The Sorrow of Magic Lost

Seal of the House of Habsburg

Seal of the House of Habsburg

Steve Naidamast

In my last two pieces (“Why Nothing Works – Parts I & II”), I discussed the failure of software development to support the transactions in daily life dominated by current software foundations.  Further, the misuse of modern software capabilities is having deleterious effects sociologically across a wide spectrum of users, especially here in the United States.

However, one of the most insidious effects of the new software developments in the past 25 years has been the ability to put the globalization of our world’s markets into hyper-drive.  Unfortunately, the process of globalization has reached into every nook and cranny of the lives of those it has affected.  And the United States, being the majority promoter of the globalization endeavor, has seen the transmission of its cultural values, memes, and sociological processes overwhelm other cultures to an extent that many traditional, cultural aspects of societies are being quickly destroyed in the name of profit.

Despite its seemingly modern advent, globalization has been with us since the 17th century along with the subsequent, oppositional reactions (see “The Many-Headed Hydra”; Linebaugh and Rediker).  It is nothing new.  What is new is its effect on cultures around the world.  Early on the development of international commerce (which is all that globalization is) was limited to business itself as new products and business ventures brought commerce to the average person giving rise to the original merchant-class.

Yet businesses today are not just bringing new products to nations around the world as their quest for ever greater profits demonstrates: corporate culture is also infecting and flattening societies as well.  This has been accomplished through the rise of the Internet and the fluid communication abilities it provides, allowing corporations to circumvent many cultural controls that were originally controlled by national governments.  Instead of following prescribed avenues, international businesses can now advertise and sell directly to the world’s markets and consumers.  This globalization of primarily American Consumerism has been the very foundation of cultural changes around the world with the exception of the most resistant of cultures such as China and Russia.

It wasn’t always this way.  In December 1991, only two years after the Berlin Wall came down, my wife and I traveled to Hungary.  Being completely immersed in the Hungarian history at that time, I fell in love with the culture of Eastern Europe.  The historical sense of this world was so sharp that upon arriving at the international airport in Budapest I walked out into a freezing cold blizzard and looked across the tarmac to see through the nearly blinding snow a large, gray, transport aircraft.  It was an aging prop-aircraft and appeared to me like an oversized DC-3.  As I looked towards the rear of the craft a large Red Star of the Soviet Union glared prominently on the tail surface.  I was staring directly into recent history and I was consumed.

A Soviet-era DC-3 clone

A Soviet-era DC-3 clone

For two weeks we were immersed in the traditions of the Magyar culture that had seemingly not been touched by time since the 1950s.  It was an indescribable opportunity to be able to understand how another society lived, especially one forged by Communism.  I was hooked and wanted to return to Eastern Europe and experience the culture again.  So in 1993 we traveled to Vienna, Austria, considered the “Portal to Eastern Europe”… And I fell in love again.

The majesty of this little country was apparent in the people and how they related to their traditions and sense of history.  The great emperor, Kaiser Franz Josef and his beautiful wife Kaiserin Elizabeth (Sisi), were everywhere to be seen in the city’s monuments, shops, and buildings. Their presence could even be felt in the bricks of certain foundations as the seal of the House of Habsburg was imprinted into the masonry.

Year after year we returned to be able to feel that history of a world gone by simply by walking the many 17th century streets.  I could almost feel the presence of the great Emperor with me.

Eventually we established friendships among a small community of people and we were able to feel a little of what it was actually like to live in Austria.  Then something happened.  I am not sure what but on a subsequent trip we could feel something had gone missing.

Progressively, each year, something else had disappeared taking with it another little piece of that connection to the past, only to be replaced by something very sterile, non-descript and hardly representative of the culture Austrians had been so proud of.  Friends began to fall away as they often do over such long distances but it was the closing of a small café that had been in the city center since World War I that told me the outside world was creeping in and that I was losing what I had fallen so in love with.

No longer did we see such sophisticated commercials on Austrian television that they bordered on artistry.  No longer did we see the Austrian cultural imprint in the stores or the uniquely stylist clothing of the citizens.  Americanization had come to Austria, eliminating what made this country so unique in style and presence.

Austrian business began to change along with everything else.  What was once seen as distinctly Austrian was seemingly being replaced by a veneer of sameness that we could easily see in the United States.  And along with it, Austria’s famous “Handarbeiten” goods (made by hand) were no longer readily available in many of the shops we were used to patronizing.  It was now “Made in China” or mass-produced elsewhere across the globe.

