Saturday, February 19, 2011

20th Century 20 - 20

The argument could easily be made that the 20th century saw the end of many great things. Great, not in terms of their joyous elements, but in terms of their importance. Fascism. Steam power. Communism. The defining qualities of the 1800s. At the same time many of the incipient 19th century technologies ballooned in unforeseeable ways.

If you were to ask students in schools today what was the best invention of the 20th century many would probably say cell phones. But I suspect 'the internet' would be the next most popular.

Maybe video games.

Video games aside, however, cell phones and the Internet are the latest telecommunications developments. Of the two one is more important for teens, while the other is more important for the world.

Tim Berners-Lee is a nicely fitting last installment, since the Internet is the most recent of all of these developments. In 1978 James Burke said the eight most important things of the 20th century were: the modern production line, Atomic weapons, plastic, rockets, television, the jet engine, computers, and telecommunications. The last two he is most speculative about, but certain that they will be game-changers for the next century. Their combination, however, was not yet thought of.

Berners-Lee, in 1990, sent information over the internet. Shortly thereafter he put up the first web page, teaching others how to do the same. While the walls of the iron curtain were coming down, the World Wide Web was being set up. The idea was simple enough. The consequences were devastating.

How much information is on the internet now? As of 2009, about 500 exabytes. That's 500 quintillion bytes. Or 1 million terrabytes. But that was 2009. Now we've more than a zetabyte: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes of information. Times that by three and you have the amount of information Americans consumed last year.

The internet was born of a good idea, a combination of existing notions and technologies. It will undoubtedly, excluding perhaps the atomic bomb, be the driving technology of the first part of the 21st century. It has fundamentally changed information, communication, our neural processing, and much more. But we are like Burke, gropingly trying to guess where the next great innovation will come from.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

20th Century 20 - 19

The 20th century saw many epic battles searing across continents. But not all of these were blood and flames. The most inspiring was the general march of human rights. Sometimes, these too, were violent, as scarring and monstrous as war when the aggressors refused to honor human dignity.

But repeatedly, consistently, the century saw the fighters for human freedom win: whether fighting for voting rights or self-governance, to basic liberties from being second-class citizens and discriminated against on racial grounds.

Who can possibly sum up these struggles? All of the local leaders, from King to Mandela, Gandhi to Guevara, were seen as inspirations to others. The Unknown Rebel, standing in front of the tanks rolling towards Tienanmen Square may not have a name, but is immediately inspiring.

There is one document that gives me more hope for humanity, though, than any other. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is, as one of its principal creators Eleanor Roosevelt called it, “the Magna Carta of our time.”

Within the United States Roosevelt had fought for women and for African Americans during the 1930s and 1940s. But her time at the fledgling UN, as the first Chairperson of the UN Commission on Human Rights was her grandest role: she would show the world what the UN was capable of and stood for. The tone set in this document would be critical for the freedom and struggles around the globe.

The Universal Declaration is still unfulfilled. Many countries still aren't free. Even those with decent records can make poor and painful choices, as the United States did during the first years of this century under George W. Bush. Whenever civil rights, liberties, and freedoms are suppressed, for anyone, it is a blow to Roosevelt's vision. When an assassin took the life of Harvey Milk or Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest, these are as detrimental, and damaging, as wiretapping and torture.

When, on the other hand, a new South Africa emerged which tolerated all people regardless of any factors as equals, it shows how powerful and enduring the testament has become, and what gains it can achieve through international standards, pressure, and the advancement of a humane humanity.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

20th Century 20 - 18

A few hundred year ago the Europeans started using the lateen sail. The lateen sail could allow you to sail against the winds and therefore could leave port when you want.

The compass was a radical invention for navigators because it allowed sailors to sail at night and not have to rely on star charts. It was also critical for doubling the seasons of sailing – allowing you to sail in the overcast winter and not just the summer months.

With these inventions the Age of Exploration was possible, and world profits flooded into the European continent.

