[H]ere is the storyline I suggest: The Renaissance saw that life was vapor, and it either rejoiced or despaired, but in the main considered vapor to be an unavoidable feature of human existence. Renaissance humanists had a high tolerance for uncertainty, probable knowledge, political tumult, social mobility. Following the Reformation, however, Europe was decimated by a century of war. Modernity began not from the Renaissance but in the wake of religious war, and modern thinkers, politicians, and scientists set out on a centuries-long project of controlling the vapor and roil of the world, so as to ensure that the world would never again be thrown into the tumult of what they described as religious conflict. Modernity’s control has been so effective that some believed it had been achieved, until mist leaked out under the laboratory door. As an economic and social system, postmodernity is a historical demonstration that modernity’s control was illusory in important respects, and postmodern theory is the intellectual reflection on this historical demonstration.

So: Modernity builds a glass and steel office box-building, a housing project that looks like and is intended to be a “machine for living”; postmodernity’s buildings are ironically decorated with symbols from a half-dozen architectural styles. Modernity zones the city into commercial, residential, educational, and other areas; postmodernity integrates life, work, and leisure in a local neighborhood. Modernity mechanizes the universe and the human person; postmodernity disperses the self and the universe in a fluid organism. Modernity is a Newtonian universe, a machine operating by mathematically expressible laws; postmodernity is an expanding universe, which is perhaps alive, and postmoderns are convinced that scientific laws are less discovered than invented. Modernity says bigger is better; postmodernity says, Not necessarily, and Who says? Modernity unifies diverse groups into a nation-state, an ethnically and culturally homogenous national community, organized by a central bureaucracy, perpetuated by universal public education; postmodernity diffuses into a multiethnic nation that threatens to fragment into a loose confederation. Modernity drums out regular rhythm, like a piston; postmodernity is syncopated. Modernity manages the economy, whether through a centralized party bureaucracy or through a central bank’s manipulation of credit; postmodernity thrives on a flexible global economy that escapes the management and control of any single government. Modernity reduces the world to hard particles; postmodernity reduces the particles until matter dissolves into energy. Modernity tracks GNP, GDP, and the trade deficit, convinced that a change in policy can improve them; postmodernity is more interested in quality of life and sustainable growth, with attention to the ecological impact of economic activity. Modernity marches; postmodernity flows. Modernity is statistical analysis; postmodernity is outcomes-based and qualitative. Modernity shops for goods in a one-stop department store; postmodernity shops for pleasure in a megamall of specialty shops. Modernity systematizes theology and declares popes infallible; postmodernity says theology is more like poetry, turns the priest around to face the congregation, and gives him a banjo. Modernity neatly divides human life into zones of activity and interest— separating home and workplace, work and leisure, business and high culture, religion and politics; postmodernity breaches those boundaries by returning work to the home, by making work fun, by selling elegantly styled cultural products, by mixing religion and politics, by displaying a urinal in an art museum. Modernity gets down to business, testing hypotheses with well-designed experiments and diligent library research; postmodernity frets aloud about whether research is even possible, grumbles about the difficulties of knowing anything about the world or the past, and hedges all conclusions with a fifty-page theoretical introduction to every book. Modernity hopes that high culture will seep down and raise the stinking masses from their slough; postmodernity destroys the boundaries of highbrow and lowbrow and swallows everything up in a mass of commercialized pop culture. Modernity wears a suit to the office and slippers at home; postmodernity works at home in a bathrobe and wears jeans to the office. Modernity is a city under smog, its buildings blackened by factory smoke; postmodernity is the green belt around London. Modernity is a clock; postmodernity is a turbulent stream, a swiftly moving weather system. Modernity is checkerboard; postmodernity is fractal.

In a word, modernity is mid-twentieth-century Detroit; post-modernity is Vegas.

— Peter Leithart, Solomon among the Postmoderns

Technical failures contribute to postmodern unmasking. Early in the nineteenth century, Germany undertook one of the most ambitious civil engineering projects ever attempted in central Europe—the “rectification” of the Rhine River in an effort to prevent flooding along the Rhine Valley and “to create a faster, deeper, shorter river whose formerly marshy plain could be turned over to agriculture.” This was only one of many water management projects that played a role in the creation of modern Germany—draining the floodplains of the Oder River, redirecting the Upper Rhine, monumental dam projects. It is an archetypal modern plan involving the management of the one of the most unmanageable of natural substances, water. It was a massive project to shepherd the wind and sculpt the mist. Despite many successes, floods continue to occur, though recent floods along the Oder have devastated portions of Poland and the Czech Republic rather than Germany—perhaps that was the plan all along.

The German water management project stands as a parable of modernity, and of postmodern disillusionment with modernity’s efforts to control the world. Moderns tried to instill shock and awe through smoke, pumping pistons, a loud voice; postmoderns pull back the curtain to find a little old man running the show, and not all that effectively. Postmodernism arises in part from the recognition that technology has never achieved the control it promised and claimed, that science—marked as it is by debate, uncertainty, contested evidence—has never been as unified and stable as the textbooks make it appear.

