Every civilization is measured not by the culture it offers its denizens, but by the one it imposes upon them. So, though the Soviet 1920s harboured a Boris Pasternak, or, say, the American 1990s a Tom Wolfe, this will mean less to a future historian than, say, collective farms or electronic games.
Electronic games had not been a consummation devoutly wish’d for the citizens of the United States before the invention hit the market. There had not been “demand” – to use the magic phrase that justifies the tabloid pun in my title – for them, other than the inchoate longing for entertainment common to all mankind. It is how a civilization channels such longings that determines its place in history, as well as the likelihood of its survival in the long term.
My wife is a concert pianist, and it has occurred to me that a mere century ago Western civilization imposed a grand piano upon every middle-class household with the same degree of ubiquity that, a generation hence, made Ford a trademarked byword of freedom and, three or four generations later, made every man alive a chattel of the computer. At the heart of each of these epochal transformations lay a myth rather than any “demand” apostrophized by Adam Smith and his intellectual progeny, a myth of liberty and leisure. For the freedom to transport oneself from Manhattan to Greenwich, Connecticut, in time for highballs, like the pleasure of interactive pornography promised to us by the Internet, is in truth a very real kind of bondage.
The transition from the grand piano to the affordable automobile to the indispensable computer is symptomatic of the increase of social control over the life of the individual. The choice before a middle-class family circa 1914 was whether to play classical Beethoven or newfangled Fauré, and their decision reflected the extent to which they were being interfered with, manipulated and moulded, by their culture. Fifty years later, a similar family had almost no choice as to whether or not to own a car, while in 2014 not having a computer in the house is far more than unthinkable – it is all but illegal, like not having a driver’s license or a bank account.
“The depth of your mythology,” to quote one John C. Maxwell, an American evangelical charlatan and business-consciousness-raising pander who seems to know a thing or two about such stuff as dreams are made on, “is the extent of your effectiveness.” However crudely worded, his aphorism is to the point. It topples the entire edifice of progressive thinking in economics founded upon The Wealth of Nations.
“Mythology,” not “demand,” is the engine of progress. What kind of culture has been responsible for what kind of myth – the one that imposed on our grandfathers the piano or the one that imposes on us the computer – is what future historians of the epoch will be deciding.
If by then there remains the individual freedom for any such vocation as history, that is. It may well be that they will all be busy being pornographically interactive, or else playing Bop It Blast 5, instead.