Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Will the 21st Century Actually Begin in 2014?

(NOTE: a somewhat expanded version of this speculative essay appeared syndicated on the Bloomberg network, at the very end of 2013.)
As if you didn't already have enough to be nervous about, here's something creepy to ponder as the year 2014 gets under way.
This what-if isn't technological, social, political, or even science-fictional. Rather, it’s a bit of wholly unscientific, superstitious pattern-recognition. That the last two centuries (and possibly more) didn't "start" at their official point, the turning of a calendar from 00 to 01. That wasn't when they began in essence, nor when they first bent the arc of history.
Century-Begin-2014No. Each century effectively began in its 14th year.
Think about it. The first decade of the 20th century was filled with hope and a kind of can-do optimism that was never seen again -- not after the horrific events of 1914 shattered any vision that a new and better age would arrive without pain. Yet, until almost the start of World War I, 19th century progress seemed unstoppable and ever-accelerating.
Consider the world of 1913, when regular middle-class folks in the U.S., U.K., France, Germany and so on were acquiring unexpected wonders: clothes-washing machines, gas stoves, gas and then electric lighting, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, vaccinations, telephones, radios, gas cooking stoves, motor cars. Stepping outside you would see and hear  human beings flying through the sky!
Science was pouring forth what seemed unalloyed goodness.  New dyes and industrial textiles doubled a working family's access to fresh and beautiful clothes. Cheap iron bedsteads kept cheap spring mattresses clean, making sleep both healthier and far more comfortable. Nations were banning child labor and providing free schooling. Astronomers discovered what galaxies were. Physicists were pushing their pure and harmless science to fantastic frontiers. And the Haber-Bosch process  brought cheap fertilizers that tripled crops, as chemistry proved itself to be everybody's friend.
PROGRESSThink our era is similarly fast-changing? Just compare the kitchen of today with a kitchen of 1950. Sure, everything nowadays is shinier, bigger, smarter. Still, a person from 1950 could use our apparatus with fluid familiarity. But the drudgery-saddled housewife of 1880 would blink in bedazzlement at what her daughter used in 1913, enabling that daughter to start contemplating fulfilling jobs outside the home. Life was changing at a pace never-before seen, and mostly for the better.
Sure, all those techno-advances continued after World War I. Social changes such as women getting the vote were harbingers of more to come. But after 1914, the naiveté was gone. People realized that the 20th century would be one of harsh struggle accompanying every step of advancement. And along the way to hard-won better times, the age would spiral downward first, into the deepest pit that humanity ever knew, before our parents (or grandparents) clawed their way out of the nadir of 1944 -- the focal year of a century that truly began in 1914.
All right, that's just one data point. Is there another? Well, look at 1814, when Napoleon's fall led to the Congress of Vienna and the so-called Concert of Europe that made possible the continent's longest extended period of overall peace, as the great powers turned from fighting bloody wars to perfecting their colonial empires. Or aloof back another hundred years, to when the War of Spanish Succession culminated -- in 1714 -- in what came to be called the "French Century."  In each case, the fourteenth year marked a dramatic shift in tone and theme, so much so that they represented the real beginnings of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
(Indeed, there were major, threshold events in 1414 and 1614… but I am not here to make some case for mystical-numerologiucal patter!  Rather, I have a different point, entirely, as will become clear.)
Suppose the pattern holds -- and remember this is just a thought experiment -- what might it mean about the true 21st century? What theme will typify or represent its arc?
First, let's dismiss one parochial notion -- that the terror attacks of September 2001 were the major break point between centuries. Nonsense. We were engaged in the same struggle before and after. The U.S. shrugged off more damage during any month of World War II. Indeed, nothing could be more “twen-cen” or 20th century than the overwrought hysteria that some (not all) Americans apply to "9/11." Much of the world assigns no particular relevance to that date.
Doom-gloomOh, we are still in the 20th. Consider the pervading doom and gloom we see around us, right now. Post-apocalyptic tales and dystopias fill our fiction, films and politics, especially the Young Adult genre where today's teens seem terminally allergic to stories containing hope. How very `60s. And `70s. … and so on.
There was a similar sense of apocalypse in 1813 Europe, but at least there were good reasons, after decades of ferocious struggle that seemed poised to last forever. What excuse do we have, in a time when per capita violence has been plummeting for decades? When the fraction of kids -- worldwide -- who are well-fed and in school is higher than ever?  Sure, the planet faces dire problems. But the things keeping us from addressing pollution, oppression, climate change and all of that are political inanities. The War on Science that has hobbled innovation, for example, can be won if we do one thing -- tell the gloomcasters of both left and right to get out of our way and let us get back to problem-solving.
Indeed, the only real obstruction we seem to face is a dullard-sickness of attitude, dismally ignoring every staggering accomplishment since 1945. Hence the question: Is it possible that a new theme for our 21st century requires only that we snap out of our present funk?
If only. That would truly be the Dawning of an Age of Aquarius, forecast by hippies long before the old 20th was anywhere near done with us, but arriving at last. You shake your heads, but it could happen.
We can still choose our own fate. Next year, we might decide to cheer up and rediscover the can-do optimism that was crushed by the tsar and kaiser and a small group of insipid, inbred monarchs, exactly 100 years ago.
can-do-problem-solvingWe could choose to become problem-solvers, in part, because (let's imagine) someone in 2014 discovers a simple, cheap and safe IQ-boosting pill letting millions finally see past their hypnotizing dogmas. Or suppose politicians decide to get over their self-serving snits and resume the adult craft of negotiation. Or some cable news owner decides to rediscover citizenship. Or some brave director releases an inspiring film that astounds people with an unexpected idea called hope.
Or else... go ahead and wallow in the obvious notion that 2014 will see a violent ruction of its own. A phase transition into a century whose theme we'll all regret. Or we’ll see a continuing retreat from confident civilization, a turning away from the Enlightenment Dream, relapsing into fearful obeisance to a leader, or New Lords, or some simplistic ideal.
That, too, could take place. In which case, please don't give me any prediction points. All I did was spot a pattern. I don't want respect from a people who would allow something like that to happen.
--Reprinted from: What If the 21st Century Begins in 2014? in Bloomberg Press.


