Renaissance Now

Renaissance Now
by Douglas Rushkoff on 2006-08-28 09:58:37
tags: douglas rushkoff, get back in the box

Do you remember anything of what you learned about the original Renaissance – the one so big that we capitalize it? What were the main innovations? Well, how about perspective painting? Artists developed the technique of the “vanishing point” and with it ability to represent three-dimensional scenes on two-dimensional surfaces. In a sense, they were contending with the newfound complexity of their age: people were beginning to see their world in greater dimensionality, and painting had to develop an innovation that rose to this occasion. It’s not that flat painting artists suddenly all became 3D sculptors.No, they incorporated a technology into their work that let them be painters for a new, more complex age. Painters reinvented themselves by becoming more aware of a core premise: that a flat image can represent the depth of our real world.And why not? Everyone was seeing three dimensions where there had formerly been only two. Although cartographers had suspected the world was round for some time, it wasn’t until the Renaissance that anyone actually circumnavigated the whole globe.This changed our relationship to both the planet we live on and the maps we used to describe it. The maps still worked, of course, but they described a sphere instead of a plane. Anyone hoping to navigate a course had to be able to relate a two-dimensional map to the new reality of a three-dimensional planet. Meanwhile, in more popular culture, people stopped thinking of the world as something one falls off, instead seeing it as something that could be encircled – even conquered.

Likewise, calculus – born at the end of the Renaissance – is a mathematical system that allows us to derive one dimension from another. It is a way of describing curves with the language of lines, or spheres with the language of curves. It allowed us to understand the relationship between speed and acceleration, as well as work, power, and energy. The leap from arithmetic to calculus was not just a leap in our ability to work with higher-dimensional objects, but a leap in our ability to relate the objects of one dimension to the objects of another. It was a shift in perspective that allowed us to orient ourselves to objects and ideas beyond whatever world we were in. In other words, we didn’t have to get out of the box in order to understand what was beyond it; we could do it from right where we were – using telescopes, microscopes, maps, and new math.

The Spenserian sonnet, a new standard form of poetry, brought with it the first use of extended metaphor – itself a way of creating dimensionality. Instead of just describing a thing or mood, the sonnet used one idea – say, a sunset – as a way of describing another one – like old age. Instead of describing something literally, the sonnet could add another dimension by making an extended comparison.

Perhaps the most profound new perspective came with the reader’s newfound ability to have his own view on whatever he read. Gutenberg’s invention of movable type and the printing press transformed the one-to-one communication of the manuscript into the one-to-many published volume. It was still just one text broadcast to the multitudes, but now it was subject to a multiplicity of individual perspectives. From then on, all people were able to enjoy their own perspectives on their stories, their news, their religions and their world, and this newfound capacity led to everything from Protestantism and literacy to the Enlightenment and modern democracy. With the Renaissance, ancient Greek or even biblical ideals of humanism and the rights of the individual were reborn on a new scale.

All these examples of Renaissance innovation involve people experiencing a very particular shift in their relationship to dimension. Everyone’s perspective is different; everyone’s perspective matters. Originally, the Renaissance shift was seen as such a threat to existing authority that a new era of centralization was born. Both nation states, as we currently understand them, as well as corporations that would have the ability to operate between these nations, were products of this era. So was national currency, religion, and identity. But this massive centralization and administration of human affairs was less the character of the Renaissance than a reaction to it: institutions that respected the newfound autonomy of the individual needed to arise.

Understood this way, a renaissance is a moment of reframing. We step out of the frame as it is currently defined and see the whole picture in a new context.We can then play by new rules.

I believe we are currently living through a shift as profound as the original Renaissance. Our equivalents of perspective painting are the holograph and virtual reality, which allow us to experience not only three dimensions, but to move through them in real time. Even more amazingly, if you take a holographic plate and break it into many pieces, each fragment has a faint representation of the entire image. In this new understanding, unlike that of earlier philosophers and scientists who attempted to comprehend a collective organism, every part of a system in some way reflects the whole thing.

We have not only circumnavigated the globe, but also orbited and photographed it from the moon. Thanks to television images of the Earth from space, we can all see the planet on which we live. And thanks to the atomic bomb, we can even conceive of blowing the whole thing up.

Instead of calculus, we have chaos math and fractals – new ways of understanding the relativity of dimension. Zoom in to any portion of a fractal image and you can readily observe its “self-similarity”: every detail, in some way, reflects the whole. Meanwhile, chaos theory teaches us that any tiny part of a dynamical system, such as the weather or even the stock market, can be a “high leverage” point causing change throughout. Each part has an influence on the whole.

Where the Renaissance brought the extended metaphor, today we have the online web of hypertext, a universe of metaphors and connections that allows any idea to become linked to any other. And our equivalents of the printing press are the computer and the Internet; we not only can read, but we also can write documents that are available to the rest of the world. Again, any individual can now broadcast his point of view to the rest of the world.

