufacturing, like farming, became more capital intensive and less labor intensive; Marx’s nineteenth-century proletariat withered away; unemployed industrial workers crowded the decaying inner cities.  The rust belt succeeded the dust bowl; and we are now reaching the point that the capital requirements for manufacturing are likewise dropping–until, perhaps, they will be no more than the 10% or so we need for farming.  The amounts of money to be made out of manufacturing are also shrinking, and thus the amount of the world’s interests tied up in it.  Finally, perhaps, a few dozen biotech/nanotech factories, with some bored troubleshooters and elite staffs of artsy temperamental designers and marketers, will make all the world’s necessary stuff.  We may even, in what will appear to be a decadent and deplorable cultural development, create gentleman-factories, like our present dude ranches, to provide the old thrills of heroic industrialism; theme parks of the assembly-line, civil peace reenactments.  The present vogues for furniture making and home improvement may already be examples of this trend.

So far this is a familiar story; and according to its script the third wave, the information age, is upon us, the golden dawn upon the economic horizon.  However, it takes a little more imagination to see that the same thing will happen to the information industries, presently ascendant, as happened to the farms and factories. There is no reason why the technologies of data storage, management and retrieval should not perfect and miniaturize and cheapen and streamline themselves almost out of existence like their predecessors.  If the historical analogy holds, employment, investment, and cultural commitment in the information industries will rise to about 90% of the given resources; at first huge fortunes will be made; then as the labor demand rises, economic equality will increase; there will follow the predictable collapse of the labor market as the information industries become more and more cost-efficient, smaller and smaller on the world’s horizon, less and less labor-intensive, and finally less capital-hungry and less profitable, leaving a few cash cows providing all the world’s needs.  Eventually their operation will take up 10% of our money and our people.  Hordes of information workers will be turned out on the streets, asking the employed if they can can spare a dime.  Moreover all this will happen much faster than the rise and decline of manufacturing, just as the manufacturing age happened faster than the agricultural age.  Everything is getting faster and faster.  Information resources will be virtually invisible, at our mental fingertips, perhaps even wired into us by neural/cybernetic interfaces, activated by an unconscious movement of the will as are our own brains–as natural, cheap and convenient as a hammer.  Will we then create clunky antique data devices, requiring programming and the memorization of command codes, for the leisured and the nostalgic?

But perhaps there is another model, which is what will succeed the knowledge industries.  An economic wave or paradigm loses its hold on a civilization not because of inefficiency, but because of efficiency.  Earlier waves of economic activity are not suppressed by succeeding waves.  The reason there are so few farmers in the USA and so little money tied up in farming, when once 90% of the nation was agrarian, is not the failure of farming, but its astonishing success: it now needs only a tiny fraction of the country’s human and economic resources to supply more than enough foodstuffs and raw materials.  Finally, we will be left with the irreducibly labor- and capital-intensive human industries of what we might call “charm”: tourism, education, entertainment, adventure, religion, sport, fashion, art, history, movies, ritual, personal development, politics, the eternal soap opera of relationships.  Once the world’s wages have leveled up to those of the developed countries, a process already well in train, the service industries will begin to starve for labor, and be forced to raise their pay scales.  At the same time the job descriptions, and the actual content, of service employment will begin to approximate those of artists, entertainers, educators, and sports professionals.  One can already see this process at work in the restaurant industry in such wealthy cities as Dallas, New York, Phoenix, or Los Angeles; good waiters, sommeliers, and cooks are wooed and tempted by rival establishments, and each evening is conceived as a little work of art.

Given a cheap and effortless supply of materials, manufactures, and information, which will be on hand in a few decades if this scenario of economic evolution is plausible, the chief natural resources required for these new “charm” industries will be empty space and empty time. The rich, who since the Renaissance have lived as the rest of the world will try to live a few decades later, and are thus the harbingers of the future, have always valued empty space and empty time.  That is why they buy land and build mansions in the country, and why they hire managers and secretaries to handle their deadlines.  Often they are quite frugal in their consumption habits, not out of affectation but in the pursuit of a more refined joy in the experience of life.  The arts and pleasures of the charm industries take up time and space; they also paradoxically increase both time and space by their magical powers of illusion, delay, inner articulation, and concentrated attention.  But time and space, with the present buildup of physical, temporal and cultural waste product on our planet, are becoming increasingly scarce and increasingly at a premium.  We are swamped by mountains of junk information, junk production, junk cultural overflow.  We will be prepared to pay top dollar for silence, horizons, the threat and presence of death, the strange and mystical experience of uneventful time.  Japanese Heian princes, with all the resources of a rich civilization open to them, sought the exquisite boredom of glacially slow Noh drama and court music; American and European millionaires outfit one-man ocean-going yachts and, on the fine edge of loneliness, terror and tedium, sail round the world.

