In 1735, Carl Linnaeus published his two-part naming system for plants and animals, simplifying a confusing mix of taxonomies compiled by natural philosophers gathering samples around the world. By 1758, his tenth edition included over 10,000 entries divided into another creation: the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms. He went on to invent the index card. Several steps towards bringing order to the increasing onslaught of information being gathered.
In 1825, George Stephenson opened the Stockton and Darlington Railway in the English Midlands, carrying both freight and passengers. By 1829, his “Rocket” locomotive set a record, by running at up to 30 mph.
In the 1850s, Baron Haussmann rebuilt central Paris, Cerda designed a new Barcelona, and George Bazelgette constructed a mammoth public sewage system for London. Cities were growing and the resulting complications had to be addressed.
Since then, technology and social change have built on each of these developments. Most places are (at least nominally) democracies. Google and Wikipedia (and many specialized sites) organize and classify exponentially greater mounds of information. Chinese bullet trains routinely run at more than 200mph. Most of (a much larger) global population live in cities.
The modern world is different from what came before. Radically so in many ways. If we look at the last 250 years—more or less—we can’t but be struck by the nature and extent of these differences. These changes have gone far beyond just “a bit more of the same.” That is to say, they are qualitative, not just quantitative. Even so, the changes are hard to see, because our lives take most of them for granted. So, it’s like asking a fish to describe the water in which it swims.
So, for three weeks in October, I will be giving a series of talks about what happened and what it all means. I call it: “How is Now.” If you live near SF, you can get the details and register for the course here. It’s part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, an organization where I have given several other courses.
There are innumerable other events we could cite. We cannot say that the modern world was born in a day. From early in the 18C to the middle of the 19C, thousands of steps were taken that we, looking backwards, describe as the birth of the modern era (although there are many historians who would say we need to start in the 15C with the Renaissance, Gutenberg, or Columbus, or at least in the 17C, with Newton and the English Revolution. But, we’re going to try to keep things a bit more contained and manageable and focus on the 19 & 20C. Many of the events, like Stephenson’s Rocket, were planned, some, like the National Assembly’s abolitions were seen at the time as major changes in the world. The English poet, William Wordsworth, in Paris during the early days of the great Revolution, wrote : “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!” Most, however, were not dramatic or self-conscious.
In these lectures, we will try to stop swimming and look around, take some different perspectives and use some different frameworks to see what this water of modernity looks like.
What do I mean when I talk about the “modern world?” There are a bunch of characterizations that come to mind: capitalist, urban, global, democratic, individualized, rational, technologic, state-driven, and dynamically changing. Now, you can’t extract any one or two of these and say: “ these the are keys;” they’re all interconnected.
But we have to start somewhere and put all of this in some sort of (artificial) order. In the first talk, we will start with the modern mentality; how do we think different. Then we will look at the physical world: our bodies, the globe and how we interact. The second and third talks will weave back and forth between economics, politics, social life, and culture.
In each case, we will look at
* both the material world and the epistemology,
* a comparison of “then” and “now,”
* some of the key developments in each area
* and how they set up where we are today in the 21C.
I hope you’ll come join us, expand your brain a bit, ask some questions, and share your own experience of how all this came about.