Book Review: “Stranger Than We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the 20th Century” by John Higgs
Author: John Verdon, Ottawa.
Future Shock is alive and well – in fact it is safe to say that we are all refugees from our own childhood. And because the world is changing so rapidly it is difficult to understand just how profoundly the world has changed. There are many books looking at the future and even more looking at the past. Understanding the past doesn’t necessarily prepare us to understand the future – hindsight is not foresight. However, understanding history enables us to hear the rhymes in the past that may echo in the present and so help us to anticipate tomorrow’s mytho-poetry.
Understanding the rhymes of history is why I highly recommend a wonderful book that presents a brief and special history of the 20th Century, John Higgs’s “Stranger Than We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the 20th Century” This book contributes to a deeper, more mythic anticipation of the future. It is clearly written, accessible, insightful and perhaps even a profound analysis of the 20th Century.
To help us visualize the impact of the 20th Century on human culture Higgs uses a key, the concept of Omphalos. “An omphalos is the centre of the world or, more accurately, what was culturally thought to be the centre of the world.” (p.15) Another way to think about the Omphalos is as the ‘axis mundi’ – the world pillar that was the link between heaven and earth. With this concept Higgs is able to provide us with a rich account of how the 20th Century has radically ‘uncentered’ domain after domain of human thought and experience.
Much of the discussion about the future focuses on technology with some consideration of ethical and social implications. There are some attempts to explore the transformation of culture, psycho-socio experience and the concepts of identity – but most often the visions of future technology are simply overlaid on current – cultural constructs – with the exception of privacy.
In 1950 there were about 2.5 billion humans alive – that this means is there is hardly anyone alive today whose legacy of experiences refers to the world before the 20th Century’s marvel of techno-social change. The implementation of technologies such as universal electrification, households filled with appliances, ubiquitous tele-communication, refrigeration, plumbing, healthcare, the automobile and more – these we have taken in our stride. And in this way, it becomes clear why Alan Kay’s definition of technology as ‘everything that is invented after we are born’ is so salient.
More fundamentally, Higgs’ approach maps out the deeper layers – the more mythic cultural frames that have been displaced. Humans are biologically identical to those of the 19th Century – but a vast transformation of the psychological-cultural space in which we live has transpired over the several generations that have lived through the 20th Century.
A typical person alive in 1899 and transported to 2016 would not just suffer a shock from the technologies we take for granted – but would suffer a deeper sort of psychological vertigo from the loss of the ‘centers’ of the world that had held up both the pre-modern ‘God-given’ world and the modern ‘Clockwork universe’ (the simple transmutation of ‘God’ into machine-like natural laws). The shock of traveling on the first trains at 20 mph incited a claim that this experience would literally drive people ‘crazy’ – and I’m sure if the concept of PTSD were alive then there would have been cases of such speed induced PTSD.
Higgs argues that the ‘ground’ of the Victorian world’s ‘natural order’ was held by the ‘figure’ of the four solid axis mundi of Monarchy, Church, Empire and Newton. The certainty of this world was echoed by Lord Kelvin in 1900 “there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.’
A journey through the 20th Century can seem like an epic quest. The gallant adventurers who embark on the first wrestle with three giants, known by single names of Einstein, Freud, and Joyce. The must pass through the forest of quantum indeterminacy and the castle of conceptual art. The avoid the gorgons of Jean-Paul Sartre and Ayn Rand whose glance can turn them to stone, emotionally if not physically, and they must solve the riddles of the Sphinxes of Carl Jung and Timothy Leary. Then things get difficult. The final challenge is to somehow make it through the swamp of postmodernism. It is not, if we are honest, an appealing journey. P.6
The territory of the 20th Century includes the dark patches of thick, deep woods. The established paths tend to skirt around these areas, visiting briefly but quickly scurrying on as if fearful of becoming entangled. These are area such as relativity, cubism, the Somme, quantum mechanics, the id, existentialism, Stalin, psychedelics, chaos mathematics and climate change. p.9
Higgs adds an exclamation point by quoting Sir Arthur Eddington – ‘the universe would prove to be not just stranger than we imagine but stranger than we can imagine.’ This is a fundamental realization – one that bloomed throughout the 20th Century and is at the heart of the 21st Century.