Fully 40% of the world's production rate is due to another such seasonal breakthrough, like the ones sailing had benefited from: air conditioning. As an author points out, without air conditioning:

“the deep-sea fishing industry would be deep-sixed; Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel would deteriorate; rare books and manuscripts would fall apart; deep mining for gold, silver and other metals would be impossible; the world's largest telescope wouldn't work; many of our children wouldn't be able to learn; and in Silicon Valley, the computer industry would crash.”

So give your respects to Willis Carrier, the inventor of modern air conditioning. The latter examples are how aircon got its start: besides reduced output due to overheated people, overheated machines were the major beneficiaries of Carrier. Our mechanical economy would break down without it.

Or you could just take the demon Azrael's approach: “No pleasure, no rapture, no exquisite sin greater... than central air.” Perhaps. But without it the fates of whole countries would still be tied to shorter working hours and siestas. Fair trade-off?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

20th Century 20 - 17

How many quizzes do you take a year? And which ones do you take seriously?

Some people probably take a magazine relationship quiz to heart, but most of us don't. How about one that determines if you're a special needs student?

Or the SAT?

Archimedes applied numbers to experiments. When he stepped in a tub of water he saw the water level rise. So had thousands of others, maybe millions. But Archimedes assigned a number to that rise in water level, then came up with a formula, and a predictive model. Archimedes quantified the natural world. Without this critical connection science would not be possible.

Alfred Binet applied this principle to psychology and intelligence, while a professor at Stanford, Lewis Terman, popularized it. The Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale is more commonly known as an IQ test.

Not surprisingly, given 20th century trends, the IQ was originally intended for education. The SAT really is the child of Binet. It was given to soldiers in WWI. Its descendants are obsessed over the world over. In many societies your test will determine your future. Better memorize those formulas.

The idea is as old as the Confucian bureaucracy in China, many thousands of years, that is. But as in that case, some have always been quick to point out that test scores show you only one thing: how well you take the test. Correlations to intelligence, merit, or whatever, are not being shown. That's why so many of those meritorious Chinese ended up corrupt or leading coups against their leaders. It seems that being able to discuss the Annals had little effect upon being a good leader, after all.

As we've learned with data input and computers, you only get out what you put in. A developmental psychologist related to me how a few years back one of these aptitude tests designed to get steadily more difficult ended up with most people flunking question three. Out of two hundred questions, that's a pretty big mistake, and it threw things off for a whole year of students, just as each year the SAT seems to need to throw one or two questions out (although that's seemingly getting rarer).

Binet never intended any of this. Terman, however certainly did. But his goal was more in line with eugenic purposes. A grave reminder of the danger of assigning a person a number.

Friday, February 11, 2011

20th Century 20 - 16

Many inventions and innovations go nowhere. Some technologies simply aren't marketed properly, or are prohibitively expensive, or aren't in demand.

David Sarnoff oversaw a critical little business right when it was being developed. That business was radio.

At RCA Sarnoff came up with a great new idea: a Radiola that broadcast, not to an individual like a telephone, but to many people at once. He thought music would be a good idea.

The first two major radio broadcasts he was involved with, though, were of the Titanic disaster, in real time, and a prizefight between boxers. Real time communication throughout the States. From the Scopes trial to the present, this technology has only increased in importance.

Within Sarnoff's radio revolution is the kernel of the 24-hour news, live coverage of the Gulf War, and an increasing importance on who does the presenting, since everyone in the country would be getting the same information. We now expect to know what is going on everywhere, despite very great distances, all the time.

When the war was over radio was slowly being replaced by television. So he updated his company, NBC, to stay relevant. The National Broadcasting Company was aptly named, for Sarnoff had simply pulled the same trick that had worked for radio by bringing in a mass audience through an entertainment network. As such people all over would not only hear but watch the same thing.

