Appetite For Disruption
For as long as there have been attempts to organize human society through systems and hierarchies, these systems have inevitably included flaws and limitations. Some are inherent errors of logic, some are the unavoidable byproducts of their era, and some stem from willful authoritarian corruption. Other systems came into being through legitimate consensus, but simply became outdated via the natural evolution of social conventions. Eventually, when subjected to an inefficient or unjust social structure for extended periods of time, a tipping point is reached and change will begin to present itself. Theses changes can take many forms and spawn from many origins, and some may necessitate a societal regression before actual progress can be achieved. In general however, one of humanity’s redeeming traits has been its’ ability to iteratively progress in both social and scientific avenues.
Yet when history is viewed exclusively through the prism of mankind’s progress, it is easy to become enamored with the concept of change for its’ own sake. With such a mindset, change is no longer the reaction to a perceived problem; it is actually an end in itself. While this does present an opportunity for immense progress, the mentality is such that none of the achievements can actually be enjoyed, and often progress will proceed much further than anyone actually wants.
For Those Who Think Young
A key factor in any substantial social change is that, in most instances, they are typically driven by the energy and idealism of youth. Once someone has come of age within a society they gain a vested interest in the status quo, and while they may still encounter aspects of their culture that they find deplorable, they will find it difficult to untangle single data points from the broader tapestry of their worldview. So it has traditionally fallen to the younger generation to act as impartial outsiders, since they have a shallower connection to existing systems and therefore are much more cavalier in contemplating its’ destruction.
In this manner each generation attempts to leave their mark on history, by identifying and attacking some aspect of their own culture in the hopes that they will leave the world as a more just and hospitable place than when they found it. Yet not every generation will encounter the same level of success in this endeavor. If the demographic ratios are sufficiently skewed against the members of a particular age group, they will find it difficult to gain the traction necessary to enact any sweeping changes to social norms. Only when a generation comes of age at a time where they represent a statistically significant percentage of the population can they truly reconfigure society and obliterate the perceived inefficiencies and inadequacies of the old systems. The flower children gained immense psychological power from their central position within the social hierarchy of the time. Twenty years later, the children of Generation-X experienced a pervasive sense of ennui as these same baby-boomer elders outnumbered them, meaning they lacked the requisite majority required to substantively change the perceived problems of their society. As we can see, this sense of power to enact social change that is present during a generation’s youth seems to have a lingering effect on how they view their ability to obstruct change in future generations.
Which brings us to the most recent epoch, which has been referred to by numerous names (the Echo, Generation-Y, Millenials, et al). This generation was initially renowned for its’ historically immense capacity for apathy and self-involvement, yet it is feasible to argue that the past decade has produced some of the most drastic and rapid changes to our social structure ever seen in western society. Within 15 short years the Internet had gone from an informational novelty to the central hub of all economic and social activity. Same sex equality has gone from the fringes of acceptance to become a seemingly self-evident truth. Even the idea of a black president had gone from impossible to inevitable so quickly that in retrospect it becomes harder to remeber what a landmark event it actually was.
Déjà vu, All Over Again
In a world of drastic and hectic change, particularly in an era where change is posited as an unequivocally positive, there is an inescapable urge to throw aside all connection to the past and build a new social and moral order based on the ethos of today. All past systems are viewed only through the optics of critique, wherein we see all of their flaws and shortcomings. Yet for each social norm or pattern we seek to discard, we pay no heed to the subtle benefits that it may still bring us or the hard fought lessons that were learned during its’ genesis. Furthermore, we give decreased attention to any potential long term deficiencies of newly espoused systems, and ultimately we fail to glimpse patterns on a larger timeframe that show the true limits to our social and scientific progress.
This is not a systemic trait that is unique to the arena of technological advancement. Economies cycle through Bear and Bull markets with consistent regularity, and each recession provokes debate on how the system has failed and what lessons can be learned that will prevent future calamities. Yet these lessons are short lived, and soon enough the cycle will inevitably find itself repeating once again. The political orientation of the ruling governments of western democracies tends to work on a similar pendulum swing between the left and right wings of the political spectrum. Each political era is marked by frustration at the ideological disparities that begin to manifest between the ruling party and the populace, but rather than enact any substantive changes within the political process we seem content to merely cross the street and assume that our fortunes will be better in the next cycle.
In the technological epochs of the past few decades there have been tangible enhancements, but the cyclical pattern is still present. Home electronics saw an explosion in the 1980’s, only to find the constituent technologies (VCRs, CDs) see a complete obsolescence within 20 short years. The 1990s saw the explosion of personal computers, but with the gradual shift from laptops to mobile computing, PC towers are now increasingly irrelevant to end-users. The dawn of wearable technologies could very well trigger a similar obsolescence for mobile devices.
So Technicolor is replaced by HDTV, which will in turn become 3D multimedia. At each phase there are only superficial improvements, the underlying pattern is more or less unchanged. If anything, each step provides increasingly diminishing returns for the medium in question, while at the same time we are becoming increasingly insulated from the natural phenomena that this medium is replacing.