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear. And the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.
Higgs begins by discussing the first ‘center-axis of the world’ that is dissolved as a consequence of Einstein and relativity and firmly establishing that there can be no ‘objective frame of reference’ for either perceiving the world or understanding it. Einstein’s framework produced the first fundamental crack in belief that certainty was achievable. This was the first blow against the God-Given world and its proxy of the clockwork world. We must remember that there was no fundamental conflict between early science and religion. The conflict was between the scholastic approach that relied on scriptures for truth of the world – versus learning God’s truth from his original book of nature.
Although a century has passed since Einstein destroyed the ‘objective frame of reference’ and proposed that space and time were really a unity of space-time socio-cultural frameworks still haven’t come close to integrating that realization within daily life. It is curiously hard to grasp how many of the pillars supporting our world have been shattered in the 20th century. For example some basic science breakthroughs that shatter the concept of a clockwork universe include:
- Einstein – that there is no objective frame of reference,
- Godel – the fundamental incompleteness of systems of formal logic,
- Quantum Mechanics’ – uncertainty principle and entanglement,
- Turing’s stopping problem,
- Chaos – the fundamental unpredictability of deterministic systems due to sensitivity to initial conditions,
- The displacement of a ‘physics worldview’ by biology-complexity science framework including the unpredictability of emergent properties
Even the concept of evolution is evolving – among numerous possibilities one recent article in Nautil.us by Philip Ball discusses some of the work in this area:
What Wagner is talking about is how evolution innovates: as he puts it, “how the living world creates.” Natural selection supplies an incredibly powerful way of pruning variation into effective solutions to the challenges of the environment. But it can’t explain where all that variation came from. As the biologist Hugo de Vries wrote in 1905, “natural selection may explain the survival of the fittest, but it cannot explain the arrival of the fittest.” Over the past several years, Wagner and a handful of others have been starting to understand the origins of evolutionary innovation. Thanks to their findings so far, we can now see not only how Darwinian evolution works but why it works: what makes it possible.
While many people have some familiarity with the developments in science, Higgs also covers in some detail the correlated developments in the domains where artists have engaged in ‘persistent attempts to destroy frames of reference’. The early examples include cubism in painting & painters such as Picasso, Braque, Dali, Kandinsky, Gauguin, others; musicians such Schoenberg, Stravinsky, others, and writers such as TS. Eliot, Ezra Pound and especially James Joyce. The list is much much longer. He also links the intellectual demands to grasp the emerging world of individualism the early modern spiritualist like George Gurdjieff, Aleister Crowley (Do what thou wilt – Is the whole of the Law), Blavatsky, and literary philosophers such Ayn Rand, and many others. Essentially Higgs correlates the artistic birthing of individualism.
But it wasn’t only art – the 20th century also began with Freud and Jung shattering the idea of a conscious self that has complete rational control. The decentering of the ‘rational self’ has continued despite a number of detours and the entrenchment of neo-liberal economic concepts. The work begun by early psychology has continued with a number of cognitive and behavioral scientists – including leading scientist such as Nobel Laureate in economics Daniel Kahneman. There are many others worthy of note including the work of George Lakoff who has established the fundamental role that metaphors, frames, and narratives play in structuring how humans reason. All of these scientists have established that human decisions are far from the control and direction of rational will. Humans are much less rational then they are rationalizing.
We need others, it turns out, in order to develop to the point where we’re able to convince ourselves that we don’t need others.
Neuroscientists have come to view our sense of ‘self’, the idea that we are a single entity making rational decisions, as no more than a quirk of the mind. Brain-scanning experiments have shown that the mental processes that lead to an action, such as deciding to press a button, occur a significant period before the conscious brain believes it makes the decision to press the button. This does not indicate a rational individual exercising free will. It portrays the conscious mind as more of a spin doctor than a decision maker, rationalizing the actions of the unconscious mind after the fact. As the Canadian-British psychologist Bruce Hood writes, ‘Our brain creates the experience of our self as a model – a cohesive, integrated character – to make sense of the multitude of experiences that assault our senses throughout our lifetime.’ p.309
Higgs has chapters on Uncertainty, Science Fiction, Space and Nihilism linking them in a compelling argument that these are all inter-related in our culture. Toward the end of the book he explores in separate chapters the domains of Sex and Teenagers and the massive experimentational generations who use art, music and drugs in ways unprecedented. He discusses the transformation sex as an object of cultural and individual liberation, of research, of a force used by marketing and rise of youth cohorts as both consumer markets and drivers of cultural and technological change.
The last chapter culminates the book with a focus on Networks and a planet of individuals. Essentially networks (and the digital environment emerging from them) decenter, dissolve, disrupt the hierarchy as the final pillar of social organization.
The network has not just reorganized the flow of information around our society. It has imposed feedback loops into our culture. If what we do causes suffering, anger or repulsion, we will hear about it. Where once we regulated our behavior out of fear of punishment by our Lord and master, now we adjust our actions in response to the buzzing cloud of verbal judgments from thousands of people. P.306
In the hierarchical kingdoms cultures of corruption accrete because the flow of information and knowledge is filtered – reducing complexity, to complication, to the simple and finally to the simplistic in order for the top layers to manage ever larger spans of interdependencies. The paradox of the network as exemplified by the Internet is that attempts to control the increasing torrent of information flow become exposed by the inherent transparency of the network itself. The very efficiency that the network enhances is biased by necessity (else one loses the efficiency) of transparency.
Any attempts to disguise these actions and impose secrecy within an organization affect that organization’s internal flow of information. This makes it less efficient, and therefore damages it. The wave of transparency will not be easily avoided. P.307
In the words of the American social physicist Alex Pentland, ‘It is time that we dropped the fiction of individuals as the unit of rationality, and recognized that our rationality is largely determined by the surrounding social fabric. Instead of being actors in markets, we are collaborators in determining the public good. P.308
Individualism trains us to think of ourselves as isolated, self-willed units. That description is not sufficient, either biologically, socially, psychologically, emotionally or culturally.
This digital generation, born after 1990, have grown up in a form of communal panopticon. It has altered them in ways that their parents don’t always appreciate. The older generation can view the craze for ‘selfies,’ for example, as a form of narcissism. Yet those self-portraits are not just attempts to reinforce a personal concept of the individual self. They exist to be observed and, in doing so, to strengthen connections in the network. The culture of the ‘selfie’ may seem to be about twentieth-century individualism, but only when seen through twentieth-century eyes. Those photographs only become meaningful when shared. P.310-11
The millennial generation are now competing with the entire planet in order to gain the power that the attention of others grants. But they understand that the most effective way to get on in such an environment is to cooperate. This generation has intuitively internalized the lesson of game theory in a way that the people of the 1980s never did. They have a far greater understanding of consequence, and connections, than their grandparents. They understand the feedback loops that corporations are still not beholden to. P.311
The 20th century did institute one new pillar – the domain of finance has become the central feature of global economic functioning However, centralize fiat currency may be peaking in the early 21st century with the advent of distributed ledger technologies. What Wittgenstein noted of language – that words only have meaning in the context of other words – now in the world of networks and the digital environment becomes a ubiquitous paradigm:
Legitimacy is something that needs to be justified in the networked world.
In the postmodern world, things made sense of themselves in isolation. In a network, things have context. Multiple perspectives are navigable and practical. This is the age of realpolitik individualism. System behavior is altered by changes of scale, as we have noted, and nowhere is that truer than with network growth.
If they were the same as the individuals of the twentieth century, then there would be little reason for hope, But they are not. As we can see from the bewildered way in which they shrug off the older generation’s horror at the loss of privacy, the digital native generation do not see themselves using just the straitjacket of individualism. -p.314
The network is a beheaded deity. It is a communion. There is no need for an omphalos any more. -p.315
Many people think of pre-modern, modern, and the postmodern as historical periods. Perhaps they are – but more saliently and most curiously is that are also ways of being in the world – states of being that exist almost simultaneously – the ardent atheist can in moments of despair silently cry ‘God help me’, we all of us point to the Sun going down (rather than look how the earth is turning), we count on a clockwork universe as a source of secure prediction. Post-modern in our capacity to assemble our aesthetics across history & cultures – absorb the aliens of the past and imaginable futures.
Are we near a tipping point? – a curious change in the conditions of change? One that is even deeper – broader – more fundamental than the beginning of the 20th Century?
