An article by: Alessandro Banfi

Artificial intelligence and smartphones are not the first technological revolution. The refrigerator, the automobile, and the television changed the world in the 1960s, a moment labeled “the disappearance of the fireflies,” as Pier Paolo Pasolini explained in a famous article for Corriere della Sera in 1975

Three objects changed the history of the twentieth century: the automobile, the television set, and the refrigerator

Today it seems that digital technology, smartphones, or artificial intelligence are unprecedented changes. But there have actually been other such moments, even recent ones. There is a period in the history of the twentieth century that can be defined not as a political or institutional, but rather as a technological evolution that nevertheless transforms everyday habits. These are the few years, during which three items that changed the habits and customs of the population appeared in almost all households in the developed world: the automobile, the television set, and the refrigerator. If we want to determine the date of this material revolution, we could focus on the decade 1954-1964. In Italy, official RAI broadcasting began in 1954. The first televisions were purchased “by groups” in condominiums or bars because it was initially too expensive for individuals. A refrigerator that had just entered the Italian market cost six months of average wages.

FIAT 500 in 1960 was more expensive: it cost ten average salaries. But the economic boom coincides with rising wages and falling prices in proportion to the spread of consumer goods themselves. After a few years, the dream becomes possible. Televisions are becoming affordable for almost all budgets and are gracing living rooms. Highways were built for cars (the opening of the Sun Motorway between Milan and Naples in 1964), and homes now had the “friend of the family,” as the appliance was brilliantly dubbed by Giovanni Borghi, entrepreneur of the leading company Ignis, manufacturer of the “King of Whiteness,” the epithet attributed to the appliance sector. This is a remarkable revolution that has profound implications.

Artists are the first to comprehend the transformation of body and soul

As always, artists are the first to realize the transformation of body and soul. Giovanni Arpino, a journalist and writer from Turin, wrote the novel, A Cloud of Wrath, for the Mondadori publishing house in 1962, ten years after his literary debut. The novel is set in working-class Turin and is written as the diary of Sperata, “the conscious woman,” protagonist of the love triangle. She tells us about her forty-year-old tanner husband Angelo and twenty-five-year-old friend Matteo. The story begins in a hospital room where Angelo is awaiting surgery to treat a stomach ulcer, and two others, probably lovers, are at his bedside. It is clear from the first joking remarks to the nun in the ward that these are “comrade” members of the ICP. Matteo, before taking up leather tanning, fought in Greece and was a guerilla in the Langhe hills. His political beliefs are combined with simple and lonely obsessions of a lifestyle that is about to be suppressed and distorted: cards, wine, motorcycles, hunting… Instead, Angelo epitomizes the “rich” human type. Although he is an ideologically intransigent worker, he is always a bit childishly excited about possible new conquests, an avid lover of a woman, living in the same house as her husband, somehow guaranteed by the diversity of the party, always convinced of his rightness. Sperata is a strong woman who considers certain limits of bourgeois morality to be exceeded. At any rate, her contradiction is that she is seduced by the sirens of that consumerist world, which claims the desire to change. A refrigerator that two lovers were very eager to use as a new object in an alternate home is the “trigger” for a tragedy with a deadly threesome epilogue. At the climax of the story, Sperata describes the scene that resulted from Matteo’s anger: “The refrigerator was lying on the ground on its side, and the door was almost off its hinges. Glass and metal screens were broken everywhere, and the floor was stained with two bottles of Coca-Cola, a flask of wine, and a flask of tomato jam. The television, dragged in here from the living room, was tattered as if it had been kicked…”

Thirteen years after the refrigerator and television were destroyed by A Cloud of Wrath, Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote the famous article on the disappearance of fireflies that marked the transformation of Italy. Cars pollute the air, and the nocturnal insects, so poetic in peasant Italy, no longer fly. Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote an editorial for Corriere della Sera on February 1, 1975, which marked a profound turning point in those years and which he himself dated ten years earlier. Indeed, Pasolini states: “Since I am a writer and write in polemics, or at least debate with other writers, allow me to give a poetic-literary definition of the phenomenon that occurred in Italy about ten years ago. This will help simplify and shorten our discussion (and perhaps even make it better understood). In the early sixties, fireflies began to disappear due to air pollution, and above all in rural areas, due to water pollution (blue rivers and clear canals). The phenomenon was lightning fast and dazzling. After a few years, the fireflies were no more (they are now a rather heartbreaking memory of the past: an old person with such a memory cannot recognize his young self in new young people and therefore can no longer have wonderful regrets about the past). So, I’ll call that “something”, which happened about ten years ago, “the disappearance of the fireflies.” For Pasolini, the image of the faunal involution of the Italian countryside is a metaphor for the transformation of Italians, who have become “degenerate, ridiculous, monstrous, criminal” people under the rule of “new fascism” of consumer civilization. The Friulian intellectual died the same year, murdered near Ostia. And it is his judgment that will remain a testament to future memory.

In 1961, the young director Ermanno Olmi, a year before Arpino’s novel, announced himself to the world (winning the critics’ prize at the Venice Film Festival) with a masterpiece film called “Il Posto” (The Place). The story is set in Lombardy during the economic boom: a boy from Meda, a town in Brianza, takes part in the job selection process of a large company in Milan. He lives in the country, in a house with no refrigerator and a shared bathroom on the balcony. His parents are anxious about their son’s move to the city and the transformation he will undergo, but at the same time, they hope it will improve their own economic situation. Shy and awkward Domenico is hired into an office where he will make a shocking impression with his new life. In this movie, Olmi presents a moment of enchantment and poetry, accurately describing the moment of transition, the moment of disappearance of the fireflies.

We have so far listed three Italian authors. But there is a great Jewish-Polish writer who later became a naturalized American, the winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize for Literature, Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote a wonderful novel in 1957 called Shadows on the Hudson (original title: “Shotns baym Hodson”). The book was first published in parts in Yiddish in The Jewish Daily Forward and then in English under the title “Shadows on the Hudson.” The novel tells the story of the impact of a group of Polish Jews, refugees in New York City because of Nazism, on American consumer society. Their language, Yiddish, their Jewish religion, the life of their shtetl, the typical villages of Central Europe gradually lose ground in the memory, soul, and body of the novel’s protagonists. The fireflies disappearing on the Hudson, the river that runs through New York City, are the fireflies of Jewish Poland, destroyed by Nazism and World War II. Fireflies that can’t survive for long among the skyscrapers of Manhattan. The families and traditions of these Polish Jews crumble against the wall of avenues full of comfortable cars. Their lives and consciences are sucked into homes full of refrigerators and televisions. Singer is again drawn to the poetry of silent and violent transformation.

Digital transformation is changing the souls and bodies of the world’s citizens

And politics? In fact, the years of this socio-economic transformation coincide with positive changes in political systems and international relations. These are the years of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev, John XXIII: years of thaw, cooperation, optimism towards international organizations. It was the crisis of the seventies (in particular, the first oil crisis) that would also force the political ruling classes, both in the East and in the West, to reflect on the profound transformation of the values of individuals and peoples that occurred with the establishment of the consumer society. But perhaps that realization will come too late, once the catastrophe has occurred.

Perhaps, herein lies the lesson of history, which is always magistra vitæ, the teacher of life, that world leaders must appreciate today: digital transformation is changing the souls and bodies of the world’s citizens. Understanding what this entails and how it can be managed is the real priority for the ruling classes of today and the future. There is no shortage of voices telling us about today’s transformation. But that’s a whole other subject.


Alessandro Banfi