Wednesday, 28 November 2018

The March of Intellect

It is the current year, and the current year seems embroiled in a heavy debate over issues of freedom of speech and access to information. One of the great selling points of the Internet in the 1990's was that it would finally democratize speech and information, allowing the common person to produce and access content unmediated by corporate media. Then it happened, and the powers that be hated it. 

Gatekeeping provides an illusion of consensus and easy manipulation of the hoi polloi. The rise of comment sections and social media proved how illusory this control was, reaching its apotheosis with the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Not only bypassing the corporate media mainstream, the freedom of social media allowed him to attack it directly and ride it all the way to the White House. Now, deplatforming and Silicon Valley unpersoning are among the attempts to get the genie back in the bottle, under the pretense of public "safety." Freedom is risky, and unpopular with those who prefer controlling opinion to engaging in healthy argument in the marketplace of ideas. Whether the odd collusion of leftist authoritarians and corporate media can assert control is for the future to decide, but the historical record doesn't look good.  

None of this is new. The Industrial Revolution brought, of course, many huge changes to the fabric of European and global societies. Not the least of these was a newfound premium on the natural and applied sciences, education, and the increasingly widespread and efficiently affordable production of educational literature. Learning was no longer the privilege of the wealthy upper classes. Now the burgeoning middle class and even the lower classes were becoming wealthier on average, better educated, more literate, and looking forward to advances in technology that would make their own lives easier. Dear God, what hath we wrought?

William Heath satirized this debate at the turn of the 19th century in his series titled The March of Intellect. Born in 1794, Heath was a popular war and military portrait artist who eventually turned to satirical cartoons. The March of Intellect, drafted over 1825 to 1829, provide a vision of futurism from the age of Jane Austen and Edgar Allan Poe, and the social concerns surrounding it. What would these changes mean for class conscious England? For warfare? For the Church? For, gasp, politics?

The following is a sample of Heath's March of Intellect series. Click on the image for larger versions. 

Robert Seymour joined the fray with his own satirical cartoons, though his is a much cruder (and less jam-packed) apocalyptic vision of new ways sweeping away the past. 

The satirical figure of Charles Golightly was a part of this critique as well, as he took his "Flight of Intellect" aboard his steam-powered rocket.

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