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Month: November 2019

Ruling the Waves: A Saecular Breakdown

Ruling the Waves: A Saecular Breakdown

I’ve posted before about “books from the Third Turning that I didn’t get around to until the Fourth Turning.” Waiting on the bookshelf for some time has been Ruling the Waves, by Debora L. Spar. This book is subtitled “a History of Business and Politics along the Technological Frontier” and in the introduction discusses the Internet a bit. It was published in 2001 (pre-9/11!), when the commercial Internet was young and Web 2.0 was just getting going. The book was hoping, then, to shed some light on what was to come in the development of cyberspace.

The author has a premise that when a ground-breaking new technology is introduced, it goes through four phases of development before becoming a commonplace part of everyday life on which we depend. First there is the invention phase, involving just a few people, and then the entrepreneur phase, where risk-takers develop the new technology commercially. Next is what she calls a period of “creative anarchy,” when the most successful entrepreneurs battle for supremacy in the marketplace, and finally the rulemaking phase, where those who now dominate the technology application push for a fixed legal structure within which to operate.

She goes through different waves of technology, and I was interested to see how what she describes compares to Strauss & Howe saecular theory. The first wave Spar analyzes is the wave of advancements that led to the Age of Discovery – but this happens over a long period of time (centuries) so bringing saecular theory into it seems difficult. The next technological wave was that of the telegraph, and here it is easier to do the analysis.

I was half-expecting to find that the Gilded generation were major players in the drama of the development of the telegraph, since they are the Nomad generation of the Civil War Saeculum. After all, the Nomad generation of the current saeculum, my generation, has had a big part to play in the rise of Internet technology. But what I found is that the the main players in the story (looking at the U.S. part of it) were all from two generations – Compromise and Transcendental. The Gilded are nowhere to be found, probably because they were too young.

The narrative of the development of the telegraph did track pretty well with the turnings of the Civil War Saeculum, however. The invention period occurs at the end of the Transcendental Awakening, the 2nd turning. It involves two key players, Samuel Morse (b. 1791, Compromise Generation) of course, and Alfred Vail (b. 1807, Transcendental Generation), who worked closely with Morse. The idea of transmitting electricity over wires had been known about for decades; their genius was in combining the transmission with encoding, to create information. They managed to get some public backing through Congress to build a line, but the enterprise failed.

So then came the entrepreneurs to buy them out, and build a private enterprise instead. A key player was Amos Kendall (b. 1789, Compromise), a former postmaster general who left his position specifically for this purpose. He proved that it was possible to raise funds privately to build a telegraph line, and once the public caught on to what the technology made possible, the money started flowing into more and more companies building regional lines. Other big time entrepreneurs of this period included Henry O’Rielly (b. 1806, Transcendental) and Cyrus Field (b. 1819, Transcendental), who built the first trans-Atlantic line.

Without going into too much detail, the competition became fierce, as well as costly to the companies involved. In the period leading up to the Civil War, that is the 3rd turning in saecular terms, there was fighting over patent rights and access to markets, as well as confusion sowed by competing signal standards and encoding methods. This is the “creative anarchy” period in Spar’s terminology.

The winner of this period of conflict turned out to be Western Union, thanks in large part to the efforts of Hiram Sibley (b. 1807, Transcendental), who led it in its transformation into a telegraph company, eventually establishing the first transcontinental line. With this consolidation came standardization – the rulemaking period. After the Civil War, in the 1st turning of the next saeculum, Western Union became a huge and powerful monopoly, enough to worry people into pressuring the government to regulate it, though not much was done in the Gilded Age.

I just find it fascinating that the so many of the key players in the development of the telegraph were from the Transcendental generation, the Prophet archetype of the Civil War Saeculum. They were the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs equivalents of their time, and of this technological wave.

It wasn’t until the end of the new saeculum, with the founding of the FCC, that private communication networks became thoroughly regulated. That was during the era of radio, which is actually the next technology covered by Spar’s book. So I will continue reading Ruling the Waves, and report in another post what I discover.

