Tina Brown On The Dark Side Of Innovation And Progress

Aug 14, 2013
Originally published on August 14, 2013 9:16 am
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Let's hear, now, from Tina Brown, with us once again for Word of Mouth. Of course, that's our regular feature where Tina offers some reading recommendations. Today, three picks looking at the notion of progress and innovation and its dark side, and one tale of a circus animal may even be hard for some to listen to. Tina, good morning.

TINA BROWN: Good morning, Rene.

MONTAGNE: So you've got a new book, to begin with, by Michael Daly. It features some great American innovators, including P.T. Barnum and Thomas Edison. The book is called "Topsy." And just briefly, who was Topsy?

BROWN: Well, Topsy was the famous, tragic elephant who was electrocuted in 1903 at Coney Island, as part of a horrible demonstration of the power of electric current, administered and overseen by no less than Thomas Edison. So she's a kind of great cultural figure, in a sense, and a tragic one.

MONTAGNE: Topsy was an elephant who, as a baby, was captured in Asia, brought to America to perform in the circus. And this apparently simple story opened a window onto these two competitions; and the one lead to a really horrible story, when Topsy gets executed. Just tell us that story, Thomas Edison trying to prove that his version of electricity was the best.

BROWN: Absolutely. Well, he had this endless kind of rivalry and competition with Westinghouse about direct current versus alternative current. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: AC is alternating - not alternative - current.] And he wanted to show that direct current was actually the way to go. Well, in fact, he was wrong about that. And one of the ways that he wanted to show it was by using this poor elephant who was going to be executed for supposedly being a killer of men - although frankly, Topsy only became violent at the end because she was so baited, so tortured, so tormented, so horribly, horribly treated that eventually she did kill a trainer who fed her a cigarette, a lighted cigarette - this poor elephant who was so benevolent and such a sweet-natured creature.

And so the decision came to execute the elephant, and Edison then filmed this execution to show the power of electric current. And it's a really tragic story because this elephant, throughout the book, really is the only decent individual, in a sense, in this endless competition between, first, the showmen Barnum and Forepaugh, and then these two other showmen, you know, high testosterone, you know, high-wire innovators, Edison and Westinghouse.

And so you see this climax of the book is the execution of Topsy by electric current. And we know they buried her head in a spot there. And what was amazing was for years to come, elephants would stop, and they refused to pass the spot where Topsy's head was buried. So it's a kind of repudiation of the awful cruelty that was inflicted upon Topsy as some kind of grotesque pop culture experiment, and an equally grotesque experiment between the two innovators.

MONTAGNE: Of course, that story is especially shocking, I think, because we think of Thomas Edison as bringing great good, that his inventions transformed human existence for the better and also allowed for much of the innovation that followed. So you have brought us a piece about one man who thinks that the continual growth and progress that we've seen for centuries is just about over. Tell us what he says.

BROWN: Well, it's very interesting. This was a piece in New York Magazine; a very interesting piece by Benjamin Wallace-Wells, who describes how Robert Gordon, a 72-year-old economist, is something called a declinist, and he's at Northwestern. And he's a man behind the increasingly popular view of America's economic future, which is that the improved quality of life is never going to return; that this is not a blip - as this piece is called - but is, in fact, the new turn of the dial because we have had two industrial revolutions - first in the U.K., then in really what is the long, long cultural memory of America - which have been about constant innovation, constant leap and bound innovation - in electric light, as you say with Edison; the invention of the engine; all of these things which made such an extraordinarily quantum leap in the improvement of life; and that those things are over. They're not going to return, and we are not going to be able to have the kind of growth that we have seen.

I mean, he talks about four- or five-fold reasons: the aging of the American population, stagnation in educational achievement, fiscal tightening to fix our debt, the cost of health care and energy, and the pressures of globalization and growing inequality.

The combination of all of those things means that we're not going to see the kind of robust, boisterous growths that Americans are used to thinking of as the American dream. So it's, in that sense, a very dour portrait; something that P.T. Barnum certainly didn't feel when he was, you know, at the dawn of the Great American century, when the book of Michael Daly - really is all about the 100-year anniversary of America. And now as we head for the next millennium, it looks pretty dark, according to this professor, Robert Gordon.

MONTAGNE: Although, could not this last two and a half centuries be looked at as an adolescent growth spurt in the march of civilization and that at a certain point, you can't just do that over and over again?

BROWN: Well, that's exactly right, but it's not very pleasant to live through because, I think, Americans expect everything to keep improving. But we are seeing a period where things are not improving. This is going to be the first generation where the next generation will be less well-off and probably less well-educated.

MONTAGNE: There are, of course, countries and regions that are growing. Brazil, in these last few years, has turned into a huge economic power. And your final pick brings us to the underbelly of growth, the dark side of growth. There always is one, it seems, and in this case, it starts in the hillside slums known as favelas.

BROWN: Yes. It's a wonderful piece by the great chronicler of cities, Suketu Mehta. And this piece is his description of the attempts by the Brazilian government to pacify the favelas. The favelas of Brazil are so violent that cop helicopters don't even want to fly over many of them because they're afraid of being shot down by the drug dealers. So it's a really violent world - so violent that the government really is treating this now as almost like pacifying an insurgency. They go in, and they have to deal with not just the drug gangs, but also the militias that have grown up on the other side; always at constant war. The homicide rate is absolutely astronomical. And they go in and pacify it, and take it over. They literally take back the streets.

He describes what that process is like, going into these villages. You know, the incredible thing is that, you know, Brazil's middle class grew from 40 million to 105 million in the last five years and ye, at the same time, its violence is absolutely prodigious. And what he says - which I think is a fascination conclusion - he says that, you know, the juntas that ran Brazil for so long destroyed democracy, and that now Brazil, of course, is a democratic nation, and that process has changed.

But he says that in the favelas, there was no democracy. The traffic has continued with their own dictatorship. The people of the favelas still had great trouble getting access to the courts or casting a vote. Pacification, says Mehta, is an attempt to interrupt a despotic process. It is - for the construction workers and ladies who sell black bean stew in the slums - the final fall of the dictatorship. So this is the last attempt, in a sense, of Brazil to take back those streets before the World Cup.

MONTAGNE: Talk about competition - Brazil's been very successful in competing and winning the next summer Olympics.

BROWN: Yes, indeed. I mean, there's so much growth, and so much excitement, in Brazil. And it's a time of great unrest in Brazil at the same time as great progress. So it's a very interesting social study, and Suketu Mehta is a fantastic writer to do so.

MONTAGNE: OK. And that article, in the New York Review of Books; the article on Robert Gordon is in New York Magazine; and the book "Topsy" is by Michael Daly. Tina, thanks very much.

BROWN: Thank you so much, Rene.

MONTAGNE: Tina Brown is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Beast, and she joins us regularly for our feature Word Of Mouth.

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