Lost innWonderlandnby Gregory McNameenDisappearing Through thenSkylight: Culture and Technologynin the Twentieth Centurynby O.B. Hardison, Jr.nNew York: Viking Press;n389 pp., $22.95nIt’s a brave new world out there.nFactory workers are made of metalnand plastic; money, an increasingly abstractnproposition, is made and lost notnin workshops and fields but on flickeringnscreens; databases grind through a millionnmainframes, assembling your biographynand mine to a fantastic degree ofndetail; food is synthetic, and only dinosaursnlack microwave ovens in which tonnuke it to edibility; half the countryncan’t place the Soviet Union on a mapnbut can direct-dial a telephone numbernin Moscow in a minute’s time. Thenelectronic age is upon us, and we arenscarcely able to fathom the enormousnchanges it portends.nO.B. Hardison, Jr. wants to help. Anprofessor of English literature, like thenclairvoyant Hugh Kenner and MarshallnMcLuhan, and former director of thenFolger Shakespeare Library, Hardisonnhas now set up shop as a futurist. He isnexcited by the effects of all this newfangledntechnology on the arts — and onnour culture, our souls.nHis new book. DisappearingnThrough the Skylight, abounds in thatnexcitement, and, if Hardison bites offnmore than he or his readers can comfortablynchew, he does not apologizenfor it. Instead, he takes us on a whirlwindn’tour of the history of the futuren— that is, of 20th-century developmentsnleading to today’s electronicnwonderland — that dizzyingly spinsnfrom subject to subject: architecturalnsemantics, artificial intelligence, mathematicalnbiology, the Dada movementnin the arts, and the politics of thenmachine. The result is an often incoherentnbut thought-provoking excursionninto the new and unknown.nTechnology, Hardison writes, can bena liberating force, freeing workers fromnthe drudgery of the assembly line andndouble-entry bookkeeping. (He doesnnot, however, go on to say that techno­nlogical advantages are generally held bynthe very few, nor that all the timesavingnmachines surrounding us have increasednthe typical American workweeknfrom forty to sixty hours.) It isnalso a universalizing power, one thatnsubtly erases the diflFerences between,nsay, a Holiday Inn in Schenectady andnone in Singapore. (Daniel Boorstinncomplained about the process thirtynyears ago in The Image: the samensunlamp in the bathrooms, the samenchocolate on the pillows, the samenpaper umbrellas in the same greenndrinks.) Independent of cultural values,nthe new technology permits anMcDonald’s hamburger restaurant tonarise near Gorky Park, a Madonnanvideo to entertain children in Dar esnSalaam.nIts universalizing force can diminishndifferences between human beings asnwell, perhaps lessening their individualitynand certainly compromisingntheir value in the economic machine.nThanks to the new technology, it isnnow cheaper for Ford Motors to manufacturensome car parts in Korea, othersnin the Philippines, and still others innBrazil, all to be assembled on thenMexican border; it is now more costeffectivenfor an American airline companynto process tickets for a NewnYork;to-Chicago direct flight in computerizednoffices in Ireland and thenLesser Antilles. Given no shortagenworidwide of cheap labor and easyntechnological access to it, small wondernthat American workers are scramblingnto keep even something of the standardnof living they enjoyed ten years ago.nBut for Hardison these are passingnmatters, since he is more interested innexploring how scientific ideas penetratenpopular culture than in consideringnthe displacements they may cause,nthe shock waves they may send off. Ancentury ago, John Rockefeller, havingncaught wind of Darwin along with thenrest of the industrialized world, wasnfond of saying, “The growth of a largenbusiness is merely the survival of thenfittest.” Today, words like megabytenand parameter fill the air, bandiednabout by citizens in white lab coats andnmechanic’s overalls — and also, Hardisonnpoints out, by artists and writers,nfor whom it was not so long agonfashionable to shun any contact withnthe new and metallic.nHere Hardison shines. In the latennn19th century, he notes, French writersnall but rose up in arms over the EiffelnTower, an engineering feat that, AlexandrenDumas protested, “even thencommercial America would reject.”nToday their Parisian counterparts exaltnthe glass pyramid that fronts thenLouvre, speak adoringly of the plasticnand metal playhouse that is the CentrenPompidou. T.S. Eliot’s The WastenLand, written during the First WorldnWar, is “an expression of bafflement; ankind of silence, you might say,” in thenface of technological horror; today ournrequired reading is Philip K. Dick’s DonAndroids Dream of Electric Sheep?nand Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum,nwhose secret hero is a personalncomputer.nThe arts are no longer predominantlynmodernist, opposed to technology,nreliant on individual craft, informednby the classical European past.nThey are modern, often collectivelynproduced, generated by word processorsnor light pens, ahistoric. Hardisonnseems to think this condition is wellnand good, that the “disappearances” ofnartistic and cultural elites “completenthe democratization of art begun bynDada.” Anyone, he seems to be saying,ncan be an artist—provided, hendoes not add, that the right technologicalngoodies, still expensive enough tonkeep them a province of political andnfinancial elites, are at hand.nHardison’s vision of an exoticallynhappy future, populated by intelligentnrobots and electronic artists, full ofninteractive novels and vaulting skyscrapers,nwill not be to everyone’s taste;nand in any event, the jury is still out onnwhether such trifles as global deforestationnwill throw a monkey wrench intonthe works. His book, punctuated bynone gee-whiz after another, is nonethelessnprovocative reading, if only becausenit demonstrates so clearly hownclosely linked once separate worlds —nthe arts, finance, languages, politics,nand technology — have now become.nThe question remains whether whatnwe think of as the best of our presentnculture will indeed disappear throughnthe skylight, or simply sink into anglittering mire.nGregory McNamee is senior editor atnthe^ University of Arizona Press innTucson.nJULY 1990/43n