When I was a student at Oklahoma State University, we had a computer on campus. It was one, very large mainframe that was housed in a room the size of a gym. There was no keyboard, monitor, or mouse. We had punch cards, and looking back on those days, it was like the Dark Ages. But it was also the beginning of a new age.
Through all history there have been only three developments that changed the way we think. Because of them, our imagination, intellect, and interaction went through deeply profound shifts. The first was the art of writing which moved us from a social organization of family based tribalism to monarchy. The second was the invention of the printing press which facilitated the enlightenment and democratic government and all that came with it including the Renaissance, Reformation, and the Modern Age. All these came long before the generations alive today, but they have formed the world into which we were born. We have experienced in our lifetime, however, the rarest of human transition, the third transformation of how we think. It is the electronic storage and transmission of information. The world will never be the same. For three generations alive today, it is the only world they have ever known.
All of this on the surface seems obvious. But within us there are fundamental developments in the way we think and relate to information. This is making for drastic changes which are now only in their infancy. The mood of our nation and the world reflect these changes which include globalization, free trade, and multiculturalism. These are not only made possible by the age of the computer, but also inevitable. This inevitability is what drives the cultural angst that we are experiencing, not just in one election in America, or a referendum in Great Britain, but throughout the cultures of the world who feel this pressure of change.
Reaction to these changes which are occurring faster than our ability to cope with them, brings on anger, fear, resentment, and frustration which result in tribalism, nationalism, and xenophobia. We desperately want to protect what is ours, avoid what is threatening, and restore some imagined past that was ‘the good old days.’ What we need to know is that history doesn’t work that way. What we don’t know is the eventual outcome of what is coming in this age, one that is a quarter of a century young.
Here is the most relevant concern we should ponder based on what eventually happened in the two times this has occurred in history: what happens in the post-democratic world? If writing brought an end to the world of the tribe, and the printing press the age of monarchy, then what does the computer and all that comes with it bring to this comparatively young period of liberal democracy?
At first there will be attempts to bring about variations of what we already know: democratic socialism, fascism, dictatorship, libertarian-ism, or some new form of corporation enhanced democratic governance. We may be trying that last one first. While things move much faster in this new age, it is still soon too know. What we do know through social and traditional media is that facts have become relative, opinions replace truth, and in a time of globalization, there are alternate versions of reality which will confound and confuse for the foreseeable future. While few if any of these realities will survive the test of time, we are about to learn the hard lessons of change before we begin to realize the opportunity that it brings.