Speaking of E-Quarius and Other Matters: Wine Guy Makes Like Craft Brewer; Goes Small

So in the interest of continuing the conversation about beer, the age of E-Quarius, and so forth: Here's an article from today's New York Times about a winemaker who's seen the light and downsized. I think he and Greg Koch oughta have a chat. And I'll check back with him in ten years. And contemplate the ways in which all the parts of the world are connected.

Is This the Dawning of the Age of . . . E-Quarius? Part 5 of 5

Part One --- Part Two --- Part Three --- Part Four --- Part Five One more example. Sometime in 1994 or 1995, my step-daughter, who was then in her late 20s, told me that she and some college friends had begun using something called email to stay in touch. I'd heard of email (vaguely) but all I knew about it was that it required a computer connection. (Computers, I knew. I’d started using a PC in 1984 and had owned one since 1986.)

"Why?" I asked her. "Why not just write a letter? What’s the point?" It struck me as a total waste of time to use a computer to communicate. I could see no utility to the idea of "email."

Flash forward to September/October 2006: My agent had just sold my new book proposal (for the book about meat, which I’m working on now), and he called to tell me the details of the contract. We talked, we finished our conversation.

I hung up the phone, and my first thought was not, "YAY. Contract completed. Book sold," but: "By the time I finish this project, will there still be 'books'"? What will a 'book' look like?"

In the space of a decade I'd gone from being baffled by email to pondering the meaning and form of one of humanity's oldest, most common forms of communication: the book. That’s a fundamental change in how I see, think, and act in and upon the world.

No. Correction: that’s a profound change. And one that unfolded in a short period of time.

To end this long train of thought (and I thank you for sticking around to the end), I leave you where I started: Peggy Noonan's column. She was commenting specifically about the current economic collapse, but her point can be extended to include . . . well . . . life, the universe, and everything. She ended that column with this:

Dynamism has been leached from our system for now, but not from the human brain or heart. Just as our political regeneration will happen locally, in counties and states that learn how to control themselves and demonstrate how to govern effectively in a time of limits, so will our economic regeneration. That will begin in someone's garage, somebody's kitchen, as it did in the case of Messrs. Jobs and Wozniak. The comeback will be from the ground up and will start with innovation. No one trusts big anymore. In the future everything will be local. That's where the magic will be. And no amount of pessimism will stop it once it starts.

Is This the Dawning of the Age of . . . E-Quarius? Part 4 of 5

Part One --- Part Two --- Part Three --- Part Four --- Part Five Yes, I understand that life changes constantly. We can never step in the same stream twice, etc. And, yes, to a certain extent human beings are human beings and human nature doesn’t change.

But . . . What if this is a period of fundamental upheaval? What if the "digital revolution" and the subsequent "flat world" have fundamentally altered the way we define, organize, and manage, for example, "business"?

Many economic experts tell us that the current economic disaster marks the end of traditional global capitalism? Maybe so. But if that's the case, then we're also standing at the beginning of something else, right?

What if, for another example, the unraveling of capitalism and/or digital communications prod us to re-think our centuries-old concept of "nation"? What if we replace that concept with some new way of constructing political global relationships, one that we’ve not even imagined yet?

What if environmental concerns, to use a somewhat overworked example, fundamentally alter our daily behavior, so that we start thinking of walking from Point A to Point B as normal, and driving from A to B as, well, weird or abnormal? To do so, of course, we’d also have to re-think and re-build new kinds of living environments. We’d have to reimagine the "city."

What if, to use another example, people decide that, morally, it’s more important to drink local beer than to drink beer made 500 miles away? That our choice of beer involves a social/political/moral imperative other than traditional marketplace directives. (Meaning: capitalism favors efficiency, and it's efficient to produce beer on a huge scale. Marketplace efficiency is the major "imperative" that shapes the brewing industry.)

My point, such as it is, is that perhaps we're living in a moment when so many fundamentals have unraveled, when so many ordinary things have changed, that our ways of looking at and acting in and upon the world are changing, too.

More next time.

Is This the Dawning of the Age of . . . E-Quarius? Part 3 of 5

Part One --- Part Two --- Part Three --- Part Four --- Part Five Picking up where Part Two left off: I explained what seemed to be a contradiction this way: It feels to me, and has for several years, that life as we know it is undergoing a fundamental transformation. That the period from c. 1985 to 2020 may be as momentous, and as tumultuous and life-altering, as the period from c. 1870 to about 1900.

Between 1870 and 1900, Americans began using the telephone and the automobile. They saw their first movies, and electricity became a normal part of daily life. They began using motor-powered elevators and experienced the amazement of roller coasters and other amusement park delights. Cameras and photography became commonplace.

We're so used to those technologies that in 2009, it's a mental stretch to imagine what it felt like to encounter, say, the telephone for the first time. Or to experience electricity for the first time. Or to read newspapers filled with photographs of far-away people and places. Or to see a movie.

But thanks in part to those new technologies, people's conceptions of "normal" changed with astonishing speed. More important, people invented various technologies that altered the way that people experienced space and time and motion in new ways. And, in turn, changed the way that people interacted with each other and in and upon the world.

It's no accident that in the early 20th century, both Picasso and Einstein devoted their creative energy to exploring the relationship between time and space.

For the past few years, I've been wondering: Are we living through an era of similar tectonic change? And will our relationships to one another change, too? For example, consider this comment from a British researcher warning about the negative impact of internet use on the brains of young children (*1):

. . . [C]hildren's experiences on social networking sites "are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity".

