In a word, quantities. It has been a century of immense change and the pace of life is still accelerating. We have lived through perhaps three centuries in one. Things which were utterly new 100 years ago, such as electrical gizmos and flight, we now take for granted, as if they had always been here.
The seeds of the 20th Century germinated in the 1880s-90s. Here’s a list of innovations developed in those two decades: cars, aeroplanes, electrical goods, canned and frozen foods, plastics, psychotherapy, socialist parties, feminism, pharmaceutical medicines, telephones, relativity theory and nuclear physics, science fiction, mega-corporations, tanks, vacuum cleaners, mass media... Get it?
Technological changes have brought large-scale social and cultural shifts too – ‘modernity’. Our recent capacity to travel and talk long distances, together with an enormous expansion of horizons and mixing of cultures, has shifted our perspective. Cameras relay instant images from the world over, and telephones and Internet melt boundaries and remove the constraints of distance. Chinese take-aways in every town, in every country.
English has become the world language, thanks particularly to wires and microwave beams. Everyone, everywhere, wears jeans, carrying their burdens in plastic bags. Landfill tips grace every country. Without being taken there, pollution creeps into Arctic ice, remote mountain ranges and deep underground watercourses. World telecommunications linkages now exceed the linkages in the human brain – stretching into outer space, conveyed by light and shoving thousands of simultaneous messages through the same cables or microwave beams. Today's currency is called bandwidth.
We have become large-scale, mass-producing, mass-consuming, world people. Standardisation has crept in, both creating a new global commonality and killing off cultural variety and nuance, eroding the tender heart of society. Large-scalism has allowed a totalitarianism which, in the 1940s, killed 55 million people and nearly killed democracy too. Yet this trauma midwifed ‘human rights’, welfare and regulation, the softening of raw business: FD Roosevelt’s New Deal ‘saved capitalism from the capitalists’, defying Karl Marx’s prediction that capitalism would destroy itself.
Yet standardisation also gives us a new baseline of commonality from which to redevelop new diversity. These are days of customisation, minority rights, downsizing, outsourcing, provenance, freelancing and localism – counter-forces to globalisation. Central directorates yield slowly to interacting networks.
Meanwhile, capitalists have become disposable too, amidst the growth of a globalised corporate culture outsizing governments and nations, concealing the holders of world power within an institutional monolith.
The 20th Century has brought immense tragedy, loss and pain. Millions have suffered and died. If anything, we have become creepingly hardened. Smoke, explosions, tower blocks and glass-heartedness, depressurised by Hollywood romance and plenteous chocolate, have balkanised societies according to social type and spending patterns. Law and order have moulded justice into a buyable product and a plaything of public opinion - today’s hidden Hitlers and Stalins work in 'spin'.
The innocence of childhood and the wisdom of age are forgotten. Today, if it turns a profit, it is good. Yet new advantages have appeared: life-options have increased, new knowledge and viewpoints have developed. Immense projects have been undertaken. Society has been re-engineered, re-branded. The future is not sealed. As always, history is a mixed bag.
Many 20th Century music, discoveries, ideas, films and inventions have been superb. Electric guitars and electron microscopes, laptops and mobile phones fly further than the wildest futuristic fantasies of the Renaissance visionaries of half a millennium ago. The cruel extremes and disparate threads of 20th Century life could yet converge to serve one purpose: we’ve boldly gone where none has gone before, into planetary civilisation, and by aversion we’ve learned a lot about where not to go too.
Perversely, consumerism has brought a new spiritual impulse. Photocopiers and jumbo-jets have facilitated a deep-level shift, a confluence of the world’s ideas and insights. A tremendous fermentation is afoot – much greater than the Renaissance.
Now comes the next bit: our hearts cry out for a more meaningful life, seeking to rediscover our heart and soul – globally. Our challenge in the 21st Century is to make the world truly fit for people – and for all species – to coexist and thrive together. Our opportunity is to make our societies more homely and at home, here on Earth, where we live.
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