Byzantium 550 AD
A talk prepared for the Dark Markets Conference, Vienna, October 3, 2003
First, I want to let you know that there's a misprint on your program: I'm not a researcher or theorist, I'm simply a writer who, like George Orwell or Joan Didion, writes to find out what she thinks.
Another writer you may have heard of is the Brit Robert Graves, an innovator (until very recently, a much-admired job title) for sure – although literature and ideas, and not marketing schticks and financial scams, were his forte.
His "Farewell to all That", anticipating the current vogue for debunking memoir, was one of the very first confessions that all wasn't as it was cracked up to be in the British upper class. His Jung-besotted "The White Goddess" was a fine mess of mythopoetic googoo, codifying the Eternal Feminine in such a way that neopagans (Covenant of the Goddess) have been unknowingly appropriating Graves for decades, as have been male poets in their determination that of course it's for reasons of -inspiration- that they should always have a good looking babe within their purview (Richard and Mimi Farina). "I, Claudius" created the genre of revisionist historial novel, the "everything you know or were taught is wrong" sort of well-researched romp later put to such good ends by folks such as Gore Vidal.
Graves was also best buds with Siegfried Sasoon, the gay half-Jewish aristocratic poet-equestrian who more or less pioneered the concept of catch-22: because Sassoon refused after a time to lead his troops into any more of World War One's foolish, murderous, ill-advised sorties, he was classified as
insane – and was thus able to spare his men. Becoming "cured" of what was then called shell-shock ("Regeneration”- Pat Barker) meant returning to the insanity of the trenches, a paradox Sasoon's psychiatrist (himself a pioneer, in both the humane treatment of traumatized, and still earlier in his career, in the documentation of the moves and ways of South Sea Islanders) well-understood.
But most relevant to us here is Graves' "Count Belisarius", his novel about Byzantine Emperor Justinian's (Emperor Justinian) world-class general, Belisarius. Because this =Balkan= (Hague War-crimes Tribunal)-born hero ranks up there with the all-star double-platinum top-ten bestloved generals of all time (victorious, beautiful, athletic, couragous, imaginative, kind, modest), there had to be a story about how even as a child, he displayed his manly virtues of cunning, prowess, and mercy. And there was: young Belisarius and his retinue, in his travels from his mother's house to the prep school befitting the station of a solider-scholar to be, faced off with the extortionate henchmen of the local land-owning Bad Guy. These bad actors, intent on protection money and mayhem, were bested by plucky Belisarius and his loyal underdogs.
But how were these wiseguys distracted, while a counterassault involving ground black pepper and a hot poker was being prepared? By argumentation over Christian theology, heresy, and doctrine! (St Augustine of Hippo)
Now, thugs and thanes of a local boyar -ought- to be quarrelling about the outcomes of games of chance, the qualities desireable in the thighs of young mares and young maidens, and the mouth-feel, bouquet, and brix number of locally-available poteen. These bad-asses were somewhat different from our modern Taliban and Al Qaeda, who in large part use the -excuse- of religion (Destroyed Bhuddhas) as a conduit for working out their anger (WTC), denying both modernity and its whiney little sister, pomo (Situationists), and to a lesser degree, seeking out profitable business opportunities. No, these Byzantine toughs really -cared- about true belief, as much as the powers that be in pre-revolutionary France very much also cared what the Cathars and Albigensians and Huegenots professed (St Bartholomew's Day Massacre).
There is something gone very wrong in a world where enforcers do care about creed and how Truth is revealed of the Divine – and Graves couldn't have done a better job of setting the scene of a world where things have gone very very wrong, and all is in decline.
And if you think about it, this scene of churchy concerns among those who shouldn't give a damn very much evokes an image lovingly described by Po Bronson (Po Bronson) in his "Nudist on the Late Shift", a collection of soft-focus soft-porn journalistic sketches of the tech boom. Bronson editorialized that it's a wonderful thing that engineers kept windows open on their monitors to track the realtime performance of their portfolios and their employers' place on the stockmarket. No, it wasn't, and no, it's not.