Review: Heroes of the Fourth Turning

Review: Heroes of the Fourth Turning

I have been a student and fan of the Fourth Turning theory for over a quarter of a century. Imagine my surprise and delight when I learned that a play which incorporates the theory is running off-Broadway. It’s called Heroes of the Fourth Turning, written by Will Arbery and directed by Danya Taymor. I got a ticket for it as soon as I could, and luckily my BFF was able to come along as well. It’s premiering at Playwrights Horizons, which is basically a development house supporting playwrights and producing new works.

Since I am so interested in the aforementioned theory, I wanted to review not so much the play itself as how it presents and incorporates the Fourth Turning concept. So I will be looking at the play through a soda straw, so to speak. But I will start with a brief summary review from a general perspective.

The play we saw is an excellent production. It’s well written, well directed and well acted. It has one long act, entirely set on the back porch of a house in Wyoming, on a very specific night in the year 2017. It has great tech too, with the set design and dark lighting pulling you into a setting that seems very real.

There are only five characters, and the premise of the play is that four of them are from the same college class and are reuniting seven years after graduation. Their dialogue establishes their characters, the tensions between them, and reveals secrets from their past – good dramatic stuff. The fifth character is their former teacher/mentor, who arrives later in the play to add a little generational conflict.

The Fourth Turning idea comes into the script because one of the Millennial graduates is familiar with the theory. She explains it in detail in an animated monologue, which absolutely amazed me to behold, seeing as I’ve been interested in generational theory for so long. I certainly never expected to see it explained one day on stage in New York City.

Now this character knows about the theory thanks to Steve Bannon, which is possibly how many people first encountered it back in 2017. And she’s interested in Bannon’s ideas because she is a conservative Catholic and a Trump supporter. In fact, the college the four graduates attended is a conservative Catholic institution – so the play ends up being a kind of exposé of the Red State perspective. We can see why it is set in Wyoming.

The director’s notes mention that the play is meant to shine light on how people on this side of the political spectrum think, but not necessarily to empathize with them. Judging from their reactions, the audience did not approve of the characters’ beliefs at all (at least that was my impression). The conservative stances on abortion and LBGTQ seemed particularly upsetting. Of course, this is not surprising coming from an audience in New York. The promotional material makes a point about how this show is giving a perspective not usually presented to theater audiences.

The playwright, Will Arbery, actually comes from a conservative, Catholic background himself (though he makes clear in his notes in the program that he voted for Obama), which I guess is why he was motivated to write about the subject of conservative thought. It’s kind of a weird twist of fate that the Fourth Turning theory is associated popularly with the political right, seeing as it could just as easily be applied in a story about supporters of Bernie Sanders.

It’s understandable why a theory about a cyclic return to civic renewal would appeal to a minority group of beleaguered traditionalists. Kudos to Will Arbery for making that connection. He also incorporates the idea of different generations – one of the graduates is a Gen Xer, since he is ten years older than the others, who are Millennials, while the professor is a Boomer who was a Goldwater girl, like Hillary Clinton. It’s the Millennials who are ostensibly the Heroes of the play’s title, and whether or not they are ready for the challenge of the Fourth Turning is for you to decide.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning is a brilliant play. If you are interested in what a play could have to say about generational theory, or what it could reveal about conservative politics in the Trump era, or just want some good character drama, it is worth seeing. You’ll have to hurry, though – it’s only up through November 17. I hope it finds another venue because it is a wonderful work and very pertinent to our time.

A Commute in America

A Commute in America

Pictured above is St. Paul’s, a 150 year old Catholic church located in Wilmington, Delaware. I used to drive past it every day on my commute to work. Between the exit ramp off the highway and the commuter lot in the commercial district where I worked there were a few blocks of gritty urban neighborhood to drive through, with this church planted in the midst of it, like a watchtower, or a fortress. This quick drive by provided a glimpse of a world unlike either the one I had just left at home, or the one I was traveling to at work.

There might be someone at the bottom of the ramp, begging with a cardboard sign, despite the posted warning of a fine for solicitation. A homeless person might be visible camped under the highway overpass (just to the left in that picture) – a figure seated amidst a jumble of bags and tarps, maybe with a shopping cart. Just down the street from the church there was a ministry which one must assume served food, given that there would sometimes be a long line of people at the door.

