Jane Jacobs – A Dark Age Ahead?

green and white leafed plantsJane Jacobs – A Dark Age Ahead?

/Field Note

I just spent the last few days in San Francisco, meeting with CIOs from some of the of larger cities and counties in the US – all related to my day job as an editor at Government Technology magazine.

Of a little relevance here given the focus of this site, I heard about some of the political wrangling related to distribution of the US stimulus money for broadband and other IT related activities. And for all the talk of change, it is still very much politics as usual in Washington, DC when it comes to meeting America’s economic challenges and addressing America’s continued lagging behind in broadband deployment and usage.

This prompted me, on the plane back, to think a little more about some of the intellectual territory I had previously covered before launching The X-Journals in the first place.

Specifically, I began thinking about conversations I had previously had with the late Jane Jacobs as well as her last book, Dark Age Ahead.

She wrote in that book:

“…I single out five pillars of our culture that we depend on to stand firm, and discuss what seem to be ominous signs of their decay. They are in process of becoming irrelevant, and so are dangerously close to the brink of lost memory and cultural uselessness. These five pillars are

community and family (the two are so tightly connected they cannot be considered separately)

higher education

the effective practice of science and science-based technology (again, so tightly connected they cannot be considered separately)

taxes and government powers directly in touch with needs and possibilities

self-policing by the learned professions

“It may seem surprising that I do not single out such failings as racism, profligate environmental destruction, crime, voters’ distrust of politicians and thus low turnouts for elections and the enlarging gulf between rich and poor along with the attrition of the middle class. Why not those five, rather than the five I have selected to concentrate upon? Perhaps my judgment is wrong, but I think these second five are symptoms of breakdown of the five I have chosen to discuss. Furthermore, many North Americans are already aware of them as dangerous flaws and are trying to focus on intelligent corrections.

“The weaknesses I single out in the five pillars are less recognized, I think.”

What prompted me to again think about what Jacobs said here was that I was considering how much progress is being made scientifically and technologically on so many fronts. And yet, from an overview of that progress across a wide vista of social, environmental and economic problems, science and technology has been failing in many areas – so much so that a world-class thinker and social commentator like Jane Jacobs can actually argue that the failure to effectively practice science and science-based technology is a key reason we may well be headed toward another Dark Age.

It is easy to get caught up in the details of a seemingly endless stream of discoveries and advances such that all that is seen is continuous progress – progress that is real and certainly should not be ignored. (This is one reason some news related to this progress is included on The X-Journals site.) What is missed, however, by just focusing in on this piecemeal progress – they way most of science journalism does these days – is the perspective of the bigger picture. That perspective looks at the actual condition of the world and our societies and says this is, to a large degree, the end product of the way we are currently conducting our science and technology research and development activities.

And here, as Jane Jacobs suggests, all is far from well. The question, which The X-Journals was established to explore in part is why? And in moving forward with our documentary films, it is important I think not to lose sight of this – the big picture.

– Blake Harris

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