I’ve been on holiday in Sicily for a couple of weeks. I’ve had Francis Fukuyama and Watts Wacker rumbling around in my head.
Fukuyama is famous primarily, of course, for his essay (and book) The End of History. Wacker is a futurologist that I saw speak a decade or so ago, outlining his case that the world was changing because of a condition that he called Homophyly. Homophyly is defined as the tendency of objects, when in close proximity, to assume the characteristics of each other. Homophyly is equally applicable to human behavior. It increases in direct relation to the increase in access and connectivity. The ultimate extension of homophyly is a global biological similarity that will threaten genetic variation.
I heard Rosabeth Moss Cantor advance a similar point years ago as well. She described taking her teenage son on the international lecture circuit, visiting cities as apparently diverse as Rio, Guangzhao, Sydney, Moscow and Istanbul. At each, she would arrange for her son to spend a day with an equaivalently-aged child of one of her hosts to experience the local culture. Several cities on, she and he reflected that the cultural immersion day would include a trip the mall, a movie and a McDonalds.
It feels a little the same wherever we travel these days. I try not to use maps or Sat Nav and find, almost invariably, that I am nearly right if I am looking for a petrol station or the out of town supermarket on those occasions that I need them. From the sky the thumb prints of cities are remarkably similar.
As I walked around the streets of Sirucusa, Palermo, Bagheria, Taormina and on the slopes of Etna these last few weeks I did what I always do: people-watched. Wherever I went, the tourists were holding up their 21st century versions of illuminated manuscripts – their iPads and smartphones – and were recording what they saw.
Well actually they weren’t.
As I looked closer, I noticed that they weren’t looking at the glowing pink stone of the cathedral wall or the Byzantine mosaics in the vault, or the way that you could distinguish the newest lava flow even several years after it had happened. Instead they were looking at the world through their screens. The instant video feedback made the device the tourist.
It reminded me of the interminable slide shows my dad used to host for friends after our trips abroad when I was a kid. We’d get back to Australia after several weeks, the films would go off for processing and they’d be back 10 days later. Then they’d set a date for the show. He’d say “it’s not a great shot because it was very dark, but if you can imagine, behind that woman’s head is one of Michelangelo’s pietas. Let me describe it to you…”
We’ve lost that languid pause. Now we watch a real-time slide show of the things that we should be looking at directly but aren’t. It feels, in a way, as though we are exhibiting a real-time resistance to a truncated version of Fukuyama’s hypothesis.
When I collected my daughter from the station this morning she started talking about the way that popular technology ‘dates’ our memories. Instagram yellows the images, a Super 8 app renders footage in a format that looks like it has been deteriorating in a can for years – all stretched, faded – with built in snap, crackle and pop.
We are straining to apply patina. Why?
Perhaps because we have an innate cultural resistance to immediacy – which flies in the face of what is happening. Perhaps the popularity of these apps is part of a counter-intuitive resistance to the instantaneity that we are able to ‘enjoy’ with the latest technology. We have a growing sense of sameness as we travel – and perhaps our need to express a history in those fleeting and increasingly rarified moments when we encounter something out of the ordinary, beyond the reach of homophyly and a precursor of the end of history – is a mild form of rebellion that we should enjoy and nurture rather than rail against.