Cult of Immediacy

Lately I've been skimming through a posthumous collection of pieces from Umberto Eco called Chronicles of a Liquid Society. In one piece, “The cell phone and the queen in “Snow White,” he makes a fascinating connection between magic & technology.

What is it that has inclined people for centuries toward magical practices? Impatience. Magic promised the chance of short-circuiting from a cause to an effect, with no intermediate steps: utter a magic formula and transform iron into gold, summon angels and get them to send a message. Faith in magic didn't disappear with the advent of experimental science, since the dream of simultaneity between cause and effect has been transferred to technology. Technology today provides everything immediately; you press a button on your cell phone and talk to Sydney, whereas science moves cautiously and its prudence doesn't satisfy us because we want the universal remedy against cancer now, not tomorrow — which leads us to trust the doctor-guru who instantly promises the miraculous potion.

Eco contrasts this want of immediacy that magic & technology seek to satisfy with the slow steps of scientific practice. While no examples are given by Eco of people who embody this prudential mindset, I can continue Eco's thoughts by opening the page from a volume picking up dust beside me — Lewis Mumford's The Myth of the Machine (volume II) — that discusses similar topics like magic & technology seeking an immediacy that is unmediated by moral thought & action. What Mumford does, though, is give an example of a figure that he believes is the antithesis to the immediacy mindset — Leonardo DaVinci. Mumford explains:

Leonardo's practical failures, so far from being a fault, were rather the price of his achievement as a feeling, thinking, value-weighing, acting human being. In an age when the printing press was open to him, this indefatigable recorder and writer published nothing. He was assembling first in his own mind, with a fullness that no one since Imhotep, that master pyramid-builder, had perhaps ever achieved, the necessary ingredients for a culture that would do justice to every aspect of organic life. Again, this synthesis was nowhere consciously adumbrated, it found expression only in Leonardo's works and days: but that expression — though imperfect — pervaded his whole life.

Because I had to look it up, I thought you should know that “adumbrated” means “report or represent in outline.” Anyways, Mumford further outlines an intriguing what-if scenario that serves as a refreshing tonic to the cult of immediacy Eco expounded upon. I'll leave on this more optimistic tone:

Had Leonardo's example in fact been followed, naturalization, mechanization, organization, and humanization might have proceeded together. Thus one method could have influenced and sustained the other, maintaining continuity with the past, yet alertly absorbing useful or significant novelty, constantly reviewing and correcting past errors, and seeking a wider selection of possibilities; introducing new values, not to destroy but to enrich and fortify those already achieved by other ages and other cultures. Such a practical syncretism of technologies and ideologies would have been an open one, open indeed at both sides, to past and future — constantly absorbing and refining more of the past while projecting and remodeling in a richer design ever larger tracts of the future. Unlike the technocrats of a later day, Leonardo was full of admiration for his predecessors.