In our most recent trip, we returned to Budapest in Hungary on a one-day tour to see how that country had changed since our trip in 1991.  It too had lost its distinctive cultural flair.  Its sense of history, like Austria’s, had been subsumed by the invasion of outside business.  Buda had become a broken-down shell of its former self while Pest, the wealthier of the two cities had taken on the air of nothing more than a US-style “tourist trap.”

In Austria especially, we now felt we had gone nowhere any longer special.  It was as if we were experiencing an American city with the only exception being the language.

Things change… I know that.  Even our apartment house where we rented a flat for our stays was “upgrading” to accommodate the new business style of the city.  From being a strictly European building it was now moving into the international arena with upgraded services.

But one thing at least did not change: The younger Austrian generations were not nearly as hooked on their smart-devices as their counterparts in the United States.  In fact, such devices were in minimal use anywhere we went.

Maybe there is in fact some hope with the young.

Steve Naidamast is a senior software engineer by profession and a military historian by avocation.

5 thoughts on “The Sorrow of Magic Lost

  1. It’s fascinating how technology is sold in the U.S. and across the world. Bigger (or smaller), faster, life-changing, better. Always better! But what if technology is changing our lives (especially the lives of communities) for the worse? Well, that doesn’t sell very well, does it?

    Your article, Steve, really nails an important aspect of technology: the way in which it drives cultural homogenization. Across the globe, we’re losing cultural diversity just as we’re losing species/biological diversity in nature. Everything is becoming a commodity and everything is being sacrificed to the almighty dollar. There’s an emerging sameness to everything; call it the strip-malling of world culture, to go along with the strip-mining of the planet. All in the name of profits and in service of glorious capitalism.

    Yes, change is inevitable, but change driven by technological and capitalistic imperatives is impoverishing the rich cultural heritage of humanity even as it’s destroying biodiversity in nature. As a result, our perspectives are more and more limited. It’s almost as if the earth itself is flattening.

  2. Humm, I don’t get it. Old Eastern Europe (and elsewhere…) has been lost because of software from “America?” Perhaps because of the language barrier the writer did not notice that although the Budapest of 1991 is quickly disappearing, it is not being replaced by Disneyland, but by a proto-fascist regime bent on bringing back the “good years” of the fascist Horthy regime in the 1930s. Although there is a wave of cultural imperialism that has washed the world with Disney, Idol, and thousands of other vacuities from the wealthier countries, the most potent export has been the ideology of greed. There is nothing so much “American” about it except that that ideology has thrived as money has insinuated itself into the US body politic, corrupting it to the core.

    While it is true that computers and software have made the control of large populations and the movement of capital much easier than in the past, software itself has never been the driving force putting “the globalization of our world’s markets into hyper-drive.” That is a result of a long-term, conscience backlash by many to rollback the innovations of the New Deal era.

    No use mourning the lost world of Eastern Europe. I lived in Hungary in 1980 and although the so-called Goulash Communism of the post-1956 era was softer than the hell in Ceausescu’s Romania, it is nothing to want to return to. The current situation is bad, but not because they have been Americanized. It is the old evil of nationalism combined in a potent mix with anti-semitism and anti-Roma hate.

  3. [In response to original post and preceding two comments posted.] This global creep of “American culture”–oxymoron alert!!–is hardly news, of course. What alarmed me in original post was a feeling of “nostalgia” for a period the author obviously didn’t live through: the good old era when kings, queens, princes and bishops strutted about, demanding the masses adore them and meting out the severest punishment to anyone questioning their “god-given authority” to do as they wished. If a monarchy’s coat of arms is artistically admirable, then we can admire it on aesthetic grounds, but let us not forget the underlying reality. “Death to ‘blue bloods’!!” is my slogan.

    Of course, the world being flat, increasingly warm and overcrowded was the theme of Thomas Friedman’s famous book of some years ago. The global economy is now the biggest house of cards ever constructed by humans. No nation’s currency (with possible exception of “Islamic State”) is backed by anything of intrinsic value. [Yes, I am a bit of a “gold bug,” I confess!] Japan’s economy dead in the water since c. 1990! Incredible. Their “solution”? Further drastically cheapen the buying power (for Nipponese consumers) of the yen! Even more incredible!! These politicians should be in prison for concocting these schemes (the name Ponzi springs to mind)! But none of this matters a hoot in the biggest scheme of things, which concerns global climate chaos. Obama is crowing about a supposed commitment of three billion dollars to combat climate problems. THREE BILLION MEASLY, LOUSY DOLLARS?!?!? What is that, a couple of days’ worth of the US military expenditure to keep the Middle East in turmoil??? Absolutely pitiful.

  4. Interesting comments, but I didn’t read the article the way Stuart and Greg did. First, I think Steve is right: computers and the Internet have accelerated globalization. So too has software in complex ways. After all, software runs virtually everything nowadays, from computers and houses to Smart Phones and refrigerators and automobiles. Until recently, when you talked about computers and software (and video games and movies and so on), you talked about the USA. Yes, I agree that globalization is nothing new; Steve says this. What’s new is the ubiquity of computers and software and the Internet, along with the dominance (again, until recently) of the USA.

    Now, what’s wrong with this? Well, not much for the USA. But the pace of globalization has accelerated with the acceleration of business transactions and decisions as driven by computers. Computers, perhaps by their very nature, serve capitalism very well but they’re great at quantification. They’re number-crunchers; good control mechanisms too. Computers, especially super-computers, favor the rich and powerful who can afford such computers.

    I don’t think Steve was arguing that things were better under the Habsburgs, or more romantic. Just that things were different and in some ways more diverse. There was more space for cultural variety. With the onrush of globalization and the quantification of everything, there is now less room for diversity. If it doesn’t pay, it dies. Again, this may not be new. We’ve seen the death of small butcher shops, village shops, etc. by supermarkets and so on. But this is different. It’s sweeping the planet at a faster pace and infiltrating areas that were largely immune to it before.

    Stuart’s concerns about Hungary are valid, but is it possible that fascism finds favorable ground to grow in places unsettled by rapid change and economic dislocation due to pressures of international markets? Think of Germany in 1931-33. When you fundamentally disrupt a people’s culture, they look for scapegoats as well as certainty — and fascists eagerly provide both.

    I think there’s something to Steve’s article which is very important — a true loss of human cultural diversity that is making our world a cruder place. That doesn’t mean I want to restore a Habsburg to the throne of Austria-Hungary!

  5. A distant relative of ours, in his early academic life, went to pre-“democracy” communist Hungary where he did research for his graduate thesis on the interwar (1917-1939) Central European economy. He later became a successful entrepreneur developing and building an internationally used software company which he subsequently sold to a large technology company. He speaks fluent Hungarian and has many close friends there that he visits frequently and continues to communicate with.

    From my conversations with him I have learned that the current Hungarian government is not as the writer describes as vapid and Americanized but rather more like the fascistic regime that allowed the Hungarians to send their “Blue” Division during WW II to fight alongside the Germans in The Soviet Union and whose citizenry and government participated in the murder of Hungarian Jewry in Auschwitz, of which my Aunt and my two young cousins were victims. Steve seems unaware of the current government when he says this:

    “In our most recent trip, we returned to Budapest in Hungary on a one-day tour to see how that country had changed since our trip in 1991. It too had lost its distinctive cultural flair. Its sense of history, like Austria’s, had been subsumed by the invasion of outside business. Buda had become a broken-down shell of its former self while Pest, the wealthier of the two cities had taken on the air of nothing more than a US-style ‘tourist trap.'”

    There is a saying in Spanish “Una golundrina no hace el verano” (one song bird does not make summer) Similarly, a one day trip to Budapest does not tell the Hungarian story.

    Hungary apparently had the largest eco-friendly, organic farm in the EU and it supplied virtually all of the organic produce sold throughout western Europe. The Hungarian government who leased the land to this successful income producer for Hungary seized the land summarily and turned it over to friendly oligarch supporters of the regime who are bulldozing the area for the benefit of these oligarchs. (Maybe they learned this from the US and how we have allowed fracking, shale, and tar sands exploitation to despoil the land.)

    Like the Republicans in our country have done, in states they control, the Hungarian regime has rigged the electoral system to guarantee they stay in power and has turned a blind eye to the growth of anti-Semitism and anti-Roma (Gypsy) sentiments.

    These moves have nothing to do with American software or even our technology. They have to do with the one thing America exports well, greed.

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