Yes, I realize that the person interviewed in the Guardian sounds like a cranky old broad who wants the world to look and feel as it did fifty years ago. But -- she's not the only person making this argument.

Indeed, as discussions go, it's a hot topic. See, for example, this book by Mark Bauerlein, in which he details the studies behind the "our brains are changing" argument. There are plenty of others out there; google "digital natives" to get a sampling.

In any case, there's now enough substantive research out there that it's legitimate to ask: Are digital technologies altering our perceptions of time and space? And therefore our interactions with each other and with the world around us?

Are we, in effect, living through a moment of profound transformation, one that's (potentially) affecting the way our brains are wired, but the way we perceive the world?

Now to return to the question that the student asked me: How will the brewing industry look in, say, 40 years. The first answer I gave reflected my conventional, Ph.D-trained-historian’s "safe" answer based on reason and logic. There’s nothing new under the sun; today is just more of the same. Capitalism will unfold as it always has.

But another part of my brain says: What if that's not the case? What if -- we're living in a present where the "conventional" is in fact collapsing and we're creating a future that will be radically different than the present? More next time.


*1: Tip o' the mug to Jacob Grier for bringing my attention to the Guardian article. (Which, ahem, he first mentioned in . . . you guessed it,  a Twitter post.)

Is This the Dawning of the Age of . . . E-Quarius? Part 2 of 5

Part One --- Part Two --- Part Three --- Part Four --- Part Five I've been thinking about the questions that I posed in Part One for several years, but about a week ago, I was jolted into a public expression of my puzzlement.

I'd been invited to speak to a class at a nearby university, and the visit mostly consisted of me answering smart questions posed by smart people who’d recently read my book about beer. One student asked me where I thought the brewing industry would be in 40 years. [Again, as I noted in Part One, this isn't about beer; I'm just using beer as my entry point to a larger issue.]

I gave my standard historian's answer: Given the nature of capitalist economies, I replied, in 40 years there will probably be fewer breweries than there are now. The logic of capitalism indicates that a handful of brewers will grow in size and clout. The industry will "centralize," meaning that instead of 1,500 beermakers, there will be a few hundred. (Put another way: the past thirty years in American brewing history have been the anomaly; an exception to the general rule of industrial consolidation.) (*1)

In 2050, brewing will look more like, say, 1950 or 1970 (when there were just a few hundred beermakers) than it will look like 2009, when there are almost 1500 breweries.

That's my historian's prediction based on what I know about the past and present.

A few minutes later, someone asked another, related, question. (I can't remember now what it was and it doesn't matter.) In the process of answering that question, I said that in fifty years we might have several thousand beermakers, and all of us would enjoy access to a "local brewer" and we'd all be riding our bicycles to the local brewpub to have a beer.

Which, someone instantly pointed out, contradicted what I'd said five minutes earlier. (I was so pleased that they'd noticed the contradiction!) Yup, I said, that's right. I'm contradicting myself because I’m not sure which answer is the "right" one. More next time.


*1: I ruminated at length on the future of brewing in a multi-part series that I posted last summer. You can read those entries here.

Is This the Dawning of the Age of . . . E-Quarius? Part 1 of 5

Part One --- Part Two --- Part Three --- Part Four --- Part Five With apologies to the creators of "Hair," which included the song "Aquarius."

Advance warning: I won’t be arriving at any earth-shattering conclusions in this series of posts. Mostly I’m posing questions, to which I do not yet have the answer. I’ve been thinking about the following for some time, but ruminations kicked into gear over the past few days, in part because of a question I was asked recently, but also because of an essay by Peggy Noonan that ran a few days ago in the Wall Street Journal.

I'm not sure how coherent this rumination will be, but I want to go on record about the subject of whether we're living at the dawn of a truly "new age" -- or not. We won't know, of course, for, oh, another 40 or 50 years -- because no one living in the present can understand its historical significance until the present has become the past. It's unlikely I'll still be around in 50 years (although . . . who knows?) so I may never know the answer to my question. But that doesn't stop me from asking it.

I'm a historian. I spend my time thinking about people and events from the past. I do history partly because, frankly, it's fun. I love my work. But I also practice history because it suits my optimistic nature and my reverence for hope: If the past is different from the present, then we have the ability -- the power -- to make the future different from the present. (Think about it for a moment.)

As I've noted here many times before, historians take the Long View of the Big Picture. We're less interested in what happened five weeks or five months ago, than what happened five decades ago.

This is a point that, for example, I keep making about alcohol sales: Sure, there's lots of blather lately about beer sales declining. But I've been trying to put that trend in a larger perspective, to show how people’s drinking habits can be shaped by events that unfold over decades rather than months.

It's a point I wish I could hammer into the heads of the "analysts" who jabber on a daily basis about stock market returns and what those returns say about "confidence" in our new president: Assessing BHO or the market from a weekly, monthly, or quarterly perspective is an exercise in futility. Think "long haul." Think "long term."

But this series of blog entries won't be about the current economic crisis or beer. Rather, I was to consider a question that I’ve been pondering for the past few years:

Are we indeed standing at the beginning a of new age? Are we experiencing a shift in human affairs that is tectonic rather than superficial? Or is there really nothing new under the sun and what seems like a "new age" is just more of the same? More next time. (As always, I'm breaking long thoughts into manageable chunks because I know that at any given moment, most of us have 75 other things to do, read, or respond to.) (If this is a "new age," brevity is its cornerstone.)