Carl M. said...

9/11 was a minor attack by world standards, but it was the day when the U.S. formally rejected civil defense in favor of worship of the professional guardian class.

We had a supposedly conservative President from Texas of all places, yet the idea of using armed citizens to thwart terrorists was quickly suppressed in favor of creating the Transportation Safety Abomination.

The terrorists attacked our freedom -- and won.


Now I will admit that the move to a police state has deeper roots. It goes back to the race riots of the 1960s. But the TSA and the PATRIOT Act capped the trend.

Go back an look at old TV from the 1960s and see how tame the TV cops are. Dirty Harry was what passed for fascism in the early 70s, and he was incredibly tame. His overkill weapon was a 357 magnum REVOLVER. Not an Uzi or a Glock.

spectral_ev said...

One reason I liked 'Existence' was the vision of a future that had taken some hits but was still good. Pessimism is addictive, optimism takes effort. I was raised to believe The Rapture is immanent, 40 years on still have to get up and go to work on Mondays. Thanks for this post-- part of the answer is having the courage to see ourselves making a better world.

Jumper said...

"We ain't had that spirit here since 1969" suddenly gains extra meaning, for me.

David Brin said...

Carl, while I am less dramatic in my appraisal, the trend is certainly as you describe. Ironically, As Elaine Scarry & I pointed out (almost alone) 9/11 was the day that the Protector Caste utterly failed at all levels and in all ways and everything good was accomplished by private citizens armed with cell phones.

We won the war that very day, When the rebel citizens on flight UA93 showed Americans have guts, and thus repudiated the incantation that drives ALL our enemies, that we are decadent cowards. The war was won…

…though I suppose we had to smash the Taliban, using a democratic-style war plan created under Clinton. It worked spectacularly well! Then Bush went for Afghanistan Part II and Iraq… GOP style insane quagmires.

But no, I do not see the independent spirit crushed. It continues.

Acacia H. said...

