As Christmas and the end of 2017 approach, I look back on the past year and wonder.
These times we live in. Are they good times, or are they bad? Will people look back and say “Wow, those guys of the Second Elizabethan Period had it cushy, did they not?” or will they be shaking their heads and muttering “Those poor things – how did they survive?”
Now, I spend quite a bit of time on Facebook, and Facebook is not, of course, a very good mirror to be holding up to society 1 because everything tends to be both exaggerated and rather black & white, especially when it concerns the headline news stories and the info-GIFS and the shared posts that go around (and around, and around), but it does throw into sharp relief some of the issues we face. I see posts about every aspect of the human condition, from the highest acts of humble selflessness and heroism, through the beauty and awesomeness of life on our planet, and the virtues and rewards of living with simplicity, right down into the sewer of our utter arrogance, evil-doing and greed.
A future reader might deduce that the things are amazingly chaotic for us – everywhere, all the time. Conflicting points of view, opinions, suggestions, and versions of the truth are posted alongside scientific proofs, government decisions, and interpretations of current facts which all clash and disagree with each other. People are sweet, polite, and helpful, and rude, angry, and profane, which can result in them either offering assistance and comfort or swearing at each other in fifty-seven different languages and a thousand assorted accents. We petition to save obscure and almost invisible spiders from extinction, and we laugh collectively about a pregnant woman and her children being pelted with hard-boiled eggs from a moving car.
What kind of people are we, the Second Elizabethans, and what has made us this way?
I think we have been changed more than we like to admit by technology. If you had told me, when I was fourteen years old, that one day I’d consider it quite normal to carry a pocket-sized device with me every day, on which I’d be able to make a phone call to the other side of the world from the middle of a field, I’d have been surprised. If you had then told me that this same device would take instant photos without the need for film, play my entire music library directly into my ears, tell me the weather at home and abroad, answer pretty much any question I cared to put to it2, allow me write and receive messages, access TV and radio, teach me a foreign language, play card games with me, and read me to sleep at night, I’d have laughed in your face. But we do have our phones, and our laptops, and an awful lot of us love them to bits. And we conduct far too many of our social interactions via texts and video messages and social media on these things.
Many of our technological advances are clearly beneficial. The advances made in medicine, technology, transport, and food production3, new ways to save mankind, new games and entertainments, new labour-saving devices, etc. Trouble is, all these things come at a price, so we have an ageing demographic who need to be supported4, and we have the rape and pillage of vast areas of the earth’s resources and habitats … and we have pollution. Pollution with a capital ‘P’. Look up ‘Jakarta is sinking’ on Google. Go on, I’ll wait for you here.
Another huge problem we have to deal with is instant news media, which brings atrocities from all over the world into our living space twenty-four hours a day in inglorious colour and sound and movement, and serves only to stress and depress us. Oh, and to give fresh ideas to psychopaths and criminals about how next to hurt or kill people and gain notoriety, so we get a lot of copycat crimes and crazy people claiming resposibility for things they didn’t do.
And so I imagine that, one day in that dim and distant future, someone might stand up and say:
“Here, hang on a minute … they did what? But how could they not know how stupid/damaging/counterproductive that was?”
Take a second or two to wonder about that, and how many things it could apply to. Now. Which of those things would stand out as the single factor which defined, and maybe condemned, our era? And while we’re on the subject, what would win the gold medal for the best of our times?
As a species, we are the most destructive on the planet, but we are also the most inquisitive, and the most creative. This is just as well, because the havoc we are wreaking on our planet is beginning to catch up with us. We will need all of that creativity just to survive to the end of this millennium. However, I do have faith that we will pull ourselves back from the brink and survive, if only we can persuade our governments to think beyond the next election. That, I think, is the new trick we must learn.
1 At least, I hope not!
2 With varying degrees of truthfulness and accuracy, it has to be said
3 But only, of course, for the rich part of the world. For the rest, while these new methods of food production enables many to earn a living, it usually pays them a pittance, relatively speaking, and by destroying their ecosystems and altering their whole economies, ensures that they will continue to provide their raw materials while they can, because there’s nothing else left to them by now.
4 This is also a problem in its own right – illustrated by the current dissent about pensions, but that’s another story