Some historians now call the period of time during and between the first and second world wars the “Age of Catastrophe.” It was a time when all of the long 19th century’s “progress” seemed to rebound against its creators. Innovations in technology, the arts, science, politics, sociology, economics and more all seemed turned on their heads—redirected into a string of crises and fears. The social momentum of the airplane and the automobile, political revolution, the theory of relativity, and new ideas in all forms of art were suddenly painted with the negative reality of disaster. The wars demonstrated failures of government and social organization. The stock market crash and the depression marked failures of economic policy. Hiroshima and Nagasaki: monstrous failures of human conscience. As a result, if the long 19th century said, “Look at all that we can accomplish and create if we put our minds to it,” then the Age of Catastrophe forced the modernist question, “But should we be accomplishing and creating these things? Look at the result.”
This made sense to me when I was tutoring from a history textbook last spring. It seems a clear organization of the life cycle of modern ideas. The arrival of progress means innovations in all fields of study and life. Innovation means debate: “Here we have something new. Is it valuable? How do we engage it appropriately and responsibly? Do we have to redraw the parameters of our lives? Of our society? Of our world culture?” These questions lead us to an ethical understanding of our modern world.
Technology is the surest example of this today. Cell phones: when should we use them? What regulations, implicit or explicit, should govern their use? Different people have different feelings. School boards argue with parents about permitting them in schools. Dinner companions apologize for answering calls at restaurants.
One hundred years ago it was the same. Cars: when should we use them? What regulations, implicit or explicit, should govern their use? City dwellers debated fiercely about whether dangerous horseless carriages belonged on urban streets.
Certainly, we must ask this about guns. When should we use them? What regulations, implicit or explicit, should govern their use. What does our Constitution mean?
Every physical and intellectual innovation demands that we ask these questions.
And in order to reach ethical understanding, we must constantly ask these questions thoughtfully and deliberately.
But we are not so lucky.
While tutoring last spring, suddenly the past century and a half collapsed together in my head. I saw the period since the industrial revolution as a geometric explosion of unparalleled innovation and creation in human history. Pace of life rocketed with it. Mass production (people, material, ideas) and rapid transit (people, material, ideas) launched society into an era of growth in which intellectual and physical property was and still is created, consumed, and rendered obsolete before we have barely finished asking the questions about their place and proper use—and every year the pace gets faster and faster and the reach extends farther and farther. Progress, after several millennia of calmly hovering and wavering at the same dynamic technological, sociological, artistic, political and economic volume, began a slow crescendo in the last half of the last millennium. Then, about 150 years ago, at a tempo of presto, that crescendo began a geometric swell that seems ready to burst into a blaring, cacophonous fortissimo. It is like we’re in the tail end of a deep breath, but we don’t know if we’re about to sing, laugh, or scream. But we keep taking the breath, and progress and innovation keeps coming—and we keep doing what we’re doing without fully answering the questions that we need to answer about what we're doing in order to ensure an ethical understanding of what we’ve just done.
With our unending innovation, I wonder about the rules we put in place to protect our innocence--or is it our experience? I wonder about our schools, with security guards; and our airports, with liquid-free travel; and our street corners, with police officers every other block; and our legislation, with unending constitutional revisions; and our living rooms, with locked front doors; and our national parks, with guard rails at every viewpoint; and our libraries, with theft detection devices; and I wonder why, in life, we keep putting the training wheels on instead of taking them off.
Inspired by: Amish schoolhouse shootings, Lord of the Flies