A Terrible Beauty

Published in 2000, A Terrible Beauty is defiantly a pre-internet book(1). In under 850 pages (under 775 if you discount the index), it gives the reader a history of the twentieth century’s defining ideas, from Marxism to Nazism, from Feminism to fusion. Not just the ideas, but the people too – Satre, Picasso, Orwell and Janet Leigh and thousands more. In the words of its own subtitle, it is a history of ‘the people and ideas that shaped the modern mind.’ The idea of any book – any mere bundle of paper – attempting to do that thing now would seem weirdly futile.

Yet it’s the reason why this is the case, the one that’s on the tip of your tongue – yes, Wikipedia – that reading A Terrible Beauty brings to mind. The book is divided into four parts, and within these, 42 themed chapters. They are roughly chronological, but if a later development, discovery or idea fits a theme, it will be mentioned ahead of time, giving a beautiful sense of the uneven march of history. That said, so far, so traditional narrative. What’s very Wikipediary (!) about the book is that the people mentioned are all picked out in bold type when they first appear, enabling you to zip through the text and start reading when someone’s name catches your eye. Despite the fact it all ties together very well when you’re reading sequentially, it’s startlingly easy to just open the book and start reading. That’s how I first got into it; I was staying at a friend’s house, and it sat on the bedside table in the spare room.

The page I opened it at was 530, with its piece on Germaine Greer, immediately presenting one of Greer’s killer lines:

“Her book, The Female Eunuch, did not neglect women’s economic condition, though only one of its thirty chapters is devoted to work. Rather it drew its force from Greer’s unflinching comparison of the way women, love and marriage are presented in literature, both serious and popular, and in everyday currency, as compared with the way things really are. ‘Freud’, she writes, ‘is the father of psychoanalysis. It had no mother.'”

So it continues, brisk but not hurried, economical without being threadbare:

“Greer is withering in her criticisms of how men are presented as dominant, socially superior, older, richer, and taller than their women (Greer is very tall herself). In what is perhaps her most original contribution, she demolishes love and romance (both given their own chapters) as chimeras, totally divorced (an apt verb) from the much bleaker reality.”

The conclusion to this section has stayed with me since I first read it, a sentence that completely embodies the book’s title:

“As with all true liberation, this view is both bleak and exhilarating.”

It was this line that came to me today as I read two pieces about the future of computing and the internet.

The first was Nick Carr, writing about Cory Doctorow’s negative reaction to the iPad. Doctorow raged against the iPad, and its exceedingly limited (in his view) vision of computing. It is a common view among geeks. The iPad is far more closed than a traditional computer, in their eyes, outrageously optimized to funnel users into passive consumption of pre-approved content rather than the creation of new and exciting works.

Here is what Nick Carr has to say about their position:

“What these folks are ranting against, or at least gnashing their teeth over, is progress – or, more precisely, progress that goes down a path they don’t approve of. They want progress to, as Bray admits, follow their own ideological bent, and when it takes a turn they don’t like they start grumbling like granddads, yearning for the days of their idealized Apple IIs, when men were men and computers were computers… While progress may be spurred by the hobbyist, it does not share the hobbyist’s ethic.”

And here, in his conclusion, is the terrible beauty:

“Progress may, for a time, intersect with one’s own personal ideology, and during that period one will become a gung-ho technological progressivist. But that’s just coincidence. In the end, progress doesn’t care about ideology. Those who think of themselves as great fans of progress, of technology’s inexorable march forward, will change their tune as soon as progress destroys something they care deeply about.”

The second post I read was by Clay Shirky, on the evolution of complex business models:

“About 15 years ago, the supply part of media’s supply-and-demand curve went parabolic, with a predictably inverse effect on price. Since then, a battalion of media elites have lined up to declare that exactly the opposite thing will start happening any day now. To pick a couple of examples more or less at random, last year Barry Diller of IAC said, of content available on the web, ‘It is not free, and is not going to be,’ Steve Brill of Journalism Online said that users ‘just need to get back into the habit of doing so [paying for content] online’, and Rupert Murdoch of News Corp said ‘Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use.’

Diller, Brill, and Murdoch seem be stating a simple fact—we will have to pay them—but this fact is not in fact a fact. Instead, it is a choice, one its proponents often decline to spell out in full, because, spelled out in full, it would read something like this: ‘Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it. And we don’t know how to do that.'”

Both Carr and Shirky’s conclusions feel true.

I would recommend A Terrible Beauty without hesitation; as I hope this post shows, it is an excellent book to think with, and brilliant for filling in the gaps in your knowledge.

(1) It’s pre Apple, too. Steve Jobs doesn’t even get a mention. Bill Gates and Paul Allen are limited to a single sentence.

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One thought on “A Terrible Beauty

  1. Pingback: Recently: March and April 2010 « Alex Watson

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