This was America, or a part of it anyway. These were Americans, of all colors and ages, though it seemed they were disproportionately older. But maybe I was just seeing the ones like me. Wondering if I could handle being my age – early fifties – but impoverished, desperate for a handout. And then I would park my car in the lot, and get on the shuttle bus that drove me to the office, and the bus would be full of people who were mostly young and mostly Asian. I would feel conspicuously out of place, a middle-aged white guy who was apparently on a different path in life than most other middle-aged white guys.

Of course, in the Asian countries my coworkers were from, there are teeming masses of poor people – people even poorer than the ones whose world I briefly became a part of during my commute to Wilmington. I just didn’t see them, because they were not the ones granted visas to come to the United States and work cushy tech jobs. And of course there are plenty of Americans my age prospering as well as I am, or better. I just happen to be in a field – finance tech, data warehousing – whose workforce is primarily Indian. India has reaped the reward for educating so many of its youth in the field of information technology.

The United States, meanwhile, is going to bring back manufacturing using trade wars. And tighten its grip on fossil fuel extraction. As far as I can tell, that is the current strategy for expanding economic opportunity for its citizens, which is the role of government in this new age of neoliberalism. I wonder, though, what kind of opportunity will be provided for the poor people of Wilmington.

Some voters thought Trump was going to bring an end to neoliberalism, except he’s a charlatan – a crook and a liar. How could they not see that? I wonder if any of the people I passed on my commute even vote at all. If not, as seems likely, then they get no representation in government anyway. How will any opportunity be created for them in this age of the market state?

Joe Biden for President, I guess.

Welcome to New Sweden

Welcome to New Sweden

Would you believe that I live, work and play in Sweden? Or, rather, what used to be Sweden? That’s right – the Kingdom of Sweden once laid claim to a part of the east coast of North America, back in the colonial era before England snatched it all up. It was established in the lower Delaware Valley, in what would today be called the tri-state area. The sites of what are now Wilmington, DE and Philadelphia, PA are included in the former colony.

The replica Kalmar Nyckel sailing on the Christina river in Wilmington, DE.

There’s even a famous ship involved in the founding, akin to the Mayflower that legendarily landed at Plymouth Rock. The Swedish ship was called the Kalmar Nyckel, and it came to North America with Swedish colonists in 1638. The settlement they founded was Fort Christina, named after the Queen of Sweden. There’s a replica of the ship that plies the former waters of New Sweden for the benefit of tourists, and I sometimes see it when I am at work in Wilmington. But all that remains of the fort is a marker.

The Old Swedes Church in Wilmington, DE

There is a little bit left of the old colony of New Sweden in the urban landscape of the area, mainly in the form of three churches known as the Old Swedes Churches. There is one in Wilmington and two in Philadelphia. The one in Wilmington is a National Historic Park, and you can visit and get a tour for $5. When I went, the guide first wanted to know if I am of Swedish heritage, which I am not, because many Americans who are of Swedish extraction come to the church out of, I guess, genealogical curiosity. Then he showed me around the church and grounds, and told me a little history. It’s a remarkable site to visit, with its many very old graves, and original masonry dating from the late 1600s.

As the guide related it to me, the Europeans who first settled here weren’t in New Sweden for very long. The colony was ceded to the Dutch after a war and became part of New Netherland. But even that status was brief, as it all went to England in 1676. By then the Kalmar Nyckel had been sunk in battle. Now the people who lived here got along with their lives pretty well no matter who was officially in charge – it really didn’t matter to them which monarch on the other side of the Atlantic ocean ostensibly ruled them. Part of the logic, I suppose, of living in the New World, which eventually would lead to complete independence from European monarchy.

New Sweden is something of a very minor footnote in American history. The Dutch influence was actually greater in the early colonial era – I’m sure you know what old New York used to be called. And most Swedish-Americans today live in the midwest and descend from immigrants who came in the late 19th century. But I am reminded of the Old Swedes’ historical presence every time I cross Swedesford road, on the northern edge of the former colony of New Sweden. America’s old history remains faintly visible through its modern facade.