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VARIOUS TEXTS: American Culture and the Computer

..... Therefore, it is logical to conclude that America is in the earliest phase of its power. lt is not fully civilized. America, like Europe in the sixteenth century, is still barbaric (a description, not a moral judgment). Its culture is unformed. Its will is powerful. Its emotions drive it in different and contradictory directions.

Cultures live in one of three states. The first state is barbarism. Barbarians believe that the customs of their village are the laws of nature and that anyone who doesn't live the way they live is beneath contempt and requiring redemption1 or destruction. The third state is decadence. Decadents cynically believe that nothing is better than anything else. If they hold anyone in contempt, it is those who believe in anything. Nothing is worth fighting for.

Civilization is the second and most rare state. Civilized people are able to balance two contradictory thoughts in their minds. They believe that there are truths and that their cultures approximate2 those truths. At the same time, they hold open in their mind the possibility that they are in error. The combination of belief and skepticism is inherently unstable. Cultures pass through barbarism to civilization and then to decadence, as skepticism undermines self-certainty. Civilized people fight selectively but effectively. Obviously all cultures contain people who are barbaric, civilized, or decadent, but each culture is dominated at different times by one principle.

Europe was barbaric in the sixteenth century, as the self-certainty of Christianity fueled the first conquests. Europe passed into civilization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and then collapsed into decadence in the course of the twentieth century. The United States is just beginning its cultural and historical journey. Until now it has not been sufficiently coherent to have a definitive culture. As it becomes the center of gravity of the world, it is developing that culture, which is inevitably barbaric. America is a place where the right wing despises Muslims for their faith and the left wing despises them for their treatment of women. Such seemingly different perspectives are tied together in the certainty that their own values are self-evidently best. And as with all barbaric cultures, Americans are ready to fight for their self-evident truths.

......................................................

American culture preceded American computing. The philosophical concept of pragmatism was built around statements such as this by Charles Peirce, a founder of pragmatism: "In order to ascertain3 the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of that conception; and the sum of these consequences will constitute the entire meaning of the conception." In other words, the significance of an idea is in its practical consequences. An idea without practical consequences, it follows, lacks meaning. The entire notion of contemplative4 reason5 as an end in itself6 is excluded.

American pragmatism was an attack on European metaphysics on the grounds of impracticality. American culture was obsessed with the practical and contemptuous of the metaphysical. The computer and computer language are the perfect manifestations7 of the pragmatic notion of reason. Every line of code must have a practical consequence. Functionality is the only standard. That a line of code could be appreciated not for its use but for its intrinsic beauty is inconceivable8.

The idea of pragmatism, as it has evolved into languages like C++9, is a radical simplification and contraction of the sphere of reason. Reason now deals only with some things, all of which are measured by their practical consequences. Everything that lacks practical consequence is excluded from the sphere of reason and sent to another, inferior sphere. In other words, American culture does not deal easily with the true and beautiful. It values getting things done and not worrying too much about why whatever thing you are doing is important.

This gives American culture its central truth and its enormous drive. The charge against American culture is that it has elevated10 the practical beyond all other forms of truth. The charge is valid, but it also fails to appreciate the power of that reduction. It is in the practical that history is made.

If we look for the essence of American culture, it is not only in pragmatism as a philosophy but also in the computer as the embodiment of pragmatism. Nothing exemplifies American culture more than the computer, and nothing has transformed the world faster and more thoroughly than its advent. The computer, far more than the car or Coca-Cola, represents the unique manifestation of the American concept of reason and reality.

Computing culture is also, by definition, barbaric. The essence of barbarism is the reduction of culture to a simple, driving force that will tolerate no diversion or competition. The way the computer is designed, the manner which it is programmed, and the way it has evolved represent a powerful, reductionist force. It constitutes not reason contemplating its complexity, but reason reducing itself to its simplest expression and justifying itself through practical achievement.
827 words

Source: The Next 100 Years, A Forecast for the 21st Century, by George Friedman, Double Day 2009, New York etc., pp. 29 + 62/63

Annotations:
1. redemption - Ablösung
2. to approximate - sich nähern
3. to ascertain - bestimmen, feststellen
4. contemplative - kontemplativ, besinnlich, gedankenvoll
5. reason - logisches Denken, Verstand, Vernunft
6. end in itself - Selbstzweck 7. manifestation - Ausdruck, Manifestierung
8. inconceivable - unvorstellbar
9. C++ - eine standardisierte höhere Programmiersprache
10. to elevate - höher einstufen, bewerten


Assignments:
1. Explain what Friedman understands by the three stages of cultures. Include in your explanation how Europe has gone through these stages.
2. According to Friedman, American culture relies on the concept of pragmatism. Comment on this concept.
3. The idea of reason as Americans understand it is limited in its scope. Why is it limited?
4. The advent of computing reinforced the limited American concept of reason. Why?
5. Do you think that Friedman's distinction between European and American cultures is convincing? Take into account the British way of thinking and its influence on America.



amazon.de The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century
by
George Friedman
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