Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Our Not So Brave New World

I was a history major in college. I changed my major 4 times at the University of Richmond, so totally aimless and irresolute was I during those 5 years. I settled on history for two reasons. One was that I truly loved it. The other was that I was a gifted enough writer and consequently could bluff my way through essay exams with the barest of actual knowledge in the subject matter. I had not the vaguest clue what one would do with a history degree. I ended up in the investment business, but there on the wall over the leather wingback chair hangs my diploma. What I have learned in the years since is that once a history buff, always a history buff. My knowledge of history informs my thinking about almost everything. Like the author of Ecclesiastes, I know that in fact there is nothing new under the sun. And yet I can’t help wondering if this particular slice of history that we live in is uniquely tenuous and fragile.

We live in an era of unsurpassed technological triumph with the promise of greater advances to come. People are living longer, less stressful lives than at any time in the history of civilization. We talk a lot about stress, I know, but whereas a century ago people stressed about having enough food to eat, today we stress about relationships and where we will go on vacation. Today we communicate instantaneously with anyone, anywhere, at anytime, a feat unimaginable a mere 50 years ago. The gadgets we pay less than a thousand dollars for and hold in the palms of our hands are more powerful and do more things than literally rooms of machines did 50 years ago. But with all of these manifestly beneficial breakthroughs has come no feeling of greater security and no enrichment of the human spirit. With all of our newfound access to knowledge, we seem to have gained no measure of wisdom. With all of our freshly minted communication devices, we seem to say less to each other than ever before. A casual reading of message boards on social websites seems vulgar and vapid laid next to the letters written between John and Abigail Adams 230 years ago, which were teaming with emotion and immediacy even though most were already months old when first read.

Although man has it within his grasp today to protect himself from peril in ways that past generations couldn’t possibly have imagined, I cannot escape the feeling that we are teetering on the edge of something dreadful. The unnatural interconnectedness of world finance and the staggering complexity of its instruments bring with them the nagging suspicion that events in Greece and Ireland ultimately will bring us all down. The masters of the universe who design the systems of this world have no answers except more complexity, in the vain hope that the solutions will be stumbled on by the next generation of geniuses. As a student of history I have concluded that man’s scientific and technological evolution has far outpaced his ability to find joy, to experience beauty, to give and receive grace. In our mad headlong dash to conquer, discover and build, we have ignored our souls and have created civilizations capable of killing each other with blinding efficiency. Even our art isn’t created to inspire but to shock, not to lift the human spirit but to magnify the course and baser regions of our nature.

Perhaps a tragic turn in our destiny will cause us to return to first things. Maybe if the tools of technology bring about our destruction, we will find a way to refashion them into something that serves a higher purpose.