It may be helpful to be able to look at the past and see how humanity has faced phenomena similar to modern computers and media. We can be terribly arrogant when it comes to trumpeting everything contemporary as having no precedent, a danger in dismissing the wisdom, however fragile it might be, that has developed from meeting similar situations in the past. This essay is attempt to examine some of the historical foundations of today’s computer culture.
One of the things that makes it difficult to discuss the role of computers and the Interent from an anthroposophical perspective is their apparent lack of historical antecedence. The computer is generally presented as a device that, while having its foundations in the thought constructs of visionaries such as Francis Bacon, Blaise Pascal, and Charles Babbage, could not be bodied forth until, like Athene, it sprung fully-formed from the mind of Alan Turing during the Second World War. The Internet, with its reliance on such modern technology as phone lines and routers, fiber optic cables and satellite dishes, is also represented as an unprecedented development in human communication that is “changing the way we think.”
For those of us who, perhaps, have not yet sufficiently changed the way we think, it is helpful to be able to look at the past and see how humanity has faced phenomena similar to modern computers and media. We can be terribly arrogant when it comes to trumpeting everything contemporary as having no precedent, a danger in dismissing the wisdom, however fragile it might be, that has developed from meeting similar situations in the past.
With this in mind, I want to point to two phenomena – one that points to a human experience that, many hundreds of years ago, was not unlike that of the computer screen, and the other that was the nineteenth century equivalent of the Internet. It has been noted by more than one language arts teacher that the human capacity for creating metaphor seems to be on the wane, but I hope that my efforts to explore modern technology in a metaphorical way may still merit a sympathetic reception.
1. Lead and Glass
Our age is not the first to experience a cultural or technological phenomenon that, seeming to come “out of nowhere,” suddenly manifests “everywhere” at once reflecting and transforming the prevailing consciousness of an age. This was certainly the case with stained glass at the dawn of the second millennium.
It was Abbot Suger who recognized the architectural and spiritual significance of the Gothic Cathedral of St. Denis that he had designed, and had his stained glass artists create a visual diary of the cathedral’s construction. With this, stained glass became more than a medium for the transmission of light; throughout the High Middle Ages it was a medium for transmitting information, as well. Because of Suger’s wish to utilize windows to convey the story of a particularly human achievement, stained glass windows were never limited to religious content. Over time they became a particularly favored means of representing the work of the guilds, which in themselves represented virtually everything that human beings could accomplish with their hands. For the illiterate masses of European peasantry and town-dwellers stained glass windows represented everything there was to know about the heavens and the earth; their radiant panels were the great educators of Western humanity.
In and of itself, glass is a remarkable substance:
There is a mystery to glass: It is a form of matter with gas, liquid and solid state properties. Glass is most like a super-cooled liquid. It captures light and glows from within. It is a jewel like substance made from the most ordinary materials: sand transformed by fire. Before recorded history, man learned to make glass and color it by adding metallic salts and oxides. These minerals within the glass capture specific portions from the spectrum of white light allowing the human eye to see various colors. Gold produces stunning cranberry; cobalt makes blues; silver creates shades of yellow and gold while copper makes greens and brick red. (A History of Stained Glass, http://www.thestorefinder.com/glass/library/history.html)
If the dark and heavy lead that gives the window its structural foundation can be understood as the condensation of warmth from ancient Saturn, we might experience the glass itself as an image of the subsequent planetary states: gas (Sun), liquid (Moon) and solid state (Earth). In its substantial nature alone, the stained glass window is a material “narrative” of the stages of earthly evolution.
Of course, the cathedral windows were not the first medium to convey information through imagery, but they were the first medium to bring those images to life through the stream of radiant light. When night falls, stained glass windows revert to being dully-colored pieces of heavy glass crisscrossed with strips of lead. It is only when the direct or atmospherically dispersed light of the sun shines through them that stained glass windows come to life.
In this respect the medium of stained glass is unique. Up until the twentieth century, all other artistic and informational media relied on reflected light to serve their function. When we read a book or gaze upon a painting, the object of our gaze acts like a moon whose reflected light conveys to us, indirectly, the intentions of the author or artist whose thoughts and deeds are one step removed. When we experience a stained glass window, we are within the Light:
The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-colour’d glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments . . . .
Western culture has for centuries been given the task of developing the reflective capacity within humanity, and the reflective nature of the visual and narrative arts has reinforced the reflective nature of their content. Among the visual arts, stained glass had the ability to evoke what Owen Barfield spoke of as a “participatory” experience on the part of the viewer. The power of stained glass windows had much to do with their sheer size and beauty, but it had even more to do with its effect on the consciousness of those who beheld them.
No less remarkable than its precipitous appearance as a dominant art form in Europe was the virtual disappearance of stained glass as a serious medium from the time of the Renaissance to the mid-nineteenth century. In those hundreds of years, the “radiant” quality of stained glass was increasingly ignored, and paints laid upon glass images emphasized their “reflective” qualities. It is as if unique experience of light had been granted to a small number of people over a short period of time: a seed had been planted that would sprout at a very different time, under profoundly different circumstances.
2. Longs and Shorts
At the same time that the medieval art of stained glass making was being revived at the hands of William Morris in England and Louis Comfort Tiffany in the United States as part of an aesthetic response to the depredations of the industrial age, an important (and, today, quite under-appreciated) technology was developing throughout the world. From the time of its development in the early 1800s to the transmission of the first messages by Samuel Morse in 1837, the electrical telegraph brought about a powerful transformation of the economic, financial, and, not least, military life of the nineteenth century. So great was its allure that such influential figures as Edison, Tesla, Marconi, and Karl Friedrich Gauss all played a role in its development.
The cables that transmitted messages over land were the first man-made, visible “web” to be woven wherever there were settlements or railroads, while the underwater cables that linked Europe and North America, India and Great Britain, and finally even reached Australia, were technological marvels. And it was the telegraph that figured in the achievement of the very first “wireless” transmissions of messages: to this day, the story of young David Sarnoff hearing the fateful clicks, transmitted from the Titanic, signifying “SOS,” is the stuff of legend.
The maintenance and operation of the telegraph terminals were the province of mechanically-inclined and inventive boys – the techies of their time – who renounced fresh air, sunlight, and gross-motor movement so that they could sit for long days in cramped settings repetitively moving only one or two fingers. To qualify for this coveted position, a boy had to master Morse Code, which reduced all letters, all words, all sentences, indeed all human converse, to an elemental electrical polarity: short or long, off or on.
At this time a bright and sensitive youngster was taken out of school so that he could be educated at home. His father operated the telegraph system at a railway station near Vienna, and the boy found himself fatefully drawn to the telegraph terminal and the mystery of its wires stretching into infinity. It was a device that raised many questions in the boy’s soul, pointing to myriad riddles of time, of space, and of the secret world of codes. Many years later he was to write:
At the time, I was about ten years old and could not yet spell correctly or write grammatically. . .
Along with these things, I was also very interested in the operation of the railroad. I learned the laws of electricity by watching the station telegraph. Also, as a child, I learned to send telegrams.
And, as it happened, no one saw the need to warn Rudolf Steiner away from his fascination with that world wide web of electrically transmitted code that Ahriman was already weaving 140 years ago.
3. Sphinx or Synthesis?
As the reader may have already guessed, I have delved into some cultural and technological history to raise the possibility that the computer and its byproducts, particularly the Internet, do, indeed have historical antecedents. This is not to say that this new technology has simply “evolved” from older inventions, but it is to point out that its advent was perhaps significantly less “revolutionary” than is usually believed. However, the reader may be wondering if I am suggesting that the computer and the Internet are the outcomes of a benign synthesis of medieval artistry and Industrial Age inventiveness – or a hodgepodge, a technological Sphinx, or even a Mixed King who must fall.
If we consider the relationship of the medieval stained glass window to the modern computer screen, the similarities are remarkable. The first computer screens, like the first television screens, were extremely small in proportion to their casing. One of the most noticeable changes in computer design has been the increasing expanse of glass that forms an almost invisible threshold between the computer’s hidden structure and the user. Although the computer began as a device in which all of the glass was interior, in the form of vacuum tubes, and, later, transistors, that substance has migrated to the exterior.