For a generation of young technologists have been indoctrinated into the religion of markets and the stockholder theory of value – and now that it's all gone kablooey, they don't know what to do or what to believe. Long time gone now, they have been thinking first and foremost about how quickly they can come up with a fungible elevator pitch, as opposed to thinking about solving hard or interesting problems. Skill and craft and artisanal pride of workmanship have largely fallen away, and go largely unrewarded. And these younger technologists, like us, are now living in the world of Byzantium 550 AD.
For the Byzantine world of Count Belisarius (who died in 565 AD) was one where technology was lost, invention mattered less and less, and fractious alien kleptocrats creamed off societal wealth generations in the making. Old wisdom was lost – and there wasn't much space for the creation of the new. Piracy, and lesser imitations of art forms, abounded. The very rich became very much richer (Bernie Ebbers) – and everyone else became poorer (Maquiladora/New River).
About the best that can be said of that time was the creation of Hagia Sophia, and Justinian's code of laws. Rather different from the aqueducts, central heating (Roman Baths at Bath, England), and great roads of the Romans, or the sculpture and literature and that kooky invention called democracy of the Greeks. It's a compare and contrast not so different from the contrast between the creative outputs of engineering and computer science during what we might call Ancient History (say, pre-Netscape IPO in 1995), (Archival RFC) and that of our own Byzantine era (say, post Nasdaq crash of Spring 2000), (QQQ GRAPH).
Microsoft (Microsoft Palladium) can be seen as what Christianity became in that sad Byzantine time, the brutally state-imposed religion that tied people to their occupations and their land so their work and lives could never, ever change. Various barbarian tribes ransacked
and impovershed what remained of civilization – Vandals/VCs to the west (Kleiner Perkins)! Ostrogoths/TimeWarnerAOL/IP despots (Wilson Sonsini) from the East! Lombards and Teutons and Gauls (Dying Gaul), oh my! That is, the dark powers of bad government policy and corporatization of basic research (Bioinformatics Start-up) surround us everywhere. And technology has gone out of fashion altogether, rather like the passing of the vogue for sensible philosophies such as Stoicism or Epicureanism.
These dementor barbarian (Celts) hordes can be so easily visualized with their intentions of on plunder and discord. They are heedless of the havoc and ruin they bring to the rich – but decaying – civilization whose goodies they covet.
So while I never want to typecast actors, nor blame them for taking whatever work they need to in order to keep working, it's -typical-, and depressing and creepy, that in the fall 2002 season of the U.S. major network-television lineup there is a remake of what was a derivative bad tv show the first time around in the 1970s, "Family Affair". "Family Affair" redux stars Tim Curry as the butler catering to an American family. Only Curry is best known for -his- role in the 1970s cult classic, "Rocky Horror Picture Show", even at the time of its creation a tired spoof of horror movies, and a tired retelling of coming-out/arent-we-naughty-here-in-the-underbelly-of-society (Cabaret) narratives.
It's a convention among historians that with the death of Justinian, the Dark Ages officially began – and secular culture, science, and technology wouldn't thrive and grow for a thousand years. The Middle Ages were a fine time for fabu cathedrals (St. Peter and St. Paul on 6th Century Sarcophagus, Aquitane) and the occassional doodle of a cat in the margins of an illuminated manuscript – but maybe were not so great for people who wanted to explore the natural world, or make stuff that works.
What's left of Napster (probably only some office furniture and some Linux-based servers) is being auctioned off in bankruptcy court, with a porn concern in hot contention for the assets of an entity that finely symbolizes the Byzantine flux we find ourselves in: Napster and its users ripped off artists, but was also in the end shut down by the transnational cosmodemonic hegemony (SONY) that wants to do away with fair use (RIAA), privacy, and technological innovation (EFF). There's little to mourn here in the demise of the company, but much to grieve over in all the sorry bad agents at play. A plague on all their houses...
Maybe there is something that can be done to make our coming dark time a little shorter and a little brighter. I leave that up to you.