Renaissance Now?

I first posted the embryo of this idea on a bbs called the Well back in 1991 or so. I was wondering, at the time, if recent advances in math, physics, technology and culture constituted a new renaissance. The conversation went on for over a year, and became the basis – or at least an the adjunct – for my book, Cyberia. (I had intended to include the whole thing in the new edition of the book, but the publisher preferred to add a few essays and articles, instead.)

I still find myself coming back to this notion of renaissance – whether I’m speaking about open source culture or religion. And I don’t just mean renaissance in the way we commonly think about it today (as some historical movement in art and architecture) but as a full-on shift in our experience of dimensionality. And it seems a useful concept – particularly in the current political climate, where narrative and postponement are beings used as tactics to avoid allowing us to take charge of our reality in the present tense.

The birth of the Internet era was considered a revolution, by many. My best friends – particularly those in the ‘counterculture’ – saw in the Internet an opportunity to topple the storytellers who had dominated our politics, economics, society, and religion, in short, our very reality, and to replace their stories with ones of our own. It was a beautiful and exciting sentiment, but one as based in a particular narrative as any other. Revolutions simply replace one story with another. The capitalist narrative is replaced by the communist; the religious fundamentalist’s for the gnostic’s. The means may be different, but the rewards are the same, as is the exclusivity of their distribution. That’s why they’re called revolutions; we’re just going in a circle.

I prefer to think of the proliferation of interactive media as an opportunity for renaissance: a moment when we have the opportunity to step out of the story, altogether. Renaissances are historical instances of widespread recontextualization. People in a variety of different arts, philosophies, and sciences have the ability to reframe their reality. Quite literally, renaissance means “rebirth.” It is the rebirth of old ideas in a new context. A renaissance is a dimensional leap, when our perspective shifts so dramatically that our understanding of the oldest, most fundamental elements of existence changes.

Take a look back at what we think of as the original Renaissance – the one we were taught in school. What were the main leaps in perspective? Well, most obviously, perspective painting, itself. Artists developed the technique of the “vanishing point” and with it ability to paint three dimensional representations on two dimensional surfaces. The character of this innovation is subtle, but distinct. It is not a technique for working in three dimensions; it is not that artists moved from working on canvas to working with clay. Rather, perspective painting allows an artist to relate between dimensions. It is a way of representing three dimensional objects on a two dimensional plane.

Likewise, calculus – another key renaissance invention – 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, and spheres with the language of curves. 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 mathematical objects from beyond the context of their own dimensionality.

The other main features of the Renaissance permitted similar shifts in perspective. Circumnavigation of the globe changed our relationship to the planet we live on the maps we used to describe it. The maps still worked, of course – only they described a globe 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. Similarly, the invention of moveable type and the printing press changed the relationship of author and audience to text. The creation of a manuscript was no longer a one-pointed affair. Well, the creation of the first manuscript still was – but now it could be replicated and distributed to everyone. It was still one story, but now it was subject to a multiplicity of individual perspectives. This lattermost innovation, alone, changed the landscape of religion in the Western World. Individual interpretation of the Bible led to the collapse of Church authority and the unilateral nature of its decrees. Everyone demanded his or her own relationship to the story.

In all these cases, people experienced a very particular shift in their relationship to and understanding of dimensions. Understood this way, a renaissance is 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.

The great Renaissance was a simple leap in perspective. Instead of seeing everything in one dimension, we came to realize there was more than one dimension on which things were occurring. Even the Elizabethan world picture, with its concentric rings of authority – God, king, man, animals – reflects this newfound way of contending with the simultaneity of action of many dimensions at once.

The evidence of today’s renaissance is at least as profound as that of the one that went before. The16th Century saw the successful circumnavigation of the globe via the seas. The 20th century saw the successful circumnavigation of the globe from space. The first pictures of earth from space changed our perspective on this sphere, forever. In the same century, our dominance over the planet was confirmed not just through our ability to travel around it, but to destroy it. The atomic bomb (itself the result of a rude dimensional interchange between submolecular particles) gave us the ability to destroy the globe. Now, instead of merely being able to circumnavigate “God’s” creation, we could actively destroy it. This is a new perspective.

We also have our equivalent of perspective painting, in the invention of the holograph. The holograph allows us to represent not just three, but four dimensions on a two-dimensional plate. When the viewer walks past a holograph, she can observe the three-dimensional object over a course of time. A bird can flap its wings in a single picture. But, more importantly for our renaissance’s purposes, the holographic plate itself embodies a new renaissance principle. When the plate is smashed into hundreds of pieces, we do not find that one piece contains the bird’s wing, and another piece the bird’s beak. No, each piece of the plate contains a faint image of the entire subject, albeit a faint one. When the pieces are put together, the image achieves greater resolution. But each piece contains a representation of the totality – a leap in dimensional understanding that is now informing disciplines as diverse as brain anatomy and computer programming.

Our analog to calculus is the development of systems theory, chaos math, and the much-celebrated fractal. Confronting non-linear equations on their own terms for the first time, mathematicians armed with computers are coming to new understandings of the way numbers can be used to represent the complex relationships between dimensions. Accepting that the surfaces in our world, from coastlines to clouds, exhibit the properties of both two and three dimensional objects (just what is the surface area of a cloud?) they came up with ways of working with and representing objects with fractional dimensionality. Using fractals and their equations, we can now represent and work with objects from the natural world that defied Cartesian analysis. We also become able to develop mathematical models that reflect many more properties of nature’s own systems – such as self-similarity and remote high leverage points. Again, we find this
renaissance characterized by the ability of an individual to reflect, or even affect, the grand narrative. To write the game.

Finally, our renaissance’s answer to the printing press is the computer and its ability to network. Just as the printing press gave everyone access to readership, though, the computer and internet give everyone access to authorship. The first Renaissance took us from the position of passive recipient to active interpreter. Our current renaissance brings us from a position of active interpretation to one of authorship. We are the creators.