Tuesday, July 31, 2012


When I was a kid my father got me summer jobs as a mechanical man. Not that kind. A ‘mechanical’ was a term of art in the printing business. Basically, if you wanted to produce a four-color display of any kind—a magazine ad, a movie poster—you had to construct upon a large piece of illustration board a physical model of the page, which was then photographed and made into a plate or plates for a printing press. Suppose a magazine ad for let’s say shampoo. All the decisions about the ad would be made upstairs, by Mad Men-type account executives, art directors and copywriters. The mechanical man would get a layout—a double-sized sketch of where the taglines, logos, body copy and photographs were supposed to go, and the mechanical man would reproduce the layout as camera-ready boards.

The first step was ordering type. The art director would have ‘specked’ the type, that is, determined the typeface font and size that would fit in the spaces indicated, but the mechanical guy (me) had to actually order the type from the typography house. If you ordered it in the morning, it might come after lunch. It appeared as sheets of glossy paper with printing on it, set in the same way that Ben Franklin had set his almanac, with metal type, and then run off on a hand-operated proof press. If there were no typos, I would cut the blocks of copy out of the sheets and glue them into the proper positions with rubber cement, being careful to make the lines of type precisely square, and for this I had a transparent ruler that ran on a track along one side of my drawing table. Or I could use a plastic triangle. The display type might come from a different company, or might even be a photoreproduction of hand-lettering. This too was pasted into place, and then came the art work, drawing or photograph, and the company logo, if any. If the AD wanted a hairline between, say, the ad and the logo at the bottom of the page, I had to draw the line in with a ruling pen, a medieval device that left blobs upon the pristine board, which had to be scraped off with a razor blade or covered with China white. Later in my mechanical career they invented thin rubber tape you could stretch and use to make hairlines. but the old mechanical guys I worked with never used the stuff, and never blotted with their ruling pens either.

After the mechanical was complete it would go to production, where it would be placed on an easel in front of a camera the size of a refrigerator and a enormous negative would be made, and this would go in turn to the color separation guy, who would make four different negatives from it and these would be used to burn an image onto a metal lithographic plate. Each plate would be inked a separate color and the page would run through the press multiple times, and there was your four color ad.
If the ad was for something like carpeting or flooring, they would supply tiny squares of the actual stuff, and you would have to paste them neatly into place. A mere photo of an avocado carpet was apparently not vivid enough to entice the buyer, so they had to use actual swatches. It is difficult to cut a perfect one inch square from a carpet swatch, but one summer I had to do it dozens of times and at last got pretty good at it. I never became a really good mechanical man—that took years, and the field didn’t have years left.

Are you bored yet? I am. And I was even when I was doing it: tedious work, although with reasonable pay. Some guys spent their whole working lives doing it, from the invention of four-color photo-offset lithography in the early century to the coming of computers, which destroyed a whole range of jobs in the printing trades. It took most of a day to do a single mechanical, and I imagine everything I did is now done in fifteen minutes on a computer, with PhotoShop and other tools. Progress, of course, and there have been any number of similar advances, and the trouble is that my head is full of obsoleted stuff as is the head of anyone else my age, and so will all the stuff in your modern head be obsoleted, and sooner than you imagine.

Which brings me to my point.

The great American anthropologist, Margaret Mead, once pointed out that cultures sort into two distinct types, which she called prefigurative and postfigurative. People in prefigurative cultures, assume that tomorrow will be pretty much like yesterday was. People will do the same sorts of tasks with the same sorts of tools. In such cultures—and humans lived in them for 99.9 per cent of our history—the information contained in the heads of old people is of prime survival value. The old have relevant experience. They know a lot about how to catch game animals and how to avoid the dangerous ones. They know how to plant crops, and make useful things, and who the enemies of the group are and how to defeat them, because they have done all these things in the past, and the youth are completely dependent on this information for their own survival. So old people are honored and protected and carefully attended when they speak. They have the wisdom.

In postfigurative cultures, on the other hand, tomorrow will be nothing at all like yesterday. That’s the central given of such cultures. The tools of survival are new and ever changing and therefore the young are called upon to lead. The old are seen as stumbling blocks, hidebound, ignorant, not worth listening to. In prefigurative cultures the introductory phrase, “when I was your age” is fascinating to the young, because it could be the difference between survival and death. In postfigurative cultures it has become boredom itself. We, of course, live in such a culture. It’s not the structure of the population or some quirk of demographics that does this, it’s the culutre itself, and the trend—the postness of it all—is accelerating. The people we honor and cherish and reward are the ones on top of the last new thing, who inhabit the future more than others.

