Dialogues in the Other Future

by Alexander Blair-Ewart,
360 pages,
ISBN: 1895897432

Post Your Opinion
New Age, or Bad New Days
by Ursula Franklin

Anyone interested in and confused about the future might be well- advised to read these two books together, or rather side by side, not just one after the other.

This idea came to me when I began reading Mindfire and started muttering to myself, "But, but, but.." Even if one does not know what "the other future" of the subtitle is all about, "dialogue" is clear enough; it means (by Oxford's definition) "a verbal interchange of thought between two or more persons".

Mindfire is made up of twenty interviews with luminaries of the New Age movement, mostly conducted by Alexander Blair-Ewart, who published and edited Dimensions, Canada's New Age monthly, from 1986 to 1993. Far from being interchanges, they are monologues respectfully steered by the questions.

Blair-Ewart has written a short introduction and a twenty-page epilogue. But the interviewees do not refer to each other, and Blair-Ewart has constructed no editorial bridges between the interviews. All are imbued with the implicit assumption that the New Age of cosmic awareness is coming, and pointing the way to a humane and ecologically harmonious future. The minor details of how to get there from here-"from cyberspace to a real alternative reality-space," as Blair-Ewart puts it-are left to the new cosmic imagination, not touched upon in the interviews.

At this point I felt a need to invite David Noble to join the dialogue. He is a professor of history at York University, and Progress without People is a collection of his essays.

He too is concerned about the future, and he wants a humane and civilized society; for him, the effects of modern technology are becoming more and more dangerous. The future is the inescapable consequence of the actions of the present, he says, just as the present has its roots in the decisions of the past. Only by understanding the past and by resolutely changing present practices can "the other future" emerge.

Noble wrote most of these essays a decade ago when he taught at MIT, but he has added six useful appendices of source documents and a new piece, "The Religion of Technology", based on his recent research into the religious roots of the current faith in technological salvation.

The essays are divided into two groups. "Another Look at Progress" deals with workers' responses to mechanization, and includes his well-known article, "In Defence of Luddism". The second group, "Automation Madness", carries the discussion of the impact of modern technology into the 1990s; a particularly useful piece is "A Second Look at Social Progress".

The New Age participants in my imaginary dialogue will have little difficulty with Noble's dim views of social progress, or with his emphasis on the control of everyday life that modern technologies and management entail. Yet most New Age thinkers see those technologies as vehicles that enable new linkages among people, new knowledge distributions, and an unprecedented intellectual and spiritual growth. They rarely mention that powerful groups are developing and using the new vehicles for very different purposes.

"Work" and "control" do not appear in Mindfire 's index, and there are almost twice as many references to "paradigm" as to "power". But Progress without People is essentially about the changes in social and political realities brought about by changes in the structure of work. Since human life is about both working and dreaming, it is hard to consider one without the other. Hence the need for a broader dialogue.

Most of Blair-Ewart's interviews have their spiritual centre of gravity in California, with the odd nod to ancient Egypt, India, or native traditions. Nearly half of those interviewed are women, ranging from Elizabeth Kübler-Ross to Starhawk and Jean Houston. Physicists like Fritjof Capra appear beside Robert Bly, Terence McKenna, and Paul Watson. These diverse persons are united by what Blair-Ewart calls "their capability of imagining a future other than the mainstream version."

The presentation of the interviews poses some problems for the reader. The times when they took place can be guessed only from oblique references to Bush, Clinton, or the Gulf War. Mindfire has no references to sources, except a mention of the titles of each interviewee's books. The text looks like a verbatim transcript (though Blair-Ewart acknowledges the help of his staff during his "near-endless" editings). This impression is reinforced by several insertions of "(laughter)" into the text-no sighs, tears, or wrath, however.

The New Age thinkers all appear serene, confident, and enviably sure of themselves and their message. Often, there is a jarring element of humbly expressed self-congratulation. The evolving cosmic consciousness just knows the difference between right and wrong, between true and false.

After all, what are a few facts here and there, when paradigms have to be shifted, and quantum jumps have to be taken, as the Universe reveals its past and future?

For example, Robert Bly states, blithely and without challenge, that "if the men were not specialized to kill animals and people, no-one would be around at all." Are these his own daydreams or has he any other basis for such a notion?

Noble, by contrast, is meticulous about his sources; there are references in his text, and the appendices contain some historical documents in full-such as Marx's statements against the Luddites and a speech by Byron to the House of Lords in 1812, when a bill imposing the death penalty for machine-breaking was passed, with three votes against, one of them Byron's.

"My reason for opposing the bill," he says, "is found in its palpable injustice.. I have seen these miserable men [put out of work by the new machines] and it is a disgrace to a civilized country."

One is left with a wish that the New Age thinkers would cultivate their sense of history somewhat further, and be a bit more precise about the connections between the injustices of the present and the possibilities of the "other" future. After all, the new cosmic consciousness is not writing on a blank slate.

Nevertheless, there are points of real contact between Noble and Blair-Ewart. They both understand the dehumanizing sides of modern technological processes. They both know the impact of technology on democracy and individual liberties, and recognize the destructive dynamics of globalization. They both desire a future that is not just an extension of present trends. Yet their prescriptions and rallying calls appeal to opposing faculties.

Noble does not dwell on the spiritual aspects of the human condition, individually or collectively; he urges, in the face of technological advances, that "rationality demands resistance-a struggle not for salvation, but for survival." The how remains mute.

Blair-Ewart, for his part, states in his concluding analysis that "humanity is challenged to reinvent freedom and democracy in this new technological economic world order." Here too, the how remains mute.

One may be tempted to say, "Good Luck, boys, and send me a postcard when you get there. But it might be nice if you could have a little conversation-even a dialogue-before you go too far in your journeys, because each of you knows something the other cannot do without."

Ursula M. Franklin FRSC is University Professor Emerita at Massey College, and the author of The Real World of Technology, the 1989 Massey Lectures.


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