Renaissances are great eras. They’re opportunities, as the word “renaissance” implies, for things to be reborn in a new context.They are the springtime – reincarnations when the caterpillar comes back to life but more fully manifesting its core value and purpose as a butterfly. These are rare moments when we have the freedom and capability to redefine entire disciplines, arts, governments, religions, and industries in completely new ways.

Where we’ve gone so wrong, however, was to use all this increased perspective as a way of stepping out of frame. Just as our kids developed an ironic distance from the media that meant to persuade them, we developed an almost militarist detachment in our efforts to market them back into submission.The more guilty we felt about what we were doing, the further we detached from it, and the more lost we became. So rather than trying to understand the products we made or services we offered, we simply put them in different packages. We managed our brands instead of our products.We innovated by focus group consensus, removing our own creativity from the equation.Then we hired outside consultants to teach us how to “get out of the box,” distancing us even further from the satisfaction and orientation to be found at the heart of our endeavors.

In short, the impulse in times like these is to step back from what we’re doing and attempt to see the big picture, the long view, or the megatrend.We hire brand gurus and retreat into the woods with top management to “discover” a new reason for being, and end up with a Coke “C2” or a McDonald’s “Arch Deluxe.” Or we hire new accountants to rejigger our spreadsheets and turn us from an energy company into an Enron. We’re convinced the answer is always to think abstractly, and end up solving our problems with generic managerial techniques rather than depending on insights intrinsic to the enterprises in which we’re involved.

Instead of seeing renaissance, we see threats that need to be quietly managed, or “big think” ideas that need to be completely incorporated before our competition does.We are drawn away from what we do, and out into the business of business.We begin using the same language and strategies as any of the CEOs spouting off on CNBC, and then wonder why the competitive advantages we used to be able to depend on have withered away. The more complex things get, the more experts we hire. And no matter how much lip service we’re giving to innovation, we’re simply trying to prevent being run over by what we perceive to be a steamroller of change.

As I see it, we’re still trying to coast, using the reductive strategies of the last Renaissance, while resisting the potential for innovation that this one offers us. If anything, the end of the Industrial Age might best be understood as the final chapter of the last Renaissance. Problem is, those innovations have already been exploited about as fully as they can be, and now we’re applying them in situations that call for a new kind of innovation – one that works from the inside out, rather than the outside in.

The Renaissance gave rise to great fragmentation. Thinking dimensionally meant thinking abstractly. Understanding ourselves as individuals for the first time was tremendously empowering, but also isolating. It led us to institutionalize competition for the first time, and to perceive of the world as a rather ruthless marketplace. It’s when we began mining natural resources for energy, centralizing our monetary policies, and formally establishing the division of labor.

For what was “reborn” in the original Renaissance were the high ideals of the ancient Greeks. The Renaissance innovations in the arts and sciences allowed some very old, long-suppressed idealism to rise back to the surface.The Greeks were the first true abstract thinkers, capable of applying logic to problems.They valued the intellect above all else, and saw the problems of our world as being errors in design. As long as human inventions failed to meet up to their abstract ideals, they would be destined to fail.

If we are enjoying another renaissance today, then which longburied ideas will be reborn? Probably the ones that the original Renaissance suppressed: holism, feminism, and grounded creativity. The Renaissance was based so completely on logic and observable science, that people lost confidence in intuition and instinct. So we turned to machines for support, security, and reinforcement.We used them to nullify our doubt. As those machines – eventually computers – failed to reckon with the extraordinary complexity of our age, the very modes of thinking they were built to subdue were again free to resurface.

So far, these repressed strains of thought and behavior have been emerging in crude and immature forms – mostly in the spiritual and environmental movements, and often as conspiracy theory and paranoia. But what if they were simply unrecognized, stray elements of a more culturally widespread creative resurgence?

[Editor’s Note: This excerpt comes from the introduction to Douglas Rushkoff’s book Get Back in the Box, entitled Renaissance Now. He has been gracious enough to donate it to Key 64.]


Winner of the first Neil Postman award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity, Douglas Rushkoff is an author, teacher, and documentarian who focuses on the ways people, cultures, and institutions create, share, and influence each other’s values. He sees “media” as the landscape where this interaction takes place, and “literacy” as the ability to participate consciously in it.

His ten best-selling books on new media and popular culture have been translated to over thirty languages. They include Cyberia, Media Virus, Playing the Future, Nothing Sacred: The Truth about Judaism, and Coercion, winner of the Marshall McLuhan Award for best media book. Rushkoff also wrote the acclaimed novels Ecstasy Club and Exit Strategy and the graphic novel, Club Zero-G. His latest work is a book for HarperBusiness, applying renaissance principles to today’s complex economic landscape: Get Back in the Box: Innovation from the Inside Out.