Imagine a video that records eons of time on our planet. For the longest stretch of time, nothing seems to happen. Then burial grounds and cave paintings appear. Over the course of two millennia primates of the genus Homo act creatively to elude predators, control fire, fashion tools, survive illnesses, adapt to changes in climate and learn the virtues of cooperation. These are crucial and impressive developments, appearing over great distances of time.
In the Western World life remained slow in the sixth century. But waterwheels make an appearance, and in the seventh, the ox-drawn plow. During the ninth century nailed horseshoes and horse collars come into view. In the twelfth are windmills, astrolabes and the compass; spectacles, water-powered saws and mechanical clocks show up in the thirteenth. Three successive centuries bring gunpowder, the printing press and the microscope.
All were epic inventions. Century after century they brought humans new forms of power by increasing productivity, lessening the importance of slavery, and improving the transmission of knowledge. By the nineteenth century, monumental inventions and discoveries now come by decade – steam engine, locomotive, telegraph, telephone, electricity, internal combustion engine, typewriter, automobiles.
During my lifetime, the pace of change quickened further. On the global stage consider history’s greatest war (50-60 million dead), the beginning and end of the Cold War, the collapse of the USSR, and surging Islamic fundamentalism. Those very years also brought the development of nuclear energy and weaponry, space flight, moon landings, robots, genetic engineering, organ transplants, artificial intelligence, microprocessors, the Internet and World Wide Web, GPS, Smartphones and Facebook. Social and cultural changes included revolutions in civil rights and gender rights, with American women moving far beyond the confines of home and steno pool, transforming domestic arrangements.
There is little reason to believe that anything other than rapid-fire, exponential change lies ahead. So much already comes at us daily, even hourly, through phone, email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and texting that it can be mind-numbing. For many, too much information is exactly that – too much. It is hardly surprising that people now focus on what losses change will bring rather than on what gains could be achieved. Industrial designer and entrepreneur Elon Musk puts it distinctly in terms of adaptability: “Some people don’t like changes, but you need to embrace change if the alternative is disaster.”
Three-time Pulitzer Prize winning author Thomas Friedman agrees. He regularly points to the widening gap between accelerating change and “our ability to develop the learning systems, training systems, management systems, social safety nets, and government regulations that would enable citizens to avoid the most serious dangers in human life: This mismatch [he concludes] is at the center of much of the turmoil roiling politics and society in both developed and developing countries today.”
In the near future matters could become even more difficult. Global warming, already a present reality, poses a challenge unmatched in human history. It has lulled many to sleep, for its ominous consequences don’t appear overnight. The growing use of robots and spread of artificial intelligence will eliminate jobs, a grim threat especially to people already out of work. The pandemic has jump-started this trend. It has also increased the concentration of great wealth at an alarming rate; in authoritarian societies that is a given, but in democracies it is less sustainable, especially without a “rising tide that lifts all boats.”
Nobody knows where our road to the future will lead, but we’ll need to raise our game as we journey along, for accelerating speed takes away the gift of time. Not least, our journey will require leadership that takes the consequences of accelerated change seriously. And to remain a democracy, recent events remind us that we’ll need leaders to keep faith with democratic principles that counter strong currents of voter suppression, the contagion of “fake news,” and the politics of White grievance.
Daunting as the challenges before us are, humans, even in the face of punishing odds, have coped well enough to survive and proliferate. And well enough to furnish hope that complex challenges will continue to generate imaginative responses.
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.