I’ve written about this before, the idea that there’s nothing new under the sun — that it was ever thus. The claim is usually made in the face of complaints about how “things are going to hell these days, and how much better it was back then.”
Some cite the ancient Greek who said something about how things never really change (except he was just commenting about kids not respecting their elders). Others cite the famous passage in Ecclesiastes (which also gave us a favorite tune by The Byrds).
So what do I think is new under the sun?
Lots of things. One really obvious thing is that there’s never been 7.4 billion people on Earth before. Another is that there’s never been an interweb before.
And just those two things (as a certain political candidate might say) are huge.
Before I get into this, let me be clear: People haven’t changed in many, many thousands of years.
We’ve been cranking out the same basic model for a very long time.
The paint job varies, and there are a variety of styles and accessories, even the occasional “second,” but it’s essentially the same vehicle that we’ve been driving since we all lived in huts.
Our society and culture, however, are vastly (hugely) different.
Which seems obvious. It may be that people resist the idea things have changed because they conflate it with the idea people have changed. (And admittedly, the way we talk about social changes often does seem to imply changes in people.)
People haven’t changed; how they behave has! Social changes are behavior (and technology) changes.
I mentioned the population as a key change. In general, population growth curves offer a good example — and a good metaphor — for social change. They reflect how such curves tend to accelerate, how the growth rate picks up speed.
To give you a mouthful, we’re talking about the rate of growth of the rate of growth!
A key property of accelerating growth curves is that they tend to be catastrophic.
The growth rate increases to a point it can’t be sustained and some part of the system breaks. That’s a definite concern for us in terms of population and climate change!
Unchecked or unmoderated, acceleration occurs because current population or results builds on previous population or results.
As population grows, more babies are born. As knowledge grows, more discoveries build on previous ones.
Which means that the rate of technology growth is also increasing!
- It took thousands of years to get from fire to the (movable-type) printing press (circa 1440).
- It took only hundreds of years to get from there to the electron (officially 1897, but theorized many decades sooner).
- We had broadcast color television by about 1940.
- We walked on the moon in 1969.
- We flew a robot past Pluto in 2015.
Many of us walk around with a powerful computer (complete with high-resolution video camera and display) that is linked to a global network by high-speed wireless communication.
The world in our pocket.
Or on our wrist.
We’ve come a long way, baby.
But what does it all mean?
Is it all good?
There seems no question society has changed. There is a question as to what value we place on that change. True of most complex things, the answer turns out to be complex.
There’s no question technology improves our lives in lots of ways: cars, airplanes, telephones, television, medicine, even the humble refrigerator.
Harder to qualify is our ability to connect with, and influence, others.
News and information no longer spreads by word of mouth or town crier or even newspapers and books.
We no longer need to seek out info; indeed, we’re bombarded with it. The problem now is getting away from it!
One problem is that much of it is conflicting or — much worse — confrontational. With polarized sides that admit no valid points in their opposites (we are completely right; they are completely wrong; as anyone can plainly see).
Understanding something these days often seems to require expert knowledge. We can’t even fix our own gear; there are no user-serviceable parts inside!
We have many more choices, options, and distractions, than we ever have before. We face a lack of clear role models (because we’ve deconstructed most of them). We even face a lack of clear roles (because in the modern world anyone can be anything)!
So the world seems hugely complex. Morals seem to have become so relative they are hardly discussed anymore. Doing the right thing has given way to doing the successful thing. Or just the popular thing.
Technology — which is the application of science — improves life, but it brings scientism with it. How things work becomes our primary view of reality. It places information over knowledge; data over understanding.
It reduces life to numbers. Per a famous quote by John Naisbitt, “We are drowning in information, but we are starved for knowledge.”
At the same time, compare degree of personal sovereignty now with past ages, especially for women and people of color. (Although we clearly have a way to go, oppression in free societies has decreased over history.)
The world seems to grow more moral over time. Perhaps our apprehension of social morals also builds on previous experience. We learn that society works better when people aren’t oppressed.
So it’s certainly not all bad.
But it’s hard to say it’s all good, either!
How one views it overall depends on one’s values.
And it’s here that I seem to part ways with so many. My overall view is that modern life is incredibly fucked up and bad. Bad, bad, bad!
My reference point is the body of Western normative art, especially literature, going back to those notorious ancient Greeks.
I include other cultures as well — Africa, the Middle East, India, the Far East, all have a body of normative literature.
Yes, there is good, and there is fun (which isn’t always the same), plenty of both, actually, but my overall view is thumbs down on modern life.
I would gladly give up all the technological toys of the last decade-plus, since I think the badness has accelerated in that time period. I see another catastrophic upward curve. I think social media has damaged society.
For proof, we need look no further than the current Presidential election cycle. I’ve written quite a few posts recently discussing the social changes that give us an unprecedented political circus.
It was ever thus?
Oh, hell, no! More like it was never thus!
Watch your upward curves, my friends!
 The quote is generally attributed to Socrates through the writings of Plato. The usual quote is:
“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”
 Ecclesiastes 1:9. “That which hath been is that which shall be; and that which hath been done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”
 Including The Bible, which is notable even just as a moral guide and parable. There may be no better statement of morality than Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7).
 If we’re lucky (or smart), we’ll survive the damage and heal. There are even some signs things will go this way (increasing attention to netiquette, a growing realization of the dangers of social media). But as with most major social changes, sucks to be part of sometimes.