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What is Modern?

by Jace Sat Jan 1st, 2011 at 04:17:25 PM EST

I have always enjoyed looking at early photographs of what was once 'modern': brand new steam trains, the latest ships, ever more imposing structures. At one point these may have been the epitome of design and manufacture, of human achievement, of control, but now one can look at them 100 years later in wonder, with the occasional smirk or sense of shock. When looking at the latest and greatest features of today's landscape, I often ponder which will be our steam locomotives, our airships.

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?

Why of course there's more (otherwise this wouldn't be much of a diary!). My contention is that to be modern is to have it all figured out, to be in control, or at least to be in more control than the previous generation. How so and what this means, is what I hope to explore in this and a few following diaries.

Right or wrong, there seems to be a common perception that to be European is to be modern. But to explore the concept of being modern, we'll travel to the west to a land that, despite its name, is anything but new. It is in different ways primitive, archaic, even pre-modern. It is a land where attempts to become modern have often failed, sometimes spectacularly. Welcome, my friends, to Newfoundland!

For those that have not yet had the chance to visit, I've included some photos in this entry which serve to both give a sense of the land and also to introduce areas that I want to further explore in future diaries.

Cape Spear, the eastern most point or North America, was originally known as Cabo de la Spera, or Cape of Waiting. Post-glacial isostatic rebound, the process that exposed the rocks closest to the shore, is a relatively recent phenomena but the rocks themselves are ancient sediments shed from long gone mountain ranges. That some of the earliest mountain ranges in North America were here should not be a surprise; Newfoundland has long been on the leading edge of the clash between old and new, the collisions of continental and oceanic plates that is plate tectonics being no exception.

The next stop on our tour is Cape St. Mary's home to the vast sea bird nesting area known appropriately as Bird Rock. Home at the time to thousands of Gannets, Bird Rock is a testament to the real wealth of Newfoundland: the fisheries. Just offshore to the east lies the Grand Banks one of the richest and most productive areas of the world's oceans. Or at least, it was. Overfishing caused by modern fishing equipment and techniques decimated the stocks of Cod, Haddock, Capelin and a whole host of other fish so much so that in 1993 Canada issued a moratorium banning all Cod fishing on the parts of the Banks that lie within its waters. That moratorium is still in effect.

Moving back north, but still in Eastern Newfoundland, we see the Maersk Dispatcher coming through the Narrows and into the lovely fjord known as St. John's harbor. This ship is an all purpose offshore oil field support vessel known, understatedly, as an Anchor Handling Tug. She is modern in every way with the latest fire fighting equipment, accommodations and an advanced dynamic positioning system that allows her to hold position even in the roughest weather the North Atlantic has to offer. She and her sister supply ships based out of St. John's shuttle equipment and crews to and from the Hibernia, Terra Nova or White Rose Oil fields all located just inside Canada's 200 mile territorial limit. The development of these oil fields has brought much needed money to the province, at least for the time being.

There are only two ways to travel across Newfoundland by land: walk, bike or drive your ATV along the former right of way of the Newfoundland Railway now known as the eastern leg of the Trans-Canada Trail, or drive across the island on the not so modern Highway 1. Newfoundland is a big place. It takes eight hours to drive west from St. John's across the island and then another four south to the ferry terminal in Port aux Basques. It is also a very sparsely populated place. Except, that is, for the Moose. So prolific are these great animals that they seemingly have all of Newfoundland scared. Everywhere you go, you hear stories of close encounters with Moose. Road signs come with grim statistics: 622 accidents with Moose last year, 23, no make that 24 fatal accidents this year. This particular sign is just one of the reasons we started calling them 'Moose-lim terrorists'. Contrary to what one might think, the Moose are relatively new to the island, their numbers having grown rapidly thanks to an abundance of food and habitat.

We'll conclude our trip at the Railway Museum in Corner Brook, just south of the bend in the road known as Deer Lake. Here we have a photo of something clearly old tech: a wedge plow from the Newfoundland Railway. This plow and the others like it were crude instruments used in the never ending task of keeping the 900 mile (1,450 km) long railway open year round. The main trunk line was constructed during the railway boom years of the late 1800's with some branches added after that. Like most other railways, it was intended to be not so much for transportation but rather for economic development. It was to bring modern life and large scale industry to the island. But, like the island itself, the railway never really was a financial success going in and out of government ownership throughout its existence before being ripped up in 1990 as the government prepared the nationally owned Canadian National Railway for privitization. For Newfoundland, that might just have been one of the best short-sighted decisions ever made!

A new year, so thoughts on what is new.
by Jace on Sat Jan 1st, 2011 at 04:35:25 PM EST
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 ]
That plow might be old, but it's still how you get the snow off the tracks.

by asdf on Sun Jan 2nd, 2011 at 03:06:36 AM EST
This Christmas the Swedish railroad museum lent out their snowplow-engines from the 50ies. The oldest was a seperate plow that is strapped on an engine, apparently 100 years old. Still works.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se
by A swedish kind of death on Sun Jan 2nd, 2011 at 05:39:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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