Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.
But more recently, I've been pondering something more basic than the technology itself and that is: what is it for something or someone to be 'modern'? Is it simply a comparison of old and new, of bad and better, or is there more to this?

At least as early as 1965 sociologists were contrasting "modern" societies with "traditional" societies. Now they are also contrasted with "post-modern" aspects of society.

Traditional meant that business was conducted according to social custom. Modern meant it was conducted according to "rational" ideas of "efficiency".

Modern meant that legal disputes were settled on the basis of written law impartially administered. Traditional meant that disputes were settled according to local custom and social hierarchy.

Modern meant that position was determined by merit. Traditional meant that position was determined by birth.

Modern meant that laws and practices were universal in nature. Traditional meant that they were local and particular.


Obviously this was an idealization of both categories. The extent to which the modern conception was an idealization was brought to the fore by the post-modernists, who were only too happy to demonstrate how modernist conceptions were in fact class based constructs. Etc.

The above description is a pair of cliches, one from 1965 and the other from 1997 or so.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat Jan 1st, 2011 at 04:55:11 PM EST
Modern can mean many things in different contexts and to different people. Obviously it itself is not a new idea. I'm limiting myself to the thought that what makes something 'modern' is that, unlike the last time, you really can control it this time. It is perceived control. This can be a machine, an environment, an economy or even an ecosystem. Something where you have no perception of control is then not modern. For lack of a better term, I'm calling this pre-modern rather than primitive because in this context I can see primitive being referred to something simple and therefore easily controlled. If you know a more appropriate term, I'll be happy to use it going forward.

Of course history shows that our attempts at control almost end differently than expected. As an engineer, I see this time and time again: the failure of something modern, something that should do it all; Deepwater Horizon being but a recent example. Naturally, after something like this happens, the issue of the hows and whys of the failure always come into question. What's not addressed, and ultimately what I'd like to do here, albeit perhaps somewhat simplistically, is look a little into the issue of control.

by Jace on Sat Jan 1st, 2011 at 06:09:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The term I used for pre-modern was "traditional". Pre-modern is also a good term. Your concept of control, though, goes back to the Pharaohs. They could direct the efforts of the entire society for their benefit and for the benefit of the society. This is the concept of "society as a mega-machine" as put forward by Lewis Mumford.

I believe that what distinguishes the form of control that exists now in the USA from that exercised by the Pharaohs is the transformation of the relationship between the economy and the society in which it operates from one in which the economy is an aspect of society and serves the society into one in which the economy and the presumptive rules by which it works are ripped from their social context and privileged over all other social rules to the extent that the society comes to serve the perceived needs of the economy. See Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat Jan 1st, 2011 at 08:40:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Of course my presentation of traditional vs. modern vs. post-modern is only one way of using the term. The problem with controlling "an environment, an economy or even an ecosystem" is the complexity of those systems, which is, typically, much greater than that of systems  engineers normally have the opportunity to control. And the great problem with control systems is that of overlooking important variables, often due to ignorance, but often also due to budget limitations.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat Jan 1st, 2011 at 09:00:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Hence the association of modernity with the perception of control. Justified or otherwise.

Much of the postmodern critique (inasmuch as it did not descend into solipsism) served as a deconstruction of the less than perfectly justified perceptions of control.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Jan 2nd, 2011 at 07:17:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Solipsism is an ever present danger and not just for post modernists -- though some of them may have descended into it to spectacular levels. I find the critique and the "deconstruction" of much of the history written before 1970 to be particularly cogent, though some currently writing, such as Nial Ferguson, are appropriate targets, along with most conservative political views.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Jan 2nd, 2011 at 07:50:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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