— Peter Leithart, Solomon among the Postmoderns 

Consider the array of profound and moving insights that the self-imposed constraints of a sonnet’s fourteen lines of iambic pentameter allow. Or how many small and large acts of love are made possible within the self-imposed constraints of a lifelong marriage or committed friendship. Just think of the potential resources in timber, fresh water, fish, poultry, and even crude oil if we produced and consumed within self-imposed constraints on our appetites and our use of resources we hope to pass on to the thousandth generation.

Doug Sikkema, “Minimalism for the Sake of the World”

The success of Deep Blue would seem not to shed much light on how expert chess players do what they do. It might well be objected, “ of course it doesn’t; it’s a computer!” This objection strikes me as just the right response, but sometimes common sense needs to be defended by an elaborate argument. We are constantly tempted to regard ourselves in the distorting mirror of technology, and in fact the “computational theory of mind” prevails in cognitive psychology (though it is becoming quite embattled). An entire academic field has its origin in the idea that we are computers. Further, the computer comes to represent an ideal, in light of which real thinking perversely begins to look deficient. Thus, when the postindustrial visionary reasons from the fact that complex systems involve “the interaction of too many variables for the mind to hold in correct order simultaneously” to the conclusion that “one has to use algorithms, rather than intuitive judgments, in making decisions,” he argues from the fact that the mind does not do what a computer does to an assertion about the incompetence of the mind. This seems to express an irrational prejudice against people. For, in fact, highly cultivated human minds can get to be pretty good at sussing out a burning building, playing chess, chasing down intermittent gremlins in a car’s electrical system, and who knows what else.

The fact that a firefighter’s knowledge is tacit rather than explicit, and therefore not capable of articulation, means that he is not able to give an account of himself to the larger society. He is not able to make a claim for the value of his mind in the terms that prevail, and may come to doubt it himself. But his own experience provides grounds for a radical critique of the view that theoretical knowledge is the only true knowledge.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

Have you ever noticed that some words sound perfect for the things they describe and other words don’t sound right at all?

I had occasion to reflect on this the other morning when I passed through the kitchen and my wife asked me if I cared to join her in a bowl of muesli.

“Oh, but I don’t think we could both get in,” I replied, quick as anything. The joke, alas, was wasted on her, but it did set me to thinking what a curious term muesli is. It is not a word we use in America. When we sweep up after we have been doing woodworking and put it in a bag with mixed nuts and a little birdseed, and pretend it’s a healthful breakfast product, we call it granola, which frankly I think is a much superior word. To my mind, granola sounds precisely like a crunchy cereal involving bits of grain and chaff, whereas muesli doesn’t sound like anything at all, except perhaps a salve you would put on a cold sore (or possibly the cold sore itself).

Anyhow, it got me to thinking how some words do their job very well and others don’t seem quite up to the task.

Globule, for instance, is a nearly perfect word. It just sounds right. Nobody has to tell you what globule means for you to know that it is not something that you want down the front of your shirt. Scrapie is another excellent word. Scrapie clearly couldn’t be anything but a disease. (Though on reflection it might be a Scottish cut, as in “He fell down and got a wee scrapie on his knee.”) Snooze, likewise, is also first rate, as are chortle, clank, gasp, dribble, and bloat. To hear these words is to know what they describe.

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

[Note: BUMMER = Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made Into an Empire for Rent; BUMMER Platforms = Facebook, Google, etc.]

In the years before Google, the first major BUMMER company, was born, hippie techies were fearsome advocates of making everything information-related free, but that’s not the only ideal they loved.

Techies also practically worshipped hero entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs. Tech business leaders were maybe not as smart as hackers, as far as hackers were concerned, but they were still considered visionaries. We liked it when they got rich. Who would want a future that was designed by some kind of boring government or committee-like process? Look at the smooth and shiny computers that Steve Jobs brought to the world!

So, two passions collided. Everything must be free, but we love mega tech founder heroes.

Do you see the contradiction? Everything is supposed to be free, but everything is also supposed to be about hero entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs make money. How can those two directives be reconciled?

There was a lot of hedging and fudging on this point around the turn of the century. Ultimately, only one method of reconciliation was identified: the advertising business model. Advertising would allow search to be free, music to be free, and news to be free. (That didn’t mean that musicians or reporters got a piece of the pie, for the techies considered them replaceable.) Advertising would become the dominant business in the information era.

This didn’t feel dystopian at first. The original ads on Google were cute and harmless. But as the internet, the devices, and the algorithms advanced, advertising inevitably morphed into mass behavior modification.

— Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now


A sampling of Bill Bryson’s wish list for rules to make the world a better place:

All cars will come equipped with gas caps on both sides and at the rear, and gas station hoses will be at least six feet longer.

Supermarkets henceforth are required to put everything where a middle-aged man who doesn’t shop much can find it.

Boxes of Christmas cards that carry messages like “May your holidays be wrapped in warmth and touched with wonder” must bear a large label on the outside of the box saying: “Do Not Purchase: Message Inside Is Embarrassing and Sentimental.”

Revolving doors must go in both directions, the direction to be decided by the author. Giant revolving doors that take ten people at a time are illegal unless the occupants are known to each other and have agreed beforehand to move at the same speed.

Americans who intend to travel abroad in a group with other Americans must first clear their wardrobes with the author. British men must secure written permission to wear shorts outside their own country.

People who wear articles of clothing on which the manufacturer’s name or logo is prominently displayed must also wear a badge saying: “Yes, I Am an Idiot.”

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself