What if the very idea of being revolutionary was a false, disillusioning ideal? That is what Keith Peterson explored through the work of science and technology studies theorist Bruno Latour, a philosopher and sociologist by trade. Peterson focused mainly on Latour’s book We Have Never Been Modern, Peterson posed and answered questions about it. A whole field of study in philosophy focuses on the true meaning of words and how certain words that are used too frequently can really diminish their true meaning. In Latour’s book he asks the question, “what if we have never been modern?”, a very interesting and provocative question.
Perhaps part of this narrative that we have never been modern or revolutionary is this idea that those two words (modern and revolution) have been used too much in the world, but more egregiously in the west. In television commercials and in science, the word “revolution” is used almost too frequently to describe products and discoveries. For example, I know I’ve heard “A revolution in toothpaste” in a dental care company’s commercial before when they’re only describing a small change. “Modern” is usually used to place more value on whatever entity it is describing. Countries describe themselves as “modern” or “modernizing” when they want to say they are moving up in the world. Should being “modern” necessarily place more value on countries or areas of the world than less “modern” countries? Why is “modernizing” usually always considered a “good” thing? Latour asks this in his book when he questions why nature and culture have drifted so far apart in the “modernist” movement. He argues that modernity’s split between culture and nature is not actually how it is.
But back to the question I posed earlier, should more value be placed on more modern countries? Or is a less “modern” civilization better? What exactly constitutes “modernity”? In certain measures, “modernity” is a great thing. In the west, modern medicine has eradicated deadly diseases like smallpox, malaria, polio, and typhoid fever. As medicine has “modernized” people live longer, healthier lives. In less developed places in the world, malaria and typhoid fever, among other diseases, devastates populations and creates less quality of life. However, it seems nowadays that “modernizing” comes with social and cultural consequences in which many people nowadays cannot stay from electronic devices like computers, smart phones, tablets, televisions and more. Modernized countries have seen their time spent outside reduced considerably in recent years. Modernity has also come with a rise in obesity from lack of exercise and moving around, which has increased the risk of heart disease and diabetes. In the west culture has transitioned to “pop culture” in which entertainment is valued for money intake instead of culture for culture’s sake. Meaning that songs, stories, news, events, etc. are all put on for profit’s sake instead of their intrinsic value. Other “less modern” countries value their culture’s song, dance and other aspects intrinsically.
Latour seemed to be harsh of this new lifestyle of “modern” countries that has developed in recent years. “Modern” and “Revolution” are words whose connotations can mean different things to people in different contexts.