Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Jane Jacobs and cultural amnesia

I never read any of Jane Jacobs' work until after she died in 2006. The work that first brought her to prominence was the 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The first book of hers that I read was 1985's Cities and The Wealth of Nations, which argued that cities that create products to replace imports were the most important engines of a growing economy, not the nation states that contain those cities.

Earlier this year, I read Jacobs' last book, Dark Age Ahead, published in 2004. As in all her books, there are many ideas discussed to bolster her main argument. The main argument of this book, not surprisingly, is given by the title. She expresses concern about many aspects of modern culture, including the shift in education from teaching to credentialing, taxes collected and distributed from on high and spent on "one size fits all" solutions, the disrespect for science and the squeezing of wages that force many families to have two incomes to survive, taking both mother and father away from the time needed to be parents and time their communities need for them to be citizens.

With all these symptoms and more, Jacobs starts with a symptom of dark ages which seems impossible today: cultural amnesia. How can this exist? There is more information available to anyone with a computer than the greatest scholars could put their hands on in any century before this. We have The Google and The You Tubes and dozens of other incredibly handy tools at our disposal. How can this culture especially, loaded down with pack rats saving anything and everything if you know where to look for it, have cultural amnesia?

You can see the signs all around. As we gather more and more information, ideas have to fight for space in the cultural memory. Time after time, the new and shiny crowd out the old, and "old" becomes redefined every day, until even events only a decade or two in the past are essentially forgotten, replaced by a shorthand version, heavy on emotional pull but missing essential details.

Here is such a memory from a time many people alive today lived through.


It's easy to see medicine today as a racket, hawking expensive procedures and drugs that mask symptoms instead of treating disease. But let us recall that it was about fifty years ago that western medicine, distrusted now by many segments of the population, actually found cures and preventative methods for diseases that impacted millions of lives.

The little girl planting a kiss on young Elvis Presley has to be older than I am, probably around the age of my older brother, give or take a year or two. Just a few years before I entered school, polio was a terrifying fact of life for children and their parents. My father told me that in every school he ever attended, there were always kids on crutches. I remember getting the shot when the vaccine first came out, which sticks in my mind because I hated needles. A few years later, everyone in my grade school was compelled to get vaccinated again, this time by putting sugar cubes on our tongues and letting the sugar melt.

Polio was a disease that could strike nearly anybody, and that was made clear by the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man of great wealth, contracted the disease just before he turned forty, a full decade before he would win the presidency. But earlier this decade, when FDR is still remembered but the scourge of polio recedes into oblivion, a peer reviewed study put forward that FDR did not have polio, but instead another paralyzing ailment, Guillain-Barré syndrome, also known as GBS. Unlike polio, there is no vaccine for GBS, but with early diagnosis, many people who contract the disease recover and the paralysis is only temporary. Other well-known people besides FDR that contracted the disease include Andy Griffith, Joseph Heller, and recently, former Chicago Bears' star lineman William "The Refrigerator" Perry.

Using the new toolbar gadget I downloaded from Alexa, I can see that the publishing page for Blogger is the eighth most popular page on the internet. Literally millions of people like me are maintaining websites, writing about whatever interests them. Out there somewhere is all the information you might need, but finding it and getting it in front of enough people so that it becomes general knowledge is very tough indeed. So much shiny trivia competes for our attention that vital information about our past and even the present is lost, drops of meaning vanishing in oceans of nonsense.

Once again, Jane Jacobs got it right.


Karlacita! said...

Well done!

I see that another aspect to the loss of cultural memory is that enemy of reality: nostalgia.

I have friends who send me "Remember When?" e-mails about the 50s or whatever. Hot dogs were a nickel, girls wore dresses, this song was popular, all that stuff...

I get really uncomfortable, especially about the 50s. I mean, the 50s were pretty horrific for African-Americans who couldn't vote yet, and they were particularly bad for the Rosenbergs.

But hey, Chuck Berry played a great guitar, didn't he?

Karlacita! said...

Oh, thing 2.

There is a huge movement away from childhood vaccinations because of the supposed link to diseases stemming from them.

Wow, we've so totally lost our cultural memory that loving parents are willing to play Russian Roulette with their kids' lives.

When this whole movement started in the 70s, the few unvaccinated kids were protected, in many cases, by herd immunity. But now, in some communities, and in some schools like Waldorf schools, the unvaccinated comprise over 50% of the student body.

This does not bode well. Like you, I'm not going to make prognostications about the future, which always surprises us, but yow.

dguzman said...

Great post, and great comments by the great Karlacita!

I'll definitely have to read these books. Thanks for the tip.

sfmike said...

Jane Jacobs was god. And that book was so damned depressing (and accurate) that I barely got through it, even though it's barely 200 pages.

Matty Boy said...

Thanks to the commenters. Like you, Mike, I had to wade through Dark Age Ahead slowly, though it is short and cogently written. I decided to read this while taking a break from Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, another well-written book that is hard to get through due to its depressing nature.

namastenancy said...

I've had that book on my bookshelf for ages but decided to take it down and read it. Damn, it IS depressing. I cured my depression with a dinner at Cafe Bistro and a lovely creme brulee but I fear that it will take more than a good dinner to the greater ills enumerated in her book. In fact, when I finished, I looked around SF and felt that I could list everything that she sees as a symptom of our coming Dark Age right in front of my in my daily life.