The network also brings apparently unprecedented level of surveillance as well as sousveillance or co-veillance (bottom-up surveillance). It also brings unprecedented levels of collective choice and sharing of personal-community experience. The network has enabled a vast collective spectacle and self-organized action. This also creates of vastly pervasive permeable and transient identity – sense of self integrated within a dynamic, shape-shifting ecology of being.
Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow creates a concept of a ‘law of human existence – related to ‘personal density’ which is directly proportional to ‘temporal bandwidth’ – What he meant was that the sense of substantive self is related to the ‘width’ of one’s sense of presence – the width of one’s ‘now’. While Pynchon related this to the span-thickness of past-to-future – the network includes the span of one’s geographic space. Thus the wider in time-space one’s dwelling the more dense one is and the greater one’s bandwidth. Paradox of time-space-self. The converse is the narrower one’s time-space is the more tenuous one’s being is. Reducing one’s involvement with the past and future is inevitably a diminishment of self as a more tenuous sense of being.
Every technological change that seems to threaten the integrity of the self also offers new ways to strengthen it. Plato warned about the act of writing—as Johannes Trithemius in the fifteenth century warned about printing—that it would shift memory and knowledge from the inward soul to mere outward markings. Yet the words preserved by writing and printing revealed psychological depths that had once seemed inaccessible, created new understandings of moral and intellectual life, and opened new freedoms of personal choice. Two centuries after Gutenberg, Rembrandt painted an old woman reading, her face illuminated by light shining from the Bible in her hands. Substitute a screen for the book, and that symbolic image is now literally accurate. But in the twenty-first century, as in Rembrandt’s seventeenth, the illumination we receive depends on the words we choose to read and the ways we choose to read them.
Since the onset of the 21st century new concepts to describe the ‘self’ are arising, these include the integrational paradoxes of ‘responsible autonomy’ or ‘networked individualism’. Although Higgs doesn’t refer to him, McLuhan was pointing this out to us early in the second half of the 20th Century.
The electronically induced technological extensions of our central nervous systems, which I spoke of earlier, are immersing us in a world-pool of information movement and are thus enabling man to incorporate within himself the whole of mankind. The aloof and dissociated role of the literate man of the Western world is succumbing to the new, intense depth participation engendered by the electronic media and bringing us back in touch with ourselves as well as with one another. But the instant nature of electric-information movement is decentralizing — rather than enlarging — the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences.
Our whole cultural habitat, which we once viewed as a mere container of people, is being transformed by these media and by space satellites into a living organism, itself contained within a new macrocosm or connubium of a supraterrestrial nature. The day of the individualist, of privacy, of fragmented or “applied” knowledge, of “points of view” and specialist goals is being replaced by the overall awareness of a mosaic world in which space and time are overcome by television, jets and computers — a simultaneous, “all-at-once” world in which everything resonates with everything else as in a total electrical field, a world in which energy is generated and perceived not by the traditional connections that create linear, causative thought processes, but by the intervals, or gaps, which Linus Pauling grasps as the languages of cells, and which create synaesthetic discontinuous integral consciousness.
We confront a basic paradox whenever we discuss personal freedom in literate and tribal cultures. Literate mechanical society separated the individual from the group in space, engendering privacy; in thought, engendering point of view; and in work, engendering specialism — thus forging all the values associated with individualism. But at the same time, print technology has homogenized man, creating mass militarism, mass mind and mass uniformity; print gave man private habits of individualism and a public role of absolute conformity. That is why the young today welcome their retribalization, however dimly they perceive it, as a release from the uniformity, alienation and dehumanization of literate society. Print centralizes socially and fragments psychically, whereas the electric media bring man together in a tribal village that is a rich and creative mix, where there is actually more room for creative diversity than within the homogenized mass urban society of Western man.
I’m not claiming that freedom will be absolute — merely that it will be less restricted than your question implies. The world tribe will be essentially conservative, it’s true, like all iconic and inclusive societies; a mythic environment lives beyond time and space and thus generates little radical social change. All technology becomes part of a shared ritual that the tribe desperately strives to keep stabilized and permanent; by its very nature, an oral-tribal society — such as Pharaonic Egypt — is far more stable and enduring than any fragmented visual society. The oral and auditory tribal society is patterned by acoustic space, a total and simultaneous field of relations alien to the visual world, in which points of view and goals make social change an inevitable and constant by product. An electrically imploded tribal society discards the linear forward-motion of “progress.” We can see in our own time how, as we begin to react in depth to the challenges of the global village, we all become reactionaries.
