Monday, November 13, 2006

Apocalypse and Renewal: Woodstock and the Internet

Ancient Text

My wife is doing a dissertation on an eighth century manuscript called Pirkei D'Rebbi Eliezer (Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer), a text that is not obscure in learned Jewish circles although not generally a main text of study.

She is now probably one of the world's experts on the text, if not the expert on the text. Among many other discoveries, she has determined that the author wrote the text in an "apocalyptic" manner. That is, he wrote in a spirit of pre-Messianism, as if the end of times were just around the corner.

He is not the first to have done so. At other times Jews believed that the Messiah was imminent, including after the destruction of the second temple and in the seventeenth century.

In one stream of Jewish thought, the potential arrival of Messianic times is not purely apocalyptic but also a renewal. In other words, the world will change, but won't come to an end.


There have been numerous counter-culture movements in history, from King Arthur to Protestantism to the Romantics to the French and Russian revolutionists to Thoreau's back-to-nature movement to the Beatnicks. I'm not a history expert, but one of the things that appears to be a unique element of the Hippie counter-culture movement was a thread of apocalyptic vision.

My wife mentioned this after we saw Woodstock recently. It's not that they were simply rejecting the zeitgeist of their country. They were infused with the idea that they had found "it". Their talk and music is full of imagery about returning to the garden of Eden. They talked as if the world was going to stop moving on its axis, as if the rapture had come on Earth.

With the end of the threat of communism, the oppression of McCarthyism, the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation, the repression of races, sexes, and sexual identity, the Vietnam war, and all of the other incredible pressures that gave rise to this counter-culture, there ended the apocalyptic visions, if not all of the influences of the counter-culture itself.

In modern times, our youth may be counter-culture, but they don't think that they can drop acid and change the world. They may drop acid. And maybe they can change the world. But they're not on the edge looking over; they know it will take work.


I sat at the table while Rachel was describing the correlation between the generations of the author of Pirkei D'Rebbi Eliezer and of Woodstock and I thought about blogging; because that's what I always do.

The Internet has changed many things; there's no doubt about that. But I wonder. Is this just simple counter-culture change, along the lines of the industrial revolution, interstate highways, Keynesian economics, Locke's social contract, air conditioning, the birth-control pill? Or is the Internet so vastly different to the human collective that we are moving to the end of days, and renewal?

Communication is now virtually free and instantaneous. Humans now group around topics rather than localities. Who you are and what you possess is now public and subject to worldwide trade.

There are no barriers between idea, expression, publication, and distribution. Content is uncontrollable. Ideas about freedom, civil liberties, human rights, religious beliefs, and the human condition flow like water to the highest and lowest parts of the world. The secret worlds of the other are eroding.

It's been forty years since the height of the hippies. Between the mid nineteen-sixties and the mid nineteen-nineties, not much really looked different. We still treated the world as an other. We still sold and competed with goods and services around the world. We still revolved around our little worlds. The hippies weren't strong enough to sustain a worldwide network of minds.

Now we are. The world in the middle of this decade looks vastly different to me than it did ten years ago. I am forced back to the realities of my physical presence by the existential threat of my angry neighbors, but I so much live connected to the hive of the global mind. I still nuzzle my children, caress my wife, meet friends over dinner and board games, go physically to my work.

But I feel like my physical existence is less important than my mind's. There are people dying of starvation and warfare, poverty and disease, lack of freedom and lack of clean water; they are not only threatened by these physical sufferings, but by being disconnected to the human network. I really feel that. Sure, there's still a lot of spam and porn and garbage, but there is so much more to it. It is humanity's next sense; without it, we are partially blind. Prometheus evolution.


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