Occasionally, I will get an original thinker who goes beyond the usual list and tries to reframe how they look at our modern history. It is particularly difficult to look back at the not-so-distant past and try to characterize the period rather than list an event or development, in other words, to interpret the significance of the period. It gets more clear the further away in time one goes. It seems easier to characterize the agricultural revolution than the industrial revolution, the Persian or Roman Empires than the British or American versions.
So, here goes… (in less than 500 words):
Our modern world (the last 500 years or so) can be seen as a period of accelerating change, a marked contrast to the relatively incremental change that marked human societies up to that point. The world of 1900 was radically more different from 1400 than 1400 was from a thousand years earlier. The acquisition and consumption of food was no longer the dominant human activity. Knowledge/information (and therefore, of power) became much more widely dispersed within societies.
Much of this was driven by the Christian “West,” initially northwestern Europe, later spreading to other parts of Europe, the US, Japan, and former British colonies in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Its rapid development, both epistemological and material, was due to geography and culture. With the power created by these advantages, the West came to dominate and exploit both the natural world/environment/resources and other cultures which lacked its unique combination. Enlightenment-spurred analytics and categorization provided a framework for othering built on skin tones and cultural differences as a rationalization for claims of superiority of and targeted exceptions from Western “morality.” The West was not unique in the ability of its power elite to self-justify (as evidenced by the universal treatment of women), but was unique in the extent of the military and economic power it marshalled to coerce and cajole others.
The remarkable pace of change of technology and material life, accelerating over the past 250 years, has disguised the relatively slower adaptations of “human nature” and social relations. Increased education and consciousness of individuals and societies (stemming from Gutenberg’s printing press and Luther’s declaration of a direct line from individuals to God) enabled the distribution of political power and economic power (in overlapping but distinct tracks) to the mass of people as compared with very tiny elites. This shift towards democracy and equality were still very much in process by the 21C and were contested both by ideologies of domination and faith and local contingencies, personalities, and social inertia. This is as true for the production and consumption of “stuff” (e.g., food, clothes, entertainment) as it is for the political process.
Indeed, one of the basic challenges in characterizing the “modern” world is that, unlike its predecessor, it was still very much “in process,” incomplete, and uncertain in future direction. As the Sci-Fi author William Gibson said in 2003: “The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed.” The components of modernity—rationality, organization, technology, urbanization, globalization, capitalism, states, democracy, change—were each at different stages of development in different cultures and always have been. Moreover, while I am talking about a generic Western modernity, it is certainly defensible to recognize that the different mix of these components makes for a multiplicity of modernities; the version experienced by well-off American elites was just one way to see the world.
It’s important to have a sense of historical perspective when thinking about all this. For us, in 2021, COVID looms hugely, but no more so than the “Spanish” Flu a hundred years ago or the Black Death in the 14C. But take our point of view, for example, in 2018; no one (other than a few historians) would have put either of these on their list of world historical events. Now, three years later, we pay much more attention to them. So, we can’t assume that what takes up bandwidth on Twitter or the NYTimes will actually make the cut. The mess in Afghanistan is a great example; a hundred years from now, it is unlikely to have any more prominence than the British misadventures there in the 19C.
Our world is also characterized by complexity. This is a product of both phenomena and how we understand those phenomena. We have global supply chains, multi-layered bureaucracies (both governmental and private), and wider networks of human connections. We also think about these things in multifarious ways—economic, social, political—to take a few big categories. The critical thinking and analytic mode gives us the ability to reframe issues and events in lots of ways. “Post-modernists” emphasize that this multiplicity means there isn’t any one “truth,” that it’s all just a bunch of competing narratives (usually driven by power and fear). Their point is well taken, so long as we don’t stop trying to make sense of things, throw up our hands and act as if none of it matters. It might not, but on this point (as so many others) we can’t be sure; it’s our own version of Pascal’s wager.
In any event, this is a useful exercise. It also works at a smaller scale (either geographically or chronologically). You might even try it at home, with your own life, divided into decades. If you are in your ‘60s, how would you characterize your ‘30s?
At whatever level, it’s good to look at both forests and trees.