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?
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An analogous downside exists even for the glamorous innovations that made possible the information and entertainment revolutions of the century: radio, TV, recordings, and the internet.Skip to next paragraph
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As earlier noted, most of these advances knit mankind together through the broadcast of common experiences. But, just as Socrates complained that the invention of writing would damage memory (oral history and epic tales), so each new advance in communication held risks as well as extraordinary benefits. Movable type put books in the hands of the ordinary man and woman, made possible the enlightenment and the industrial revolution. But it also allowed the spread of "Mein Kampf" and degrading pornography.
Each of the 20th century communication breakthroughs provided widespread benefits - and analogous downsides. The most recent example is the internet, where misinformation (even disinformation) and porn flow seamlessly alongside rivers of useful information.
Then there's that marvelous invention, TV, where infotainment, political attack ads, and docudrama threaten to outflank and outpull legitimate news, history, and entertainment.
None of this downside has the killing power of NBC weapons. But it endangers the educated citizenry needed to run the democracies that have spread around the globe.
The French say high school graduates know everything, but nothing else. That ironic description could easily fit today's media addicts, pelted with both facts and non-facts, events and pseudo-events, but lacking perspective to sort one from the other.
Lessons for 21st century
Looking over the high-velocity changes in the 20th century, it's clear that huge amounts of useful progress occurred. As already argued, that progress outweighed the shameful negatives. Lessons were learned, and institutions created, to try to prevent a recurrence of the negatives.
Moving through a continuum (not across a bridge) to the 21st century, the human race faces the question of how to keep the lessons of the 20th century's tragedies fresh in memory as it builds on the cornucopia of beneficial innovations. Perhaps the biggest challenge will come in a field growing at the end of the 20th. That's the famous mouth-twister, "sustainable development (SD)."
In simplest terms SD means researching new industrial processes and individual daily routines that will allow both (1) better living standards for billions of deprived people and (2) protecting the planetary environment. That involves creating economic growth worldwide with industrial processes that create zero or near-zero net pollution.
That's the big new struggle. To work, it will need to grow alongside:
* Keeping the trend toward lower birth rates on track.
* Maintaining vigilant control of the spread of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
* Realistic strengthening of the world peacekeeping system.
* Continued lowering of trade barriers - allowing industry to thrive worldwide and prevent mass migrations of the unemployed and poor.
* A regularized war crimes prosecution system to ward off atrocities that lead to revenge warfare and the desire to acquire NBC weapons.
* Realistic, family-reinforced anti-drug education that is tough on the siren-song of propagandists and pushers.
* Carefully controlled research on designer food crops that will shrink pollution from herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizer runoff.
* Encouraged spread of democracy through vote-monitoring where needed, and through education in demagoguery detection.
None of it an easy job, as one century's inhabitants hand the baton to those who will inhabit the next. Not easy. But doable, given enough vision, spiritual confidence, and determination.
United Nations, International Monetary Fund, UN High Commission for Refugees, UN Children's Fund, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Organization of American States, Commonwealth of Independent States, Organization of African Unity, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, Food and Agriculture Organization, International Atomic Energy Agency, Universal Postal Union, World Health Organization, European Union, North American Free Trade Association, Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.