As first Truly global century draws to a close, Common experiences link much of mankind
Torrent of innovation webs together human race; coming next: www.earth. But... was Dickens right?
(Page 3 of 4)
Longevity stretched for homo sapiens and rebounded for some endangered species, but not for others. Trade expanded hugely, spreading prosperity - and rising expectations. Invention vastly changed the whole surface of daily life (but not life's quality or meaning) - from washing machines to horseless carriages, to frozen peas, movies, TV in every home or village, cell phones, and the world wide webbing of nearly everything.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
All represented advances at home and work. One result: the work week shortened, home chores became more efficient, and the concept of servants at home and assembly line drones in the workplace shrank in the developed world and came under pressure in parts of the emerging world.
But then trade competition from developing Asia and Latin America sent some trends into reverse. The trickle of women in the workplace early in the century became a torrent. Some servant-surrogates reappeared as au pairs, nannies, and maintenance services for upper end households, and day care centers for lower end.
Once again, the net effect was progress. Saturday work shrank. Leisure increased. But the net advance came without the triumphalist belief in capital-P progress proclaimed so confidently at 19th century's end.
There was good reason for such lack of crowing. The 20th century's more modest claims of progress were plumb-weighted by the knowledge that each generation had to learn lessons about the misuse of innovations and the awful toll such misuse could cause. It was, in Biblical terms, a reminder of eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Gaining the benefits of the good fruit required an active denial of any repetition of the evil fruit.
Tragic 'coercive utopias'
As earlier noted, the 20th century provided a grim lesson book recording the unbearable costs of what Zbigniew Brzezinski caustically dubbed "coercive utopias." Those anti-utopias took George Orwell's "1984" universal dictatorship a chilling order of magnitude further - into concentration camps, world wars, brainwashing, killing fields, cultural revolutions, ethnic cleansing, and multifarious Big Brotherisms that mocked real brotherhood.
By century's end these pointless exercises in mass mind control and end-justifies-whatever-means propaganda had killed between 167 million and 175 million individual human beings. Looking back, it's hard for today's generation to believe that so many humans believed in the cruel ideological certainties force-fed by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and a slew of lesser despotic pied pipers.
One lesson: teach children (and adults) to see through propaganda. That means parsing the half-truths of demagogic politicians, irresponsible ad agencies, and script-sensationalizers, as well as the outright lies of mind-capturing despots.
A second lesson: keep the dark byproducts of scientific innovation out of the hands of malign dictators.
Threat of NBC weapons
Look no further than the search for NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) weapons in Iraq for a condensed version of this lesson.
Throughout the 20th century, discoveries about the nature of the physical macrocosm and microcosm radically changed our understanding of physics, biology, and chemistry.
But - despite the intellectual and practical benefits flowing from the theoretical leaps of Einstein, Bohr, Watson, Crick, and the many fathers of the computer, artificial intelligence, rocketry, and chemical theory - there was a dark underside to each.
The new physics promised limitless power generation and controlled-fission canal blasting . But it also wrought Hiroshima and disputes over disposal of hazardous waste.
The new biology promised designer animals and food plants, with built-in herbicides, insecticides, and frost and drought resistance. It promised genetic Maginot lines against disease. But it also brought controversy over the ethics of cloning and risks to ecological balance in nature.
"Better living through chemistry" was abundantly evident in shelter, clothes, transport, farms, even golf clubs and tennis racquets. But chlorofluorocarbons threatened the atmosphere and other chlorine compounds and assorted agricultural chemicals still cause problems for the planet's surface and its wealth of useful organisms.
'Mein Kampf' to docudrama