Unfortunately, no society in history has ever known enough about the forces that shape and transform it to take action to control and direct new technologies as they extend and transform man. But today, change proceeds so instantaneously through the new media that it may be possible to institute a global education program that will enable us to seize the reins of our destiny — but to do this we must first recognize the kind of therapy that’s needed for the effects of the new media. In such an effort, indignation against those who perceive the nature of those effects is no substitute for awareness and insight.
The new technological environments generate the most pain among those least prepared to alter their old value structures. The literati find the new electronic environment far more threatening than do those less committed to literacy as a way of life. When an individual or social group feels that its whole identity is jeopardized by social or psychic change, its natural reaction is to lash out in defensive fury. But for all their lamentations, the revolution has already taken place.
This review hasn’t really done justice to this book and its journeys through the history of the 20th century. It is not a linear chronological elaboration of events or characters. It is however, a wonderful elaboration of the destructions of pillars that have held up the framework of the Western world. It exposes or suggests indications of the emerging mycelium of a new 21st Century framework – one that unsettles most of us.
The zeitgeist of 21st century is more than the millennialism – it is a sense of looming imminence, for example – the end-of-times-rapture, nuclear armageddon, climate change, the singularity of the rise of artificial intelligence and the complete transformation of human social fabric, the potential emergence of humanity 2.0 or a sense of ubiquitous uncertainty.
We are confronted in the 21st Century with a profound challenge that includes the need to develop new forms of reason. Reasoning that can reach beyond the syllogism, beyond entailing law. But we can’t regress into gut thinking and intuition. We need the development of rigor and imagination – evidence and meaning.
Higgs’ book give us a look at just how deeply our cultural assumptions have been rocked – a preparation to begin to grasp how the trajectory of the 21st century suggests a fundamental transformation of humanity, Higgs lays out is a vitally important perspective providing an initial ground for understanding the rise of a widespread sense of nostalgia (homesickness). A homesickness for a past that never truly was despite the fact that the accelerating pace of change transforms our sense of home before our very eyes.
Nostalgia is a term coined in the 17th century to describe physical symptoms experienced by Swiss mercenaries fighting in foreign lands. The physical symptoms were described as a result of a form of ‘melancholy’. For the Swiss mercenaries the symptoms included fainting, fever, indigestion, intestinal pain and death. Given what we now know about the importance of our microbial profile – these symptoms could have arisen as a result of new food and environments.
The challenge of nostalgia is pervasive – as the topology or our self-environment-geography is transforming within the digital environment into a connectography (see Parag Khanna’s Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization) – a mycelium of networks-of-being-becoming. The 21st Century’s digital environment represents a change in conditions of change – a singularity of connectography – of small worlds – of phase-transformation thresholds in density, flow, and connectedness. Ultimately, the technological dimension is also the cultural dimension – transition humanity toward new states of consciousness – and emerging possibilities of new senses and sensoriums. Not just a radical decentering of the Western mind-culture but a profound challenge of warp-speed future shock to other cultural-minds.
Future focused science is struggling with the paradoxical relationships of the virtual and the actual – the world of ontologically real possibles and their collapse into the world of actuals. The realization that the evolution of the biosphere is beyond efficient causality and requires new forms of understanding that can embrace ‘acausal’ conditions of change including enablement, Darwinian pre-adaptations, affordances, adjacent possibles, and exaptations – the quantum reality of superpositions and entanglement and promiscuous horizontal gene transfer – and of course the consequences of Moore-is-different.
Higgs’ book is not only well worth the read and is well worth a considered conversation.
Bio: John Verdun suffers an undisciplined mind as education in psychology, anthropology, sociology and philosophy suggests. A free-range thinker he forages in many domains including foresight, economics, complexity and technology. His current project is a book ‘The Wealth of People” – exploring theory and philosophy for flourishing human capital in the 21st Century