21st Century Renaissance

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 31 March 2003

Today’s renaissance makes us feel that our self-expression matters, too.

Yes, it certainly looks like doom and gloom out there. Between the paired threats of terrorism and totalitarianism, it’s hard to see much on the horizon worthy of celebration. But maybe, for just a moment, we should entertain the possibility that – in the big picture – this isn’t a truly dark moment, at all. Rather, it’s a dark, fearful reaction to a profoundly transformative era.

I believe we’re in the midst of a renaissance. Make that a capital-R Renaissance: as big as the one in the 15th and 16th Century that they taught us about in school, and as accessible as the (you guessed it) wireless device right in your hand.

Let’s take a minute to remember what happened in the original Renaissance. We got perspective painting – the ability to represent three-dimensional spaces on two-dimensional planes. Neat trick, that vanishing point. We also sailed around the planet for the first time, confirming our suspicion that the world was not a flat, two-dimensional map, but a 3-D sphere. And calculus was invented by the end of the renaissance, giving us the ability to calculate derivatives and integrals – equations that let you relate what’s happening in one dimension (x) to what’s happening in the next (x2), and so on. Seeing a pattern, here?

The sonnet was invented, too. For those of you who forgot, the sonnet was the first kind of poetry that allowed the writer to extend a single metaphor throughout one poem. That’s another way of thinking about dimensions, really, because it allows you to explain one thing through the perspective of another. Finally, we got moveable type and the printing press. Those were the biggies. They changed the relationship of author and audience to text.

The creation of a manuscript was no longer a one-pointed affair. Well, the creation of the first manuscript still was – but now it could be replicated and distributed to everyone. It was still one story, but now it was subject to a multiplicity of individual perspectives. This innovation, alone, changed the landscape of religion in the Western World. Individual interpretation of the Bible led to the collapse of Church authority and the top-down nature of its decrees. Everyone demanded his or her own relationship to the story.

All these renaissance discoveries and inventions forced people to contend with the fact that their perspectives mattered. Whether looking at a painting, or just standing on the globe; where you experienced this world from, and how you interpreted it, mattered. It was this realization that led to the great revolutions, all that bloodshed, and, ultimately, democracy.

A violent upheaval? Yeah. But ultimately part of a positive development for humankind. Might such a shift be occurring today? I think so.

Over the past fifty years, we’ve seen the emergence of inventions and discoveries that mirror those of the original Renaissance. Our equivalent of perspective painting is the holograph – those three dimensional pictures in which a woman winks or a bird flaps its wings as you walk by. Instead of seeing just three dimensions on a two-dimensional plane, we can see four – the added dimension is time. What’s weirder, if you take a holographic plate and smash it, you don’t just see one part of the picture in each piece – you find the entire picture, from a particular perspective.

Our equivalent of sailing around the globe is flying into space, and seeing the planet from a totally new perspective. We also gained the ability, through our nuclear bombs, to blow the whole thing up.

Our new math is not calculus, but chaos. The fractals depicted in science books and projected on the walls of rave clubs show us what are know as “fractional dimensions,” and help us measure objects that don’t fall neatly into the 2-D or 3-D category, like a rough surface, or “edge” of a cloud.

Instead of the sonnet, which allowed for extended comparisons, we got hypertext – the web link – that allows us to compare anything to anything else. Everything is related to everything.

And finally, our printing press is the Internet itself. But instead of simply allowing us to read and interpret texts ourselves, it allows us to write and disseminate our own. This is the big difference in our renaissance – and the part that has so many people, from politicians to priests, scared out of their wits. Dictators, ruthless businesspeople, and anyone who depends upon the silent stupidity of the “masses” are fighting to maintain control of a world that is getting smart and out of hand.

While the original renaissance made people feel that their interpretations of religion, society, and politics mattered, today’s renaissance makes us feel that our self-expression matters, too. It’s not enough for us to have access to great works of literature, or to pick whatever channel of programming we prefer. No, we want to be allowed to create the next great work of literature or television program, no matter what the powers that be think of us. It’s not enough for us to listen to what the politician or minister has to tell us about the way things are – we want our turn at the pulpit, too. And thanks to chat rooms, weblogs, and sms buddy lists, we’re getting that chance.

Think of it from a video game player’s perspective. It’s as if the first renaissance gave the gamer access to the cheat codes, so she can move about as she wants. The next renaissance gave her access to the programming language of the game, so that she can create her own levels and then share them with other gamers. It’s like moving from player, to cheater (or meta-game player), to programmer.

What’s even more thrilling, this renaissance perspective is not just something happening in the United States – it’s a global phenomenon. Kids in Scandinavia, Germany, England and Japan, in fact, have even more facility with the kinds of devices that allow for the rapid dissemination of any idea, to anyone, at any time.

Back in my day – the mid-90′s – many of us thought is was the Internet that would launch a digital renaissance. But people don’t live their lives behind a desk with their hands on a keyboard. Besides, how much of the real world can you experience from the confines of your office? It ended up being a bunch of computer people using their computers to converse about their computers.

Once you unplug, however, you can move about in real time, in the real world. Think of it: a hundred million communications devices constantly changing their relationship to one another as they move across the globe. How could you even chart such a phenomenon? Talk about dimensional leaps.

The handheld wireless device already has capabilities that were unimaginable to most of us just ten years ago. Text-entry, GPS, cameras, WAP, messaging, maps, graphics files, networking, Bluetooth… The modern wireless device has about the same capacity that a fully equipped, state-of-the-art television newsroom had in 1960′s. Maybe more.

And with this massive communications capacity, the users of these devices may just have the ability to take over the world. More on that in Part Two.

Douglas Rushkoff lectures about media, society, and change at conferences and universities around the world.