A shared culture, based out of New York, emerged. E.D. Hirsch has made a career out of tracking what television tells us all is important. But the story could have been different without Sarnoff. The country-spanning networks were incredibly important for shared ideas and copied to global effect around the world. Using radio and television to link people, rather than for specialized purposes, is an achievement that leads both to Sesame Street and Network. Whichever way it goes, we'll all go.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

20th Century 20 - 15

How to start this?

I've been so thoroughly integrated into a particular world view that stepping out is almost monstrous to me. You might as well ask me to try and get inside the head of a Roman spectator gleefully shrieking at the gladiatorial games. I don't get it.

A world before birth control. A whole society of women who did not get to choose their sexual activities. Condoned rape in the home?

It is as barbaric a thought, to me, as the trident slicing open a captive in the Italian sun.

Margaret Sanger helped educate women about family planning, and went on to found Planned Parenthood. She was also instrumental in the development of the contraceptive pill.

Sanger's battles were often legal. It wasn't until the early 1970s that partners not married to each other could legally use contraceptives. How ridiculous is that? Besides the legal issues there were deep-rooted moral, and of course religious, controversies.

She also tackled the issue of abortion, which was a horrific practice before she, and many like her, started to campaign to make it legal and regulated.

It's a testament to her work that nowadays none of the young men I know have any doubts as to who calls the shots in sex. The umpteen-thousand years of male sexual supremacy and female subjugation are finally reversing and stabilizing. Death due to childbirth is all but gone, and is receding in the poorer countries.

Planned Parenthood is now in 189 countries, and not a moment too soon. With HIV/AIDS destroying many countries there's never been a greater need for intelligent sexual education and contraceptive use. Those places that still resist and make women's bodies property, not surprisingly, are precisely those that deny their citizens many other rights. So it has become the world norm that women's sexual freedom is seen as fundamental as freedom of religion, or speech. Who'd have thought a century ago such a revolution would occur?

Monday, February 7, 2011

20th Century 20 - 14

Most of the stuff we consume, from soda to plastic bags, has some corn in it. Corn makes up a vast, vast array of supermarket stuffs. So where does all this corn come from?

A field, of course. A monotonous, green and yellow field. What this field doesn't have is earworms. Not the slang term for a catchy tune, but a pest that eats corn. These pests, like many, have been eradicated with pesticides.

Chemical fertilizers and pesticides make agribusiness possible. The Monsanto Corporation is the largest in the U.S., and not surprisingly it makes two things: genetically modified organisms, and pesticide.

When the issues of agribusiness were just beginning it took a naturalist to alert the world of the dangers of unchecked profit-seeking mixing with human wellness. 'The bottom line' often leads to horrible consequences for consumers: from the need for the FDA to regulate meatpacking to the yearly recalls of lead-infused goods or eggs, or anything else.

DDT was a pesticide used to kill mosquitoes. No one likes mosquitoes, but DDT had a severe flaw: it didn't kill the pests instantly, and so sometimes a sprayed mosquito would be consumed by something, usually birds.

Rachel Carson tracked down cases of DDT problems with the tenacity of an undercover journalist, writing up her findings in the landmark Silent Spring. Birds effected by DDT were dying, and their eggshells were thinning. Humans were getting sick. Pigs. All manner of life was being effected by what had been hailed as a great improvement.

Carson, perhaps for the first time, showed that what had been universally hailed as a boon could harm as well. Because of her work consumers think twice about consumption (hopefully) and the world's agribusiness has had some accountability. Still, though, no earworms to be found in those cornfields. And fertilizers haven't been watched nearly as carefully. There is a lot of work to be done, yet. Carson just took the first step.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

20th Century 20 - 13

Philo T. Farnsworth. Not an easily recognized name. When he went on the tv show I've Got a Secret the contestants failed to guess his secret.

He invented television.

The basic idea he worked out early, and it should be noted that his was the most successful electronic television, thanks to his video camera tube. Beyond the technical, however, Farnsworth created a device that the average American family greedily spends 50 hours a week with.

