Now is the Time We’ll Read about Later in the History Books
Every so often, an event happens that we know right away will go down in the history books: The Berlin Wall falls, the first sheep is cloned, the World Trade Towers are destroyed, Chilean miners are rescued from a half-mile below the earth, water is discovered on Mars…. The events usually speak for themselves as unspeakable tragedy or inhumanity, scientific breakthrough that changes our understanding of the rules of life, or triumph of the human spirit. They come at us in a distinct, impactful moment in time. Their importance used to be reiterated by screaming newspaper headlines the next morning. In this age of information overflow, we now recognize them through endless, round-the-clock coverage on cable “news” shows characterized by numbing repetition of the same video footage accompanied by talking heads babbling on with few new facts wrapped in endless speculation.
But major historical events can also stretch over long periods of time and are not defined until historians see all the pieces together much later with the benefit of hindsight: The Renaissance Period, the Ming Dynasty, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the Jurassic Period, the rise of humans…. What if we were living in one of these events now? One that people (or our successors) will read about in their history “books”? It’s hard to see through the fog of all the information “noise” around us, but I believe a picture is emerging.
It might be called the Age of Choice.
Historians will describe it as the dramatic period in which civilization had an overabundance of information on a barrage of critical issues and a challenging time sifting through it all to collectively decide which information was real and what to do with it: Will North Korea trigger a war that could consume a large portion of the world population and involve nuclear weapons? Or could it be a lunatic regime that collapses from self-delusion before it wreaks havoc? Will countries act together on climate change when leaders know that collective action is the only solution? Or will political leaders, business leaders and individuals seek to maximize their own short-term interests despite overwhelming information that it will bring collapse of the human support systems that provide for those self-interests? Will China continue to build coal power plants at the rate of one every ten days despite knowledge that they are sacrificing the long term for short term economic gain? Will America continue to fight two major wars overseas while its people live at home as if it was a time of peace? Will Americans continue to buy enormous quantities of goods from China despite personal experience that financial relationships in which money goes one way only is not sustainable? Will economists continue to measure the health of an economy by GDP despite information in front of them that it does not give a comprehensive look at economic conditions? Will the media continue to saturate the public with sound bites, sensationalism and opinion, knowing that it has greatly contributed to the decline in hard discussions about practical policy issues (but also knowing that it helps their quarterly ratings)? Will we, as individuals, continue to see ourselves as “consumers” in the face of gut knowledge that it doesn’t fulfill us and factual information that we are consuming world resources at a rate far beyond what the planet can sustain? Is the incidence of extreme weather actually increasing, or is it just the reporting of it because it provides for dramatic video?
The list of questions that lead to critical choices can go very deep and wide. What historians will write about the Age of Choice will be the struggle to connect the dots as individuals, as society’s, and as an integrated eco-system called Planet Earth. If historians do their job well, they will look at the challenges of sifting through an endless onslaught of information to find what is important, and how people use different coping mechanisms. They will come to understand that it was possible for individuals to interpret reality using completely different sets of “facts” – that someone who understands reality through the lens of email subscriptions vs. bloggers vs. Fox News vs. NPR vs. MSNBC vs. print media is going to have a wholly unique filtered set of data upon which to make decisions… and still be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of it.
But the bigger question that historians will address is whether a critical mass of human civilization recognized during a time of international economic and political turmoil that the path they had been leading for centuries was not sustainable and did not make logical sense at a gut, instinctual level… and whether that critical mass acted upon it and fixed it before it was too late.
The answer will inevitably also involve a discussion of the evolution of political philosophies: individual freedom and the interests of the individual vs. accountability to the community. This complex topic is such a flashpoint today that it is hard to have a discussion about it without emotions flaring. An American ex-patriot in Europe told me recently that it appeared from afar that America was having some sort of nervous breakdown. There is a need, however, to really look hard at the issues involved and figure something out that balances and protects both important interests. It could start with a discussion of what constitutes harming or helping your neighbor. I’m not advocating one political philosophy or another. In fact, I’ve considered starting the Competence Party. Its motto would be “Let’s just get something done… and do it well.”
How will historians end the story of the Age of Choice? As we look around us, now is the time to decide.
(C) 2010 by Mick Dalrymple