Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Mini-industries and business-ettes

There is a comment near the end of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes which says "Of the making of books, there is no end."  Since I am interested in books, the sources of books and the supply of them, that line has caught my attention many times.  It is quite true: comments on other comments, revisions, new insights, rehashes of old opinions, new put-downs, the human conversation goes on and on.  Are we destined to live in crowded spaces, surrounded by books, magazines and hard drives that retain all our ebooks, email, posts and such? Maybe, but I am not worried.

It seems to me that human need, coupled with ingenuity and energy, continually spews out new businesses and combinations of services and activities, just as our minds make for endless streams of comments and messages.  Of course, the whole business of communicating using 1's and 0's sent over wired and wireless signals has opened up dozens of new jobs and occupations.  

But there are other, more specialized occupations and specialties that are interesting.  In the 70's and 80's, because of one chance event and another, I became professionally interested in the future and the business of prediction.  The key events for me were the publication of "The Limits to Growth" and my academic need to specialize in some area of writing and thought.  By the way, I learned that the fundamental truth in the futures business is that we know and we don't know.  Much like other biases of our minds, all the things that we assume about tomorrow that turn out to be true can passed over without notice.  But those times when dramatic predictions are made that do not come true are waved about as examples of how tricky life can be, especially life in a time of research and desperate innovation, where millions are working hard to make something brand new and valuable.

Just as there is a surprisingly large body of workers, publishers, movie and tv makers (that now include YouTube and immediate personalized world-wide cinematography artists) aimed at the future, there is a related group, often older people, who are interested in decline and decay.  In this country, because of our history, the rocks and hills are "old" but we don't see that much that is human that is more than 100-200 years old.  However, seeing the pyramids of Egypt or the coliseum of Rome, one gets reminded that others before us have lived happily and profitably until…  Until the volcano exploded (Pompei), until the tsunami hit (Lisbon), until the overly long drought and other things we can worry about - until somethings changes our circumstances.

I was interested when Jacques Barzun, one of my favorite writers, came out with his last book "From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present".  The man was smart and imaginative.  Were we in a period of decay?  Didn't seem that way to me but what do I know?  I knew there was a Biblical tradition of jeremiade, defined by Wikipedia this way:
A jeremiad is a long literary work, usually in prose, but sometimes in verse, in which the author bitterly laments the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective, and always contains a prophecy of society's imminent downfall.
The word is an eponym, named after the Biblical prophet Jeremiah, and comes from Biblical works attributed to him, the Book of Jeremiah and the Book of Lamentations. The Book of Jeremiah prophesies the coming downfall of the Kingdom of Judah, and asserts that this is because its rulers have broken the covenant with the Lord.

From that knowledge and from learning about the existence of "The Idea of Decline In Western History" by Arthur Herman, a scholar with the Smithsonian and the son of a good friend of mine, I learned that we do have a mini-industry of predictors and gazers into the future but we also have those who specialize in doom-saying.  Further, the tradition of noting and bemoaning the gray clouds that are gathering is at least 300 years old.

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