Friday 17 May 2013

'The greatest curse brought down on us by technology...'

There are odd moments in Stefan Zweig's The World Of Yesterday when he could be writing about... the world of today. Consider this:
'The greatest curse brought down on us by technology is that it prevents us from escaping the present even for a brief time.'
And Zweig wrote that before the internet, before television, before the mobile phone, WiFi, the tablet and PC, rolling news, Twitter... How would he have coped in today's wired (or wireless) world? Could he have functioned in such a seething ocean of instantaneous information, misinformation, opinion and reaction? Well yes, he would probably have coped the way most of us do, by ensuring that we have at least some time cut off from it all, for our soul's (or our sanity's) sake. For myself, I barely glance at newspapers these days, saving most of my reading time for something more sustaining; I never go near Twitter or FaceBook, and make as little use of telephones (mobile or otherwise) as I can get away with; I walk as  much as I can, and without anything plugged into my ears; and I spend as much time as I can listening to music, surely the best refuge from a world of meaningless noise. It is possible, if only for short periods, to escape the present, even now.
  Zweig identifies another curious feature of News too - that those closest to where it is happening often have least awareness of it. Visiting Vienna for a few days in February 1934, he was quite unaware that Dollfuss was putting down a 'worker's revolution', storming municipal buildings with machine guns and artillery, and pursuing the rebels from street to street. Zweig knew nothing of this until he read about it in the foreign press, and when eager friends questioned him about it aferwards, he had to confess he knew no more of it than they did. And then, a few months later, Dollfuss was assassinated one day at 12 noon and Zweig was reading all about it in the London papers at 5.30pm. Telephoning Vienna at once, he found that no one there, even within a few streets of where it happened, knew any more than was known in London. 'In our days,' Zweig notes with some amazement, 'you may be ten streets away from the scene of events which will have wide repercussions, and yet know less about them than people thousands of kilometres away.' Such is News, such is the modern world.


  1. People have been complaining about the effects of technological progress on human freedom for a lot longer than Zweig. Here's Aquilius on the proliferation of sundials.

    Ut illum di perdant primus qui horas repperit

    quique adeo primus statuit his solarium:

    qui mihi comminuit misero articulatim diem.


    Nam unum me puero venter erat solarium

    multo omnium istorum optimum et verissimum

    ubi is non monebat esse nisi cum nil erat?


    Nunc etiam cum est non estur nisi soli libet

    itaqu adeo iam oppletum oppidum est solarius

    maior pars populi ut aridi reptent fame

    ( May the Gods destroy the first one who divided up the hours

    and who therefore first set up a sundial-clock here

    which pains me by dividing up the hours of the day


    For since I was a boy my one clock was my belly

    and it is the best and the truest of of all of them

    did he not tell me to eat only when he was empty?


    But now though there is [food], it is not eaten, unless it please the sun

    And so the city is filled with clocks

    While the better part of the people crawl about in hunger.)

  2. Ah that's rather wonderful - thanks Anonymous!

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