Politics repeats itself while science and art make it new

In “Coolidge biography shows how little American politics has changed” Philip Greenspun points out that “Coolidge is primarily about events that occurred roughly 100 years ago, but the political debates often seem as though they could be in tomorrow morning’s news.” Greenspun points out a large number of similarities, though I do think there are more notable differences than he lists; one of the more prominent is the calls, whenever something bad happens, for the federal government to Do Something. Many of those calls in Coolidge’s time were directed at the local or at most state level.

Still, most of what he says is correct and to me the many similarities between 1910 – 1930 and the present imply that a lot of political posturing is wasted signaling. Energy towards politics would probably be better directed towards art, science, and technology—the latter fields at least move unambiguously forward, and in my view the first field does too.* A really good book lasts for decades or centuries while political opinions are almost always of the moment The effort expended in fields that make progress move not just the individual but the whole of humanity forward; most energy spent on politics is just a circle and maybe even a circle jerk.

Science and technology in particular increase the size of the pie that politicians (and the voters who elect them) can fight over.


* When I hear people—usually professors or wannabe professors—argue that art doesn’t move forward like technology (sample, from Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read: “There is no progress in the world of letters, as there is, say, in science or manufacturing. As the centuries pass, we do not get better or smarter at reading, and the authors among us do not get better at writing”), I usually ask them why people keep creating so much new art and why so many people want the new stuff, not the old stuff. By now, there are an infinite number of books to read and an infinite number of songs to hear. If art really didn’t move forward and become better over time, at least as defined by popularity, we wouldn’t see people constantly move towards the new. I haven’t heard a really good response to this point.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Life: The artists and the analysist edition | The Story's Story

  2. The appeal of a work of art depends quite a bit on reward psychology. Novel things are inherently more exciting than old things. Repeated experiences tend to lose their emotional impact. I think this phenomenon alone is sufficient to motivate the perpetual creation of new art. Further, one experiences art through culture, and as culture changes, the experience changes. Art that is at least somewhat tailored to the tastes of many people will generally be more popular. This is where art differs from technology, whose products are more decontextualized. One of the principal aims of engineering is to standardize the way things are constructed, so that other pieces of technology can easily be built upon existing products. Where this is not so much true, we see technology take on some of the attributes associated with art, e.g. Apple products, vertically integrated and beautiful.

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