The difference for those other time periods is simple: each "dawn" of a "century" in the 14s was done so through widespread war. Is this the case in 2014? Our wars are Afghanistan and a simmering Middle East (with one point of glorious light in Tunisia which chose a democracy that in print looks more progressive and liberty-oriented than the United States)... and a possible shadow war waged on and over the Internet.

But actual conflict is not apparent.

What will 2014 bring? Much the same that 2013 did, and 2012. We'll see slow economic growth with the occasional hiccup. We'll see the slow diminishing of civil rights and the middle class. We'll see technological marvels that ultimately do nothing (unless someone manages to build Elon Musk's tube transport and it works - that could help innovate transportation in some fascinating ways).

The 21st century will not be the Age of Aquarius. Instead, it will be the Age of Mediocrity. And it'll end with widescale environmental disruptions, numerous wildlife extinctions, and eventually a plague we can't quickly cure but spreads far enough before kicking in that we can't just use quarantine to protect against it.

And yet even with all of that, humanity will muddle on... and I doubt even a widescale plague will destroy civilization. Knowledge is too dispersed now for that to kill our innovative spirit. So amidst the gloom, doom, and pessimism, there is still that one little light that flickers but remains lit.

Rob H.

LarryHart said...

What we could really use about now is to find Captain America frozen in ice since 1945.

Alfred Differ said...

No need for Captain America. We already have what we need. 8)

2014 will see the US make use of a strategic detente with Iran in order to shift attention to Ukraine and a more active policy of constraining Russia. I suspect it is already underway.

I can think of an appropriate upheaval for this year, but we might see it in China. They are making some pretty heavy alterations to the rules right now. If they screw it up, it could be a real mess. If not, most of us outside won't realize anything could have happened.

I find it funny when people argue that this century will be a mediocre one or be more about whimpering than shouting. History suggests we don't make it through a recent century without a number of phase changes and I can't imagine THAT trend not surviving. While I like David's 'year 14' measure, I think a better one that covers us from the industrial revolution to the present is 'every generation' with the span becoming a little longer as we live longer.

Anonymous said...

I don't get this "century" stuff. It's a completely arbitrary unit. At best it is pointless - in many cases it is misleading.

Alfred Differ said...

It's not arbitrary if enough people pay attention to it AS IF it matters. We wind up making it matter through feedback.

Whether these ideas are true or not, it is a fun way to learn history. How many American kids know about the Spanish War of Succession or the Thirty Years war from the previous century? How many know who Napoleon was beyond the caricature (hand half way in shirt) we do for insane people? Drawing attention to history helps us all point out that things actually DO change. 8)

locumranch said...

"Science was pouring forth what seemed unalloyed goodness" during the 19th & 20th centuries, the problem being that things are rarely what they seem.

What 'seemed' like 'unalloyed goodness' carried the immense hidden costs of overpopulation, CO2 production, environmental destruction, species extinction, fishery depletion & climate change, hidden costs which are symptomatic rather than causative, the product of our relative success rather than the cause of our current dilemma.

We have bent the environment to our singular will, exceeded the human carrying-capacity of our planet and set ourselves above & outside of a natural order to which we remain subject, leaving us (likewise) subject to inevitable natural correction until we escape the mortal bonds of our gravity well.

And, with the bill for all of this unalloyed scientific 'goodness' come due, it's either 'Pay the Piper' through megadeath & penury or 'Dine & Ditch'. And, gosh darn it, I seem to have left my wallet at home.


matthew said...

I predict that the "phase change" we will see in the early parts of the 21st Century will involve the Maker movement, and David's "Age of the Amateur," mixed with some good old fashioned hippie-style "Back to the Earth"-ism.

The hipsters are raising their own chickens in urban backyard coops, planting heritage tomato seeds in their front yard raised beds and hand-carving traditional sea kayaks in their basements. You can tell that something is up. Mix in companies that are making tools to allow for more democratic use of technology (Hi, adafruit!) and near-saturation levels of internet access and you have a revolution.

Note that I am not jumping onto the "3D printing will save us all from capitalism" bandwagon. I'm just pointing out that we seem to be going back to a stronger DIY ethos than we've had since 1972. And that the internet is doing the job of a trillion Whole Earth Catalogs.

matthew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

"contemplating fulfilling jobs outside the home" good one Brin :) like miley cyrus and twerking. If you look at audrey Hepburn at 20 as the before picture and miley cyrus at 20 as the after picture I think we can safely conclude that this type of rhetoric doesn't take society a place we want it to go.