Who will make all this happen?  Not, perhaps, the nation state; it is doubtful that the state as an institution will ever again command the kind of loyalties and commitments and moral prestige that gave us World War One, the Grand Coulee Dam, the defense of Stalingrad, the Holocaust, and the Apollo program.  It will be corporations; but not, surely, corporations like industrial General Motors or information-based Microsoft.  Charm industry corporations will be more like exclusive safari adventure outfits, theater companies, churches, movie studios, art workshops, literary publishers, sports clubs, resort hotels, restaurants.  Eventually it may even be families and individuals, linked in an electronic consultant economy of emergent self-organization.  The technology they will use will be a combination of the almost unimaginable with the familiar: biotech and nanotech to supply the manufacturing base, traditional crafts, human bioengineering to alter our bodies to suit the conditions, architecture based on theater design, materials science (especially intelligent materials), artificial intelligence, horticulture, self-replicating robots, genetically tailored and trained domestic animals.  The keys will be financial cheapness (mainly keeping down labor costs through the recruitment of wealthy volunteers and hobbyists), the use of local materials, improvisation in a technologically fail-safe context, the adaptation of humans to the environment, and the identification of existing far-from-equilibrium energy systems in the solar system that can be tweaked with little effort to create big changes.  More important than the technology, though, will be the artistic insight and economy that will tie it all together and sell it to the public.   But it will come: art, adventure, history, travel: invest in these and watch your money grow.

What will be the role of the arts in such a world?  First of all, of course, if they take any trouble to appeal to an actual human public they will be fabulously profitable.  Arts are as irreducibly labor-intensive as one can get; and they have at least a legacy of the highest quality charm.  Already more people attend arts events and art galleries than go to all sports events combined.  But this bright picture has other aspects not quite so delightful to the average contemporary artist.  For the trend toward the baptism of personal pleasure services into the august elect of the arts will continue, and is already accelerating.  Interior decorators, cooks, landscape architects, gardeners, and fashion designers have already become canonized in this way, joining dancers, potters, moviemakers, mimes, performance artists, photographers, and clowns; and soon masseurs, perfumiers, adventure tour guides, martial arts experts, furniture makers, animal breeders and trainers, coiffeurs, auto customizers, cosmetic surgeons, web page designers, and the like will join their ranks.  Thus the prestige of the traditional arts of poetry, painting, sculpture, drama, music and so on will inevitably lose some of the cachet of exclusivity.  We will never again, perhaps, accord to artists the semidivine standing accorded in the nineteenth century to Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Goethe, Beethoven.  And no artist will be able, as the great modernists did, to scold the bourgeois public from the lofty sacerdotal heights of a Picasso, a Schoenberg, a Sartre, a Neruda, or an Artaud.  Already the poststructuralist artists, in their squabbles and gestures, have the quaint parochial flavor of the academy, and seem to us much as the bewigged freethinking rebels of the Enlightenment must have appeared to the Romantics.

As far as I am concerned, as a poet, this loss of status is no bad thing.  It was never good for us artists, I believe, to be treated as if we did not put on our pants one leg at a time.  It was bad for us morally, licensing sexual debauchery, alcoholism, drug addiction, and cavalier attitudes toward property and truthfulness.  It was not only bad for our souls but bad for our art.  Because we rejected the judgment of non-artists on our work, we were deprived of the input of confident public and private criticism by acknowledged judges, and the tension among the different requirements of an empowered audience, that provide the rich raw materials of a truly complex art.  Our patrons became arts bureaucrats, small press publishers, professors and curators, whose interests were in remaining the hired custodians and explicators of an otherwise incomprehensible artistic canon; rather than aristocrats, bishops, businessmen and ordinary people with some life outside the hothouse of aesthetic fashion.  The rigid barrier between “serious” and “popular” art, the union card of the avant garde, nurtured a specially corrupting snobbery, and the artificial obscurity of modernist art fed an arrogance that must always eventually shrivel the creative innocence of humility.

We can no longer believe, since the regimes of the painter Adolf Hitler and the poet Mao Zedong, that if artists were in charge the world would be a better place.  Artists are perhaps more likely to beneficially transform and enlighten individuals and society if they come to the public not as unaccountable judges and politico-moral brimstone preachers, but in a gentler, more self-mocking guise.  Mozart’s musicians, in charming frock coats and waistcoats, would have come into a ducal court without fuss, bowed unremarked by the company, and begun to play; the conversation would have subtly adapted itself to the rhythms, and from time to time a cadence of amazing sweetness would cast a wave of deeper spiritual life over the guests.  Giulietta Masina, in Fellini’s La Strada, the little clown who teaches wonder to us all, does so through a simple and sentimental tune played on a trumpet.  Cirque du Soleil is first-rate circus, but also first-rate dance, first-rate performance art.  Painters like David Ligare, F. Scott Hess, and Steve Assael conceal a grand Tolstoyan art behind the apparent ease and complaisance and cleverness of their virtuosity; not for them the dog-in-the-manger baleful “integrity” of the postmodern artist who scorns his own pictorial talent in order to punish his viewers.  Yoyo Ma is not ashamed to play Bach preludes to a performance by the skaters Torval and Dean.

Such artists wisely give over the great claims of Romantic and Modernist art, and in so doing anticipate, in my view, the much healthier role artists will play in the twenty-first century.  They are not ashamed to be beautiful: they know that the flawed but vital union of spiritual vision with bodily pleasure in craftsmanship is more valid than the sterile integrity of either extreme–the conceptual or abstract geometrical figure, or the dung of the Whitney or the Brooklyn Sensation show.  The most fatal form of artistic sentimentality is not kitsch but the fear of kitsch, the desire to be the untouched one, behind the expensive shades, the uninvolved critic of life who is too cool to feel.  As this century and this millennium near their ends a new breath is in the air, a new generosity, a new solidarity between artist and audience, high and low art, the commercial and the voluntary.