The transition from pre-f to post-f has been happening for a long time but most of us who lived through the changes that took place in the sixties of the past century understand when this transition became truly apparent to the meanest observer, comparable (to use an appropriately obsolete metaphor) to the moment when a piece of photographic paper in a tray of developer solution reveals its latent image. Obviously, lots of causes involved, but the main thing that struck me about the upheaval was just that transition. You would have had to have grown up before that time to understand how absolutely authority of a particular kind dominated the world then, and how connected that authority was to the past. If you got out of a first-rank college in the early sixties, you had much more in common--in respect to what you learned, the style of the teaching, the social expectations, the relations of the sexes, your career goals—with people who graduated in the 50s, the 40s, the 30s, the 20s than you did with people who passed through a few years later.

What a remarkable thing that was to experience, and the odd thing about it was that it never went back to normal. The current existence of the youth culture has economic and demographic roots, but clearly its not a simple function of the Baby Boom. If you watch movies made before 1960 or so, you will see that relations between youth and age are not as they are now. Everyone looked and dressed more or less the same after a certain age, and the costumes of youth marked an inferior status. There is, of course, an accent on youth in the old films, because youth is romance and young flesh is lovely, but there doesn’t seem to be the contempt for the old shown, which is one of the characteristics of the modern post-f culture we live in.

We also observe this contempt also in the old themselves, and perhaps this is its ultimate source. The old feel themselves obsolete too, and in many of them, especially those prominent in society, it provokes a hectic desire to appear young and potent and “creative” in the manner of the young. We can’t even say old any more: the very word has been killed by euphemasia. We expect the old to detach themselves from the real culture, to dwell in enclaves and “retire” to a world of amusements, if rich, and isolation and misery if not. As a result, the particular qualities the old bring to a culture are self-devalued; so why should the young listen?

Are there any such qualities in a post-f culture, or is everything like my example of an an obsolete technology? In other words, are there any aspects of a post-f culture that remain pre-f? Is there anything that is like the best hunting grounds or the useful herbs? There certainly used to be, and our ordinary name for it is wisdom. Do people believe in wisdom nowadays, or if they do, believe that the old have it?   To an extent. There are cultural artifacts—we can find movies where the old guys outsmart the whippersnappers—but this seems like pandering to a niche audience. The focus of society is heavily on the new, the original (in this era, at least), the future, when everything will be better.

Where the old are generally considered fools and obsolete, especially when they so consider themselves, the culture will be unbalanced. We can all feel this when we look at ourselves and compare ourselves to cultures where this has not yet occurred. The surviving traditional cultures have their problems, some of them grave, but their family relationships are stronger, their roots are deeper, they are, paradoxically, more flexible and self-reliant under stress. I suppose the solution to our unbalance is to recognize that, just as youth is prized for its creativity, its novelty, its energy, which the old have only to a diminishing degree, so the old possesses mental attitudes vital to any society, which youth has not got.

This is a hard sell, I know. If an explorer wandered into the National Geographic Society with a tale of having been to an alien culture strangely similar to our own, but with different goals, mores, entertainments and achievements, the world would be astounded. This explorer would be invited to write books and address august assemblies. If he then said that this fascinating culture had been completely destroyed and was no longer available to visit, imagine the consternation! What a loss, we all would say. But this is what the past is. All the aged have lived in a world now dead, are explorers returned from a world beyond reach. And few wish to hear their stories about ‘when I was your age.’

Is this forever? Probably not, first because a culture that makes so little use of wisdom and regards the aged as a problem will not survive. It will focus so entirely on the youthful demands for sensation, novelty, the satisfaction of ferocious appetites, the lust for competition, that it will become more and more like high school infinitely extended: cliques, nastiness, materialism, all based on profound ignorance. Secondly, there is no guarantee that the post-f culture will go on indefinitely. The last few centuries were the most innovative in history, but this innovation is slowing down, because science is slowing down. Some believe that we are on the verge of a colossal scientific-technological breakthrough that will make us all as gods, at least in physical terms. I am not holding my breath.
Because I don’t think we will see in physics the sort of advances that led to the computer telecom revolution nor in biology an advance equivalent to the genomic revolution. Physics is limited in its probing of the universe by impossible energy requirements and by the lack of money and interest. Biology is tangled in a level of complexity shown by living organisms far greater than we had supposed only thirty years ago. The popular science outlets will continue to cry progress and guarantee that we will eventually live forever, but we won’t, and we won’t have natural language interactions with machines, or antigravity, or recording your brain in a computer, or interstellar travel. We are starting to see the limits, and that bodes ill for a culture based on the belief that innovation will save us.

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