Prologue: Against Apocalypse
Friday, May 9, 1997
|David Thorburn is Professor of Literature and Director of the
Communications Forum at MIT. He is the author of Conrad's
Romanticism and many articles on media and culture
and was the general editor of the book series, Media
and Popular Culture.|
|The digital revolution that is said to be
altering modern culture has generated competing visions
of apocalyptic transformation. In one recurring scenario,
we stand on the cusp of a technological utopia where
emerging communications systems foster participatory
democracy and give all citizens access to an infinite
range of commercial services, audio-visual texts, job
training, libraries, universities. The obverse of such
optimism envisions an on-line culture of chaos,
instability and greed in which pornographic images
corrupt children and challenge parental authority,
information is commodified and available only to those
who can pay, political discourse is balkanized by
extremist special interests, and human experience itself
is "denatured" or displaced by the virtual
reality of the computer screen.
Similar utopian and distopian visions were a notable feature of earlier moments of cultural and technological transition: the advent of the printing press, the development of still photography, the telegraph, the telephone, the motion picture, broadcast television. In these and other instances of media in transition the actual relations between emerging technologies and their ancestor systems proved to be more complex, often more congenial and always less suddenly disruptive than was dreamt of in the apocalyptic philosophies that heralded their appearance.
In our current moment of conceptual uncertainty and technological transition, there is an urgent need for a pragmatic, historically informed perspective that maps a sensible middle ground between the euphoria and the panic surrounding new media, a perspective that aims to understand the place of economic, political, legal, social and cultural institutions in mediating and partly shaping technological change.
Such an understanding of emerging communications technologies, at once skeptical and moderate, responsive especially to the civic or political ramifications of new media, is the aim of this conference and of the "Media in Transition" project as a whole.
In an arresting episode in Part Two of Don Quixote, Cervantes' hero descends into a cave in which he undergoes visions of love and war, in one of which a lovelorn knight has his heart cut from his body and salted to keep it fresh for his beloved.
This harsh, grotesque, mordantly comic vision reminds us that our freest and most necessary fantasies are rooted in the earth, in mortality, in the unheroic quotidian, in our "real" ordinary world.
Some such powerful check on our impulse to fly free of that reality, to underestimate or ignore it -- some such skepticism toward grand apocalyptic visions of what Lionel Trilling called "our late grim human present" -- is at the heart of my own interest in emerging technologies. It is also a guiding principle of the "Media in Transition" project.
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