We might fail to dwell on the unchanging aspects of these periodic systems for any number of reasons. Perhaps we are comforted by the similarities to past iterations. Or maybe we need to believe that definitive upward progress is being made to give us a sense of growth within our own lives. Or perhaps this is entirely a product of the ever-increasing finesse in which marketers of ideas are using medium to influence our perception of what could be. No similar effort is expended to illustrate the world as it currently is, so naturally we will grow to perceive progress as a universal positive.
There are some odd quirks to the new social order that is being espoused. After coming of age in an era of technological wonders and boundless information, these are taken as self-evident fundamentals upon which all future progress becomes directed to. The speed of progress has increased to such magnitude that history has collapsed and we have trouble treating any previous zeitgeist with any level of import. So while the idea of progress has rarely been valued higher, the range of progress that is pursued has narrowed drastically.
Change For A Dollar
The famous humanist Kurt Vonnegut (never one particularly renowned for having a sunny disposition regarding human nature) was quoted as summing up mankind’s relationship with change as follows: “The problem with humanity is that everyone wants to build and no one wants to do maintenance.” This quote is particular poignant in contemporary culture, since the primary goal of ‘progress’ is perceived as tearing down systems, inserting a new system to take their place, and then moving on to a new creative endeavor.
This mentality forms the bedrock of the economic landscape of our age, and the narratives it holds that capture our imagination. The boy-genius college dropout creates a company or application that captures the world’s attention, and then sells his creation to a large corporation for an unfathomable amout of money, and then rides off into the sunset. The lessons of this narrative are three-fold: you don’t need to overly educate yourself on the nature or history of the society you live in; something must be found that can be replaced; and once you’ve built something someone else can worry about maintaining it. It represents ‘living in the moment’, as the past and the future are of no consequence.
This ethos has become deeply ingrained in our cultural subconscious. We are now a society infatuated with new and innovative approaches to conventional tasks and situations, with decreasing value being assigned to tried and true techniques of the past. This can be a reasonably positive trait for a society to embody, since in this way new patterns of thought are explored, old inefficient habits are weeded out, and humanities burdens are (supposedly) being lessened. The difference in the current idiom is that progress is not viewed through a prism of skepticism. The vast technological progress of the past half-century has infused into us the idea that any change is positive, and we are constantly seeking to discard the devices and habits of our past, regardless of whether or not the new systems represent a genuine improvement.
As a result of this cultural pre-disposition to progress, those who can induce such changes come to inhabit a privileged position within the social hierarchy. There is a long list of entrepreneurs hoping to leave their mark, all framing their endeavors on the premise that they are hoping to change the world. Yet in most cases, this is merely posturing. Their goals are no different then ambitious men of past eras; they are merely cloaking themselves in the aura of innovation in order to obtain it.
One Tweak Over The Line
The world we inhabit is one marked by hectic and seemingly endless revolution. Technology, fashion, ideology; all seem to be in the midst of a constant sea change. But are these changes organic? Do they always represent the desires of the society as a whole? Or are they merely machinations of ideologically indifferent impressarios, whose only goal is to foster change for the soul purpose of being at the locus of some new cultural hedgemony?
After baring witness to an unprecented technological evolution in the later half of the twentieth century, many would have been content to embrace the progress that had been made and shift the impetus for innovation towards other human endeavours. Once computers had successfully replaced the analog tasks of our predecessors, and information networks had allowed the whole of human knowledge to be perused from any point on the globe, there have been dinishing returns on the benefits that can be gained from total electronic emersion. Yet the wheels of progress shows no mercy for those who would prefer to step of the train.
As hardware innovations gave way to social networks, the cost of citizenship within western society has come to include participation in any number of online communities. Most people will readily confess that they have little to no affinity for these networks, but feel that it is a neccessary evil for cultivating relationships. People decry the labour and environmental injustices that are caused by our obsession with consumer electronics, and they loathe the planned obsolescene that requires hardware to be discarded while it still functional, but they are left with no alternative but to buy new toys every year.
So man is pushed into changes he did not seek, or even particularly want. However, this is not an unprecented or wholey undesireable state of affairs. Famed American industrialist Henry Ford famously summed up such a state of affairs thusly: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for faster horses.” So sometimes ideas are indeed desireable, but the recipients need to be convinced of its’ merits. Yet when the world has changed non-stop for years, there is an ever decreasing need for it. In our current paradigm, when the changes are for the benefit of the “innovators”, instead of the “innovatees”, change will be pushed ahead regardless of the the values and desires of society.
New Is Old News
So how do we protect ourselves from predatory innovators and/or regressive innovations? Ultimately, we need to be more skeptical of those who try to unduly influence the progress of interpersonal communication and cultural hierarchies. We must also begin to view each posited advancement as merely a single stage within a larger continuum. Technological cycles have been ongoing for millennia, and while the timespans have been greatly reduced in the past few generations, the larger pattern is still the same. The world is changed by a series of drops, not by large tidal waves. We must remain wary of anyone who claims they are planning to summon a tsunami.