Complexity without confusion: a changing world and a changing Monitor

When future historians characterize our age, what will they say? A perennial question, it has been asked throughout history. And not only for speculative reasons: Answers, however tentative, help each generation steer properly into the future.

So where are we now?

''Caught between eras,'' writes John Naisbitt in ''Megatrends.''

In ''ambivalence, retreat, and drift,'' sociologist Amitai Etzioni warns.

''Tinkering with the system,'' says historian Stephen R. Graubard, editor of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Formidable assessments, those. But not, perhaps, as harsh as they seem. It depends on where they point us, what trends they foreshadow.

One way to comprehend these trends is to search for historical patterns - which, while often simplified, provide useful guides. One such pattern suggests that periods of great inventiveness are followed by grand consolidations, which in turn lead into periods of acceptance. So the great poetic efflorescence of 16th-century blank verse was consolidated in Shakespeare's hands, later to run its course through Milton and into the 19th century. So the 18th-century theories of liberalism were consolidated in the Victorian age, celebrated with the opening of the Crystal Palace in London in 1851, and carried forward until World War I. So, in a more compressed frame, the vigorous diplomatic activity following the Second World War gave place to the consolidations of the Eisenhower years. Nor has there been any lack of inventiveness since: Witness the social reforms, scientific discoveries, and technological advances of the last two decades.

Yet here we are, caught between eras, ambivalent, tinkering. An uncertain, though not necessarily bad, time: a period that seems to be awaiting consolidation.

How do you prepare the soil for that consolidation? The question underlies much of our thinking here in the news room recently. The answers are numerous, but two seem particularly relevant - and take tangible shape in the newly redesigned Monitor, which makes its first appearance today:

* Order. As innovations multiply, and as electronic communication sends more of life's variety into our homes, the world can appear increasingly complex. In itself, that complexity is not necessarily bad, bringing a sense of the richness and diversity of human experience. But it can also bring with it a sense of confusion, even mystification.

Like the nations they embrace, good newspapers are also rich and diverse. But they need not be confusing. Like well-drawn maps of a complex country, they should indicate clear paths; but they should not alter the landscape merely to simplify the mapmaking. Full of variety, they should also be full of signposts.

The reordering of the Monitor's contents - from front-page highlights and Page 2 index to the smallest details of the news, business, opinion, sports, and feature pages - is designed to provide that map. It is still, however, a map of a complex world undiminished in its richness.

* Comprehensiveness. Down through the ages, great consolidations have demanded comprehensiveness - the stability and coherent view of an individual (Shakespeare) or a single event (the 1851 London Exhibition) or a government (the Eisenhower period). An inventive age may require narrow, sharply developed specialties. But consolidation seems to need a wide-ranging and comprehensive approach that finds common threads in different fabrics.

Here, too, the goal of the Monitor's redesign is to strengthen that comprehensiveness - especially in the three major sections of the feature pages. This first section, Ideas, will draw together articles on books, education, science, technology, law, and religion. The second, Arts and Leisure, will combine an expanded coverage of the arts with articles exploring other uses of leisure time - from cruising the Carribean to playing chess and stargazing. The third section, Home and Family, will pull together articles on childhood and retirement, cooking and gardening, automobile reviews and home repair - everything needed to establish a home and maintain the relationships within it. Each of these three will appear daily - leading to that hallmark of the Monitor, The Home Forum.

What does all this have to do with the age in which we live? Simply this: that newspapers not only express their times, but also lead them. We're seeing increasing evidence, in the world around us, of desires for order and comprehensiveness - two prerequisites for historical consolidation. And like any newspaper, we're giving expression to what we see. We'd like to think that through such expression we can help lead the world into consolidations which, however complex, are not confused. A Monday column

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