Sunday, January 11, 2004

The Special Times Fallacy

I have an aversion to the notion that somehow our time is unique and our achievements unprecedented. In most other ways we’re no smarter or better than any other era; the Victorians had their own Internet (telegraphy), the upheaval in the economy was more marked during the Industrial Revolution than now, the South Sea bubble puts the dot-com bust to shame, and the Thirty/Eighty Years war was more devastating than World War II.)

It is natural for us, individually and collectively, to think that we’re at the center of the universe. We only see the world from our perspective, and are only really conscious of changes that affect us directly. We need our existence to have meaning, and being special is a quick way to generate meaning. Since the most fearsome predator of Homo Sapiens has been other humans, we have an innate fear of the Other; the most horrendous actions are justified by the belief that “we’re better than them”. Better, of course, is judged from our perspective.

Visionaries generate excitement by claiming that Things are Different This Time; the dot-com boom was built on this philosophy. Ignoring the similarities with earlier times leads to bad decisions. This is why history fascinates me. The only way to know if today is different is to have some understanding of the ways things used to be. If you don’t know history, everything is new to you.

The George Santayana quotation that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” is important not only for its claim, but also for the fact that it is, itself, so often repeated. If we did not so often make this mistake, we would need to be reminded of it so often.

Since I try to avoid the Special Times fallacy (sometimes also called chronocentrism), I have a blind spot for ways in which our era is, indeed, special. I’ve been working on a list, which so far includes mass intimacy, speed, middle class affluence, feminization, and the contest between global states and companies.

Mass intimacy: digital communication technologies like e-mail mean that we interact on pseudo-personal terms with hundreds of people. In the past one would communicate with very few people – a few score, for most people. These days we “know” so many more people. Tabloids and TV give us access to the lives of thousands of celebrities. Gossip and celebrity is part of human nature, but it’s operating at an ever-larger scale.

Middle class affluence: Hundreds of millions of people across the globe are living better lives than even the most select elites of a couple of centuries ago.

Feminization: The public realm has been a man’s world for most cultures over the last few millennia. Women are now entering the work place and taking positions of power in ways that are changing not only society, but how it will evolve.

Geo-commerce: Globalization is not new. The Dutch East India Company was a global commercial power in the seventeenth century; the telegraph connected continents instantaneously by the end of the eighteenth. However, the contest between states and global enterprises is entering a new phase; see, for example, the anti-trust interest the European Union has taken in the activities of companies like Microsoft and GE, and China’s advancement of technologies like WAPI and EVD in the face of global industry standardization groups.

No one of these effects is unique to our times: mass-market celebrity started at least in the eighteenth century with the yellow press, and commerce along the Silk Road tied together cultures around half the globe. Together, though, they create a unique dynamic in which our lives will play out.

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