David Brin said...

Matthew thou art cogent… and anonymous is a complete dope. Yeah, Miley is a poster child for feminism. Right.

locum is still in his fine fettle phase! I don't really disagree at all, fellah! But dig what else the wealth and safety and comfort of the middle class that the industrial revolution wrought.

A huge scientific caste that demolished ancient assumptions about race/gender class and that is now striving hard (with real successes) to improve industrial-urban processes and make them efficient… lower impact…

A vast educated population, which correlates with a large fraction of young people becoming EFFECTIVE COMPLAINERS or social T Cells… millions of them environmentalists. Vastly more than ALL other civilizations produced, combined.

And the miracle that women, when liberated and safe, tend to have two kids. (That one is an unearned bonus and goes on the ledger of things I'd be tempted to attribute to beneficent providence.)

I could go on, but it comes down to being a species that is capable of both satiation and re-evaluation. And when we produce enough stuff to stop worrying only about stuff, then many of us start working on how to produce stuff… better.


Alfred Difffer said...

We have NOT exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet... yet. More people suffer from obesity issues than malnutrition if you need a measure of it. What we've done is change the tech we use that defines the carrying capacity, so I'm not convinced there is a hard measure we can know in advance. IF people start dying in droves, we will know we've done it.

Overpopulation is more about engineering than science and only in that our improved engineering skills generated wealth so fast that our kids didn't die as often as they used to. Medical 'miracles' came after the engineering changes brought on by the industrial revolution, but ALL of that can be thought of as engineering of one sort or another. Scientists come along later and try to figure out why things work the way the engineers have shown they work... usually. 8)

Also, overpopulation appears to be mostly a confidence issue. If parents think their kids are likely to survive, they choose not to have many of them... on average. We are seeing this all around the world today as fertility rates drop toward replacement levels and below. The population of planet Earth is likely to peak around 11 billion near the middle of this century because of that. Also, at the current rate of migration, four out of five of them will live in cities by then. Rural regions will depopulate and we are already seeing this happen.

Paul451 said...

Alfred Differ,
"While I like David's 'year 14' measure, I think a better one that covers us from the industrial revolution to the present is 'every generation' with the span becoming a little longer as we live longer."

Some suggest cycles of two or three generations. One to experience something, one grow up with the consequences and internalise the lessons, then the third to forget. Likewise, you need to be born after a societal change to truly adapt to that change, but you need to be raised by those who have adapted to truly realise the change. So the generation in which a minority create the change, then those who are raised by the previous (largely unadapted) generation but self-adapt to the change, then those who are raised by the self-adapted and know nothing else (sometimes open to rediscovering the "baby" of their grandparents' society that their parents threw away with the bathwater.)

Re: Carrying capacity of the planet.

The problem is that the same technology that makes us able to extract more from less also makes it harder to see a coming crash. For example, over-hunting of fish stocks. Better boats and fishing technology allows us to take much more out of a fishery, so our apparent yields increase. But then the fishery collapses, because we exploit it to the point where it can't produce enough new fish. So the yields didn't give us accurate feedback of the coming collapse.

[Combined with change blindness. The normalisation of "what is" that makes the generational-cycle. Coincidental example: http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2014/02/05/257046530/big-fish-stories-getting-littler ]

Acacia H. said...

I did consider one possible piece of legislation which would undoubtedly cause Republicans to squirm. The legislation would allow any insurer or business to opt out of paying for female contraceptives. In exchange the insurance has to offer more comprehensive insurance for women for less money than it charges men, provide full coverage with absolutely no deductible for pregnancy including prenatal and postnatal checkups, and cannot deny a child insurance for preexisting conditions.

After all, they claim they're concerned "for the children" - let's prove them to be the fallacious bastards they are by giving them exactly what they want... but force them to swallow a pill that destroys their profitability by doing so.

It wouldn't get past the House.

Rob H.

David Brin said...


Unknown said...

Has this theory been updated to account for the 2016 election?