The playwright, author and critic on the fight against change
The American journalist and author, Thomas L. Friedman, has given the times we live in a name: the Age of Acceleration. Change has come and is coming so quickly that it compares to looking out of the window of a jet in flight. We cannot see how fast it is moving. Because we are moving at the same speed.
The last Age Of Acceleration in what is called ‘The West’ began in about 1455 with the introduction, by Johannes Gutenberg, of the printing press. He did not invent it because that was done by the Chinese centuries earlier. The Chinese, inventors of some of the key technologies that have revolutionised humankind and formed history itself, had created a technique using wooden blocks to press or rub texts on to paper.
A few hundred years later they also developed movable type. But because of the cumbersome nature of the machine and the proliferation of characters in the Chinese language itself, the technology never caught on. The Koreans invented metal typesetting, but the nature of their language, too, prevented it from being widely taken up.
European languages, English in particular, are tiny in vocabulary and verbs in comparison to Chinese and Korean. So the technology was feasible. And it changed the river-bound peninsula of Europe and its islands like Great Britain forever.
From hand-written books transcribed by cloistered monks and available only to the select, to within less than 50 years a half million books in circulation, the Age of Acceleration had arrived.
These books, for the many not the few, ranged from classical Greek texts to Columbus’ account of the New World. And there was, of course, the Bible, the world’s first best-seller.
Literacy levels moved upwards. Many more people could and did read books on, for example, science that spread new ideas. The Renaissance was born. And when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, he also managed to make sure that multiple copies were on hand to pass out. You could call him the first press agent.
Nation states came into being. As did the ‘ordinary person’, as seen in the work of Luther’s close friend, the painter Lucas Cranach the Elder. In his portrait of Luther, the subject looks like the ‘always be closing’ business guy he was. But the Cranach portrait is much more.
This portrait is also a picture of change. Game change. The Age of Acceleration.
Peasant revolts broke out around 1524, buoyed in part by Luther’s sermons extolling people to forget the Pope and have their own direct link to God. Nothing stood between them and the Divine. This idea, crucial to the development of modern democracy itself, forced the mighty Roman Catholic Church into its intense self-examination at the Council of Trent.
The chained books of the monastery libraries, along with the chains of ignorance, were broken forever. Done. Now this is our world: the world of information and knowledge, the world of definitions handed to us by those who had read, studied and lived the great books.
Until, Friedman states, January 9, 2007, when Steve Jobs pulled the first iPhone out of his pocket on the stage of the Moscone Center in San Francisco.
That was the day the Fourth Industrial Revolution began, the day that the Age of Acceleration entered a new epoch. We are still in the early stages of this revolution and the Luddites have appeared, prepared to fight to the death. We must not underestimate them.
Their fightbacks are: Donald Trump; Brexit; European populist parties; the anti-immigration movement; the destruction of the environment.
Their answer to Change is barriers against it. In Trump’s case, to literally erect a wall. Donald J. Trump, President of the United States, is the world’s No.1 ‘Hold Back the Wind’ figure. He has made the lunacy of a wall across the Texas-Mexican border a personal vanity project. It is the ultimate fashion statement of a self-confessed germaphobe.
The ludicrousness of the Wall is matched by his huckster’s ability to get hard-up working class people to spend $50 on a MAGA cap. He can because Trump understands this New Age. It is partly about not thinking. It is, above all, about feeling.
Many Brexiteers have said to pollsters that ‘feelings’ are what motivated them to vote and motivates them still. Personal feelings are very hard to defeat.
The fact that the ‘Hold Back The Wind’ fightback against Change often makes no sense, that it is even dangerous, is because so much of it comes from what cannot be articulated. We have to understand and acknowledge this.
The pushback against the Age of Acceleration has created the ‘cut–out candidate’, their allegiance to a traditional political party is cut and pasted. Many, including me, were surprised that Trump, a classic rich, Borough of Queens, New York City, Democrat, became a Republican candidate. But it made sense.
For many in the US, and elsewhere, the two party system is dead. The Republican and Democratic parties are seen as throwbacks to a bygone time when people made things with their hands and went to work in offices and factories, and lived and died in pretty much the same place amongst the same people. Trump and Brexit are perfect for them. But it is too late.
We humans, a migratory species, can only be stopped for so long. We move on. As the Gutenberg Revolution took hold, people learned about other countries, other possibilities for life. They signed on to ships that went to new places. They expanded their own territory at home, oftentimes through war.
The UK’s and the rest of Europe’s ‘human replacement’ rate has slowed down. We do not want to become a Japan, where the economy is being dangerously affected by its plethora of elderly people and very little immigration. Angela Merkel got that message and she responded. But she paid for it in the last general election. For now.
Because someone will have to work the land; pick the crops; make the things that an economy needs. But the Age of Acceleration also tells us that the real winners will be those who can provide services to other human beings, who can engage minds, who can enable all of us to expand our human capacity. Allow us to increase our human agency in a diverse world.
The English language, the world’s premier language of science, diplomacy, and communication, is facilitating an astronomically new level of communication. The future is about inter and intra-connection. Not borders and walls. Because in reality, they are gone.