“Baleful sound and wild voices ignored” [Bauhaus]
The unfortunately ubiquitous proclamation that we are in an “era of unprecedented change” can usually be found immediately preceding someone who hasn’t stopped to think about it. Or who paid no attention in history class. Unfortunately the statement is often heralded by a downloadable ring tone of your choice.
The recent excellent post by my favourite “short-term pessimist/long-term optimist” @FlipChartRick addressed this with a focus on technology – but this post isn’t just about the technology. It’s about – well, everything. Because in pondering this “an era of unprecedented change” we are drawn to consider that we are privileged – that we are living in a sparkling, nerve-tingling time of which previous generations might only be paralysed with envy. Our guard drops, we get sucked in – and don’t consider fully enough that perhaps – just perhaps – that is bullshit, that actually, we could be deluding ourselves, that we are instead entering a long-term plateau of comparative tedium and are monumentally unprepared for it. Dissenting views are shouted reactionary, generationally adrift.
Consider for a moment the possibility that:
On a grand scale, politically the world may be at far less risk from our own insanity than at any time due to the end of the cold war and the resulting dispersal of both threat and power. It could be argued that there was no event in history more dangerous to humanity than the Cuban Missile Crisis, as fingers quivered above large red buttons saying “do not press under any circumstances whatsoever, moron”. We are still breathing the sigh of relief, and fragmentation has made us progressively and collectively safer. But this isn’t a political blog, so let’s get more granular.
Instead of heralding greater freedom, more leisure time, more meaningful and satisfying work, technology may have been a conservative force, solidifying the master/servant relationship, creating greater opportunities for observation, measurement, manipulation, monitoring, control and intrusion into our personal lives, and while automating swathes of mundane process has in reality introducing even more in its stead. And we are still talking about robots taking our jobs.
The drift towards self-determination and networked, democratic organisational structures may be illusory, and that in parallel with the wanton surrender of hard-won individual rights, protection and security have emerged less overt and visible methods of control. Hierarchical structures have survived since we emerged from the caves, proving themselves highly adaptive through far more radical societal change than that brought on by a smartphone and a chat account.
Social media may have actually made us less social, lazier, disinterested, uncommitted, less likely to act and more expectant of the social content of our lives being delivered to our door (or left with a responsible neighbour) than having to actively seek and develop interests and inspiration – that it has created, formalised and institutionalised the Easy Option.
The exponential increase in self-published – our “writing ourselves into existence” – may have been nothing more than geometrically increasing, inconsequential, low-quality impedance, cupcakes in the window – distracting, fresh and colourful one day, stale and discarded the next – making it harder to discover anything useful or insightful than ever before. The needle the same size, the haystack overwhelming, and the algorithm useless. This post, just more interference.
Not easy, is it?
These are merely hypotheses. Disappointing and uncomfortable as they may appear, we need to ask the question as to whether we might be ready for an uncomfortably dull reality, bobbing gently around in the dishwater when we were promised flumes and a wave machine. If the present is deemed an era at all, it is possible that it may prove not to be of unprecedented change, but of generating and believing our own vaccuous hype.
It is far from a pessimistic proposition. If it comes to pass, what might it mean for us? We will need to be more creative, more inspired and inspiring, more genuinely social, more reliant upon our own resources as human beings – but most of all, far more inquisitive and questioning. If we have to try harder, take more initiative, it could bring a deeper understanding of ourselves.
As we walk the hollow hills, philosophy might just save us after all.