Like a stained glass window, the computer screen is a complex synthesis of gaseous, liquid, and solid substance. In much the same way that the stained glass blower used homeopathic admixtures of minerals and rare metals to color the glass, today’s computers utilize nearly insubstantial amounts of gold, silver, and copper to modulate the silicon semi-conductors on the “chip,” as well as myriad heavy metals and rare earths to transform electrical currents into colors and shapes.
The most recent – and wildly successful – computer-like devices, such as the iPhone and the iPad, come close to being nothing but screens, concealing their mechanisms to such a degree that the user can simulate an “intimacy” akin to that of the medieval viewer giving himself over to a window that fully encompassed his field of vision. And, of course, the most obvious – but rarely mentioned – similarity of the stained glass window and the modern computer screen is that they are the only two media on earth that have ever conveyed information through radiant light.
Indeed, as these lines are being written, a debate is raging among application developers, interface designers, educators, and consumers, as the Amazon Kindle “reading device” and the Apple iPad “tablet” enter into fierce competition. Amazon spent years developing a screen experience that would simulate the experience of print-on-paper, the archetypal reading experience of humanity who venerable provenance extends at least as far back as cuneiform and papyrus. Using a Kindle, the reader encounters reflected light, so that, as daylight wanes, a reading lamp is required, while the iPad emits a constant light “through” the simulated page of the book.
Although there has been general agreement among the groups enumerated above that reading from a computer screen is less satisfactory than reading from paper, the Apple Corporation has developed a radiant-light interface on its iPad that is rapidly making inroads on the Kindle. The resolution of this technical battle could result in a sea-change in the way in which we read – and absorb information, knowledge, art, altogether. We may find ourselves living in a strangely metamorphosed High Middle Ages, with every computer screen a cathedral unto itself.
And what of the telegraph? In much the same way that the invention and rapid deployment of telegraphy brought an end to the colorful and adventurous Pony Express, so it would seem that the telephone brought the telegraph to a close for once and for all, replacing the arcane world of clicks with recognizable speech, expanding the reductionist foundation of “short” and “long,” “on” and “off” with a simulacrum, at least, of human speech. And yet, through most of the world, the fiber optics cables that transmit a great deal of the content of the Internet are funneled through the same pipelines buried long ago to shelter telegraph lines. In North America, the major conduits of computer networking fan out alongside train tracks, much as the endless lines of wires carrying telegraph signals did in the nineteenth century.
Although computers themselves were born as extensions of the electric typewriters that were utilized for both input and output, one the “Graphical User Interface,” or GUI, was developed by Xerox and promulgated by the Apple Macintosh, the keyboard was increasingly supplanted by the “mouse.” The typewriter utilizes the entire alphabet and the numbers and symbols that have been the foundation of human literacy for centuries. The mouse utilizes clicks, not unlike the telegraph key, and requires “code,” which is itself a set of endless ordinal variations of ones and zeros, “on” and “off” – Samuel Morse redux.
It is interesting to observe the teenager (or pre-teen) in the shopping mall, restaurant, or even the Steiner high school classroom, rapidly typing out a text message by tapping her thumbs on the glass surface of a virtual keyboard. The growing popularity of such “touch screens” portends devices that could be seen as a strange marriage of the sense of sight and the sense of touch, the stained glass window and the telegraph.
3. Finding the Balance
I have thus far tried to avoid making any judgments about the technologies that I have been exploring. As a long-time Steiner school practitioner, I have, of course, espoused the “party line” that while all media is bad for children of all ages, some is “badder” still, particularly the computer and its attendant hosts of applications and networks. I can still agree with this argument, but I think that it is important to then ask, “If it is all that bad, then why are school children drawn to it all? Is there something missing even in the robust Steiner school experience that is met by the modern media technologies?”
There are two indications given by Rudolf Steiner that may help us approach this question in a productive way. The first is what he has to say about the time span of the life we spend between death and rebirth. Steiner points to a much longer sojourn in the higher worlds than any other spiritual researcher – many of us need a thousand years of “remedial education” in the heavens to process one lifetime and prepare for the next. Although there are undoubtedly those souls who are traversing these worlds faster and returning sooner, it is helpful to hold the archetype of ten centuries as a period in which great numbers of those who lived together in one life return to work together once again.
