What’s Needed for Democracy

 

We are seeing more and more resistance to what is happening in Washington, D.C. Rebecca Solnit recently wrote, “Democracy thrives best in a society whose water is drinkable, whose schools impart a decent education, whose citizens have adequate incomes and hope for the future. People have less time, less energy, and fewer resources to participate in civic life when they lack reliable access to food and shelter, when they are overworked and scrambling to stay afloat, when they have been burdened with immense debt by the cost of an education or housing or health care, when they have been criminalized, marginalized, terrorized”; “Tyranny of the Minority,” Harper’s (March 2917), pp. 5-6.

We could add to this list that it is also essential to have access to government and corporate information in order to have transparency; read the Declaration of Independence and the original list of complaints against the King.

Think

Columnist Thomas L. Friedman, the author of a series of provocative books, has authored another timely one with his Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). He provides this brief statement about the book’s purpose: “In short, this book is one giant column about the world today. It aims to define the key forces that are driving change around the world, to explain how they are affecting different people and cultures, and to identify what I believe to be the values and responses most appropriate to managing these forces, in order to get the most out of them fir the most people in the most places and to cushion their harshest impacts” (p. 15). If we could locate someone in the Trump administration who actually reads, this would be a recommended reading.

In this long, richly textured tome, Friedman examines the primary drivers in the world economy, namely the market, nature (principally climate change), and the increasing power of digital technology at ever declining cost (Moore’s law). Unlike those now setting the agenda in Washington, D.C., Friedman looks ahead, trying to find positive ways of grappling with the many problems that come with a world changing at ever accelerating speed.

Friedman has a lot to say about the role of information technology. At one point, he reflects that it takes five to fifteen years for new laws and regulations to safeguard society from some of the new technologies, but by then these technologies may have come and gone. In characteristic fashion, Friedman states, “This is a problem” (p. 33). He also muses about the challenges of having algorithms in charge of everything, rather than people, an issue connected to our continuing fascination with Big Data.

However, it is not what he says about technology that is important, in my opinion. It is an argument that we need to pause and reflect – think – about the issues confronting us. Technology has become a tool for distracting us. We need to work on the ethical, moral, and legal issues we encounter – and there is no time like the present for us to reboot ourselves. This explains his book’s title – take a little extra time before plunging into the next meeting, scrolling through the Web, or taking on the next project.

Analog Revenge

Most of us have noticed, over the recent past, the re-emergence of older technologies, like paper, vinyl recordings, and film photography. David Sax, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter (New York: Public Affairs, 2016), charts this phenomenon and explains why it has happened. Sax explains that in such cases, like paper, that the older technology excels in fundamental ways that supports its existence even in the midst of the array of glittering digital technologies. How many Moleskine notebooks do you have? I possess at least half a dozen. They are not only functional, but they just look cool, especially along side my Apple laptop. This “notebook became a symbol of aspirational creativity, a product that not only worked well as a functional tool, but told a story about you, even if you never wrote on a single page” (p. 35). This is a collection of stories and first-hand accounts, documenting that consumers have desires that range far beyond the digital. For archivists, what is happening reminds us that there remains surprises in the consumer marketplace that work against the demise of older recording technologies. Some of Sax’s examples, such as the persistence of the printed book, often deemed to be dead, are quite compelling. In the case of the book, he says, “the reasons are simple: reading on paper is highly functional and almost second nature for us” (p. 111). I have thousands of books, and not just because I like them as artifacts; I mark them up, sort them, and use them as the spines of my class lectures and seminar discussions. And Sax reminds us that “Silicon Valley is an idealistic place” with a “soul and heart . . . intimately tied to the counterculture movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. When startup founders stand on stages at technology conferences and promise to change the world, their sentiment is genuine, and their belief in the transformational power of technology for good is downright religious” (p. 225). But our persistent use of older analog technologies suggests another kind of religious fervor for these older forms. Sax reminds us that life is a bit more complicated than in the promises made to us through the high-tech advertisers and true-believer pundits.

The Newton Papers

Despite the usually fascinating history of archives and manuscripts collections, we lack in the number of good studies. Sarah Dry, The Newton Papers: The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton’s Manuscripts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), is an exemplary example of the genre. Her book opens up with the sale and dispersal of Newton’s papers in 1936 at a Sotheby’s auction in London. She provides a good description of the scale of the materials, with a vast quantity of unpublished materials on a wide range of topics, such as religion and alchemy in addition to his better-known scientific ventures. The book provides insights into the creation of the documents. Newton was an “incessant” note-taker and constantly revising his work, leading to a characterization of the archives that certainly captures the sense of many other collections: “Ultimately – as generations of scholars discovered—Newton’s papers will always remain unfixed and unstable. The manuscripts abound in revisions.” He was his own life-long editor (p. 203).

We also get a good sense of archival work. Newton’s manuscripts represent a large and complex collection, capable of giving up secrets long after Newton’s death; the effort to catalog them was a long and complicated affair. Their nature slowed down their use by scholars, especially those who became involved in producing documentary editions. The history of the Newton materials is placed firmly within the context of development of archives, bibliomania, and the growth and obsession of manuscript collecting. Dry’s book is certainly a good case study about what happens when the fonds of one individual is scattered among private collectors and institutional repositories. But most of all we get a good sense of the importance of archives: “In among his drafts and revisions, we are as close to Newton as his pen was to paper” (p. 211). What a good way to describe why archives remain important to society.