Monday, December 18, 2006

The Death of Literature, The Adolescence of Technology, and the Birth of a New Art

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Arthur C. Clarke (1917 - ), "Profiles of The Future", 1961 (Clarke's third law)

It wasn't too long ago that a liberal arts education said that you were well-rounded, intelligent, literate. A leader. Now it says you couldn't decide on a major, plan to be a student until you're 35, and will be grossly underemployed. In the nostalgic haze of, say, the 30's, you hear archeology department at an Ivy League school, you think 'Indiana Jones'. Today, you think 'Van Wilder'. A favorite semi-truism in Iowa City, IA, home of the University of Iowa (one of the highest per-capita cities of Masters' Degree holders in the country): "You know the last thing they teach in Graduate School? They teach the best way to say 'You want fries with that?'" And I first heard this from the Chair of a prominent U of I department.

My niece Kamryn (she's the one without the beard) is learning Spanish and French, as well as reading, writing, problem solving, and the ability to troubleshoot a malfunctioning computer. Oh yeah, and she just turned five. I'm a college educated, Mensa-qualified, well-read English Lit major who has taught Shakespeare in college. And my five year old niece can count in Spanish higher than I can. Not to mention can probably locate as many South and Central American countries on a map as I can (Damn you, Dora The Explorer). Yeah, well, I'd like to see Kammy conjugate a verb or write a scene in Iambic pentameter.

The point here is that there's been a sea change in what as well as how, we teach, and the subsequent value we put on the other stuff. At the risk of this morphing into another of those tired "things were so much better in MY time..." whines, literature is a curiosity. Television, in its infancy, tried to bridge the gap between the staid, "professional" news and entertainment industries, with "Playhouse Theatre" shows that showed live-to-tape stage productions, and the heyday of the respected news anchor, from Edward R. Murrow to Walter Cronkite.

Somewhere just past the Apollo 11 moon landing, with all of it's Cold War Space-Race results, and the increasingly complex arms race, the world, and most of all America, began to focus like a hyperactive ferret-on-cocaine, that is, on anything and everything that moved faster, farther, and smaller. Phones that were "mobile" went from being on a cord hardwired in your car, to being carried in a bag, to itty bitty gadgets you can talk on while taking a picture while listening to music while driving a car. And it's everywhere, from computers in preschools to bluehairs on bluetooths (blueteeth?).

Quality today is quantifiable. You judge the newest technology by how fast it goes. By how small it is. By how many tasks can be multitasked into the smallest (and thereby, most portable) container. Online Universities advertise online for people to learn how to program more online University website ads. It's a vortex of technology teaching more technology. Call me paranoid (and you wouldn't be the first), but I keep waiting for Keanu Reeves to show up at my door and tell me Morpheus wants to see me.

Best-selling books are either warm and fuzzy or tough love self-help tomes, or they're tell-alls about what the butler saw through the keyhole. Or they're mile-a-minute thrillers with the mystery du jour plot (du jour right now is, of course, anything Jesus/Mary Magdalene related that wants to be scandalous). Short attention span theatre, along with whatever you can do for me today. I fully realize that many, if not most, of what has been considered classic literature for a lot of years was, in its creator's time, under appreciated. But it scares me that in a hundred years, my great-great grandson might be faced with an opportunity to purchase a first edition Dr. Phil for a thousand dollars.

How many people with advanced degrees (Besides the ones with English Lit majors) today know what Juliet was really asking when she quoted one of Shakespeare's most famous lines: "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo"? And I'll give you a tidbit you can probably win a bar bet with - back in the day, wherefore was 'why', not where. She wasn't looking for Romeo (hence her surprise when he calls up to her), she was asking rhetorically, why he had to be a Montague, of all people. The one family her family has been feuding with for years. Does knowing this little factoid help you in any way, shape, or form? Certainly not in any quantifiable way. But if you ever see or read "Romeo and Juliet", you might understand one tiny part of a piece of great literature, just a bit better. Knowledge, any knowledge, used to be useful for no other reason than it was knowledge. Now it needs to be useful knowledge. Moving to a point knowledge. Life is too fast and too important to dwell on things that just sound good. Or look good. Or make you think.

Some people like to just listen to good jazz. Or blues. Not to dance to, or to get psyched up to, just for the 'feel' of the music. I read for that reason. Shakespeare, Marlowe, Swift, Hobbes (both philosopher Thomas and the cartoon tiger), Dickens, Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dr. Seuss. And so many more.

And yet, as miserably depressed as I can get about the state of art and literature nowadays, there passes before my eyes periodically (as I browse the bedeviled technology Internet for hours at a time) evidence of the new art. The techno-art. The Computer Aided Drawing stuff (I love the fact that this piece of technology's acronym is cad. It somehow seems appropriate). The picture under the 'About Me' title above was done on a computer. Courtesy of Visual Paradox (Copyright 1999-2006 by Brian Kissinger). Mr. Kissinger has gallery after gallery of incredible art. Fractal geometry, Computer Generated Imagery (cgi just doesn't have the Edwardian flair that cad does).

It is the new art, and while it's still a bit antiseptic for me, perhaps it is in a phase of evolution. Machine becoming something more. Something with a life to it. Something with a soul. I don't mind the idea of the machines taking over the world quite as much if I can think of it converting digital files to music. Converting bits to pictures. Creating life from lifelessness.