Television is the great entertainer. I worked with teachers who, going to visit their students in abysmal trailers and shacks, were bowled over to see that, even though their student may be wearing soiled clothes, the family had a big screen tv. It makes sense though: this device is a babysitter, therapist, and source of news in one. And that's not all...

As for the role of television in modern life, Farnsworth turned his back on his invention. He thought it was being used for rubbish, which it honestly is most of the time. He seemed to have changed his tune, though, with the broadcast of moon landing.

“I find television very educating. Every time some turns the set on I go in the other room and read a book.” This, from Groucho Marx who it must be said profited from the box's exploitation.

Personally I stumbled, literally, across the place of Farnsworth's genius. Trying to get to an evening engagement I found myself in a back alley at the base of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. I saw a plaque on the side of a warehouse-type building that recorded this site was where television had been invented.

I hurried on.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

20th Century 20 - 12

Most historians cite the modern world starting with the French Revolution overturning the entrenched systems of aristocracy, religion, and so forth. Art historians often cite Manet's Luncheon on the Grass, from 1863, as the beginning of modern art.

Now, you may have a few special pieces of furniture that have been passed down to you. You easily spot them in a room since they look so much bulkier or ornamental from everything else. The idea of sleek, functional, straight-line furniture and design does not belong to Le Corbusier alone. But he is a great representative of the movement.

Consider another modern architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright's buildings stick out due to their bold designs, like the Guggenheim in New York. Le Corbusier instead went for the International Style: the modern skyscraper owes a great deal to Corbusier's simple functionalism.

Like Wright he played with concrete, and unlike Wright, his concrete buildings gained acceptance and showed that by exposing the basics of a structure you need not sacrifice its beauty. From helping design the UN headquarters to projects at Harvard, Tokyo, Baghdad, and his adopted France, along with many others, Corbusier gave the international style a longer permanency on the landscape than other movements like Art Deco. He also stuck with it much longer than others like Gropius.

Eventually the International style lost the beauty and was replaced with the soulless monuments we see around us. Consider the UN headquarters – it would be inspiring if it was the only one that looked like it. But as tens of thousands appear like it across the world the luster wanes.

Not surprisingly, then, his work as a city planner left behind architecturally marvelous, but rather harsh cities. As modern architecture goes, even as it is now finally starting to distance itself from the unyielding utilitarian functionalism, Le Corbusier can take much credit for a century of buildings.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

20th Century 20 - 11

Fire buckets have been around since there have been buckets.


The first assembly line? Great Britain. In the 1700s.

But it was Henry Ford who created the automated assembly line. And minimum wage. And the V8.

The modern vision of a factory is miles away from Lowell, Massachusetts. We think of robotic arms and conveyor belts. Often they are building imaginary cars. Ford, in reality, created the world's most popular single car, the Model T, which at one point comprised half of the world's auto industry.

Apparently he wasn't a pleasant person. Nor was his management of Ford particularly adept, as he suffered from paternalism. Ford's assembly line, though, made the 20th century so very monotonous. Like his “any color so long as it's black” theory of cars, an assembly line can produce neither innovation or change. When they do it is a breakdown in the system, and the product is a mutant or defective.

Hundreds of students have been asked by me to empty their pockets. I ask them to do this to show that the stuff, seemingly individual, that they carry around is all mass-produced, replicas indistinguishable from millions of others. Nearly everything we interact with in the day is a replica, an assembly line copy.

The precise stuff of the world, like Ford's cars in the first quarter of the century, can't be one-off affairs. Cars had been made that way for decades, and weren't getting anywhere fast. In 1900 the bicycle was also relatively new, and the subject of amazement at how fast and freeing it was. Only when Ford made minimum wage a reality, and tried to grow the middle class would the car be an acceptable alternative to the bike.

As the riddle goes: "Who has the largest room in the house? Who is always full, never left hungry?" The car.

Why do you go to work? To make money. What do you spend it on? Maintaining your car. What does it do? Take you to work.