This indication may be helpful in understanding the strange kinship of the stained glass window and the computer screen. Those who lived at time of the cathedrals needed the experience of direct, radiant light then, and they need it now, while millions of souls on different rhythms of incarnation were quite content to experience the world through reflected light. (A more philosophically-inclined commentator might describe this in terms of Aristotelian and Platonic tendencies.)
Of course, experiences from one life to another may bear strong similarities, but they must not be merely repetitive, or why would we wish to return? The medieval soul was open to the spirit, and hence the light that radiated through the cathedral windows was the sun’s light. We, however, live in a materialistic age and we must encounter matter in its most fallen state. It is only to be expected that the “light” radiating through the computer screen will be electrical light, the emanation of “fallen” light ether. It will take a much stronger soul and spirit to meet this fallen light and raise it to its nascent state once more, and the addictive nature of the computer experience indicates how easily an individual can get trapped in this pale mirage of radiance.
A second picture given by Rudolf Steiner concerns the role of those souls approaching the earth in anticipation of their next life. They understand that an earthly life is, above all, an educational experience, and they are empowered to help prepare their “classroom” – their earthly abode – to be supplied with the educational materials and tools that they will have to encounter and utilize to fully realize their karma in a lifetime. We need only watch the child in virtually any modern setting, short of the battlefield, to see how openly and lovingly he or she takes hold of our rather crazy world. We certainly need to protect and shelter our little ones so that they have time and space to fully experience their childhood, but we must be careful, especially in their school years, about saying “No!” to the very world that they, themselves, have helped to create.
This may help us understand why a ten year-old can be at home in front of a computer within ten minutes, while an adult may need months to get the hang of it; it is the ten year-old who saw to it that the computer would be there when he arrived on earth. And this may certainly help us contemplate the fact that children with the most extreme behavioral difficulties, e.g., Asperger Syndrome and ADHD – and the learning difficulties often attendant upon them – may often show a more stable, communicative, thoughtful, social, etc side of their nature when they are allowed to write with a word processor. The fact that the children of parents who are themselves deeply involved in the computer world are statistically more prone to such behavioral problems is, in Steiner school circles, presented as evidence that the influence of a high-tech environment is antithetical to behavioral health. We might also say that it is evidence that such children long to meet such an environment – which sometimes seems to fit them like a hand in glove – because they have the task of taking hold of, and perhaps in time taking a small step towards redeeming the light that has fallen.
At the time, I was about ten years old and could not yet spell correctly or write grammatically. . .
. . . I learned the laws of electricity by watching the station telegraph. Also, as a child, I learned to send telegrams.
Over the next decade it is very likely that, through the front door or the back, Steiner schools will have to accept the presence of the computer (or whatever its next manifestation will be). As a means of bringing balance to the powerful influence that such devices will have upon the “millennial children” of our century, it would probably be beneficial if the art of making stained glass were cultivated in the older classes. The experience of radiant light is clearly one that is demanded by those souls finding their way to earth, and the sixth and seventh classes, during which the Middle Ages are generally studied in the Steiner setting, are also years in which students have the skill and focus to work with aspects of stained glass making.
If this were combined with more extensive work in Physics classes on the creation of telegraphy systems, yet another balancing factor would be introduced, making the computer/tablet/phone less of a “black box” and more of a human creation that may be penetrated by human consciousness.
The “iGeneration” is demanding that we not simply wage endless war upon the media and its technologies, but understand and transform them. Any small steps that we may take in this direction will help the iGeneration to become the “I”-Generation; masters of the technological world, and not its slaves.
As Rudolf Steiner said in his 1914 lecture, “The Nature of Technology”:
- It would be the worst possible mistake to say that we should resist what technology has brought into modern life, that we should protect ourselves from Ahriman, even cut ourselves off from modern life. In a certain sense this would be spiritual cowardice. The real remedy is to make the forces of the soul strong so that they can stand up to modern life.
For more essays, podcasts, and lecture CDs by Eugene Schwartz, visit his web site at www.millennialchild.com