Wednesday, April 4, 2007

What characterizes our Times?

What characterizes our Times? I recently asked friends to name things that were most characteristic of the times we live in now. Here's the top ten answers I got.

1. Global Warming

Global warming and climate change loom large as challenges faced by everyone on Earth. Will this unite the world into taking a joint approach to combat the problems? Or will it divide the world? We seem to have moved beyond an earlier split between those who acknowledged and those who denied the need for action. The issue now is how to implement action.

2. Terrorism

The US has troops all over the world, but who is the enemy? Wars used to be fought between countries. Nowadays. conflicts are fought out between groups within a country. The question is whether such conflicts can be contained within a country. Fears are that terrorists will increasingly strike globally to make their point.

3. Globalisation

McDonalds restaurants are everywhere, all over the world. You can walk through shopping malls anywhere in the world and there's little difference. Shoe shops in such malls were made in China, designed in the US, carry an Italian brand name, while the profits go to a bank account on the Bermudas. Trade has more and more global aspects and there's no indication that this trend is reversing.

4. Air travel

Not only is trade going global, people are becoming mobile globetrotters, backpackers holding multiple passports. In the old days, only travelers, sailors and pilgrims had stories to tell about distant countries (migrants don't count, they traveled one way only!) Nowadays, tourists, diplomats, business people and students all fly happily abroad, to return within weeks, sometimes days. People love to fly. Despite the threat of terrorism and despite the concerns for global warming, airlines keep moving more people between cities, countries and continents. As airports become the hub of modern society, entire cities start emerging around them.

5. Competition

It's the economy, stupid! It's some politicians’ favorite phrase. Finance, free trade, deregulation and competition policy seem to dominate the agenda in many newspapers. Demographic changes, immigration and changes in lifestyle have huge impacts on the economy, making many people call for political action. Are we now living in the Economic Society? With communism in retreat, has economics and competition policy become the dominant ideology?

6. Urbanization

In what must count as the biggest population moves in history, a large part of China's rural population has moved to settle in cities along the coastline. Urbanization is happening all over the world. Big cities keep on growing, while rural areas become less-densely populated. Does the city skyline most symbolize modern times?

7. Drug-resistant diseases

AIDS, Avian influenza, TB and other bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics. Some pretty scary pictures emerge on TV from time to time, as diseases break out in one part of the world. In today's global society with growing international air-travel, it seems ever harder to stop new diseases from crossing borders and spreading globally.

8. Science and Technology

All over the world, science and technology changes people's lives at ever more rapid pace. New diseases call for new medical technology. With more old people than ever populating most countries, the market for new drugs and cures seems insatiable. Old people seek to extend their lives, while young people may face the challenge of infertility. Genetic engineering and bio-technology promise plants to cope with climate change and yield higher crops for food and bio-fuel. Nowhere is the impact of technology more apparent than in the merging areas of computers and communications. Smart people now carry smartphones, complete with camera, Internet access and GPS. Will the Internet turn all of us into scientists?

9. Power of the individual

In the old days, people felt part of their family, of the place where they worked, of a trade union and the same people they met every day. They had the same friends since they went to school together. Nowadays, people move more frequently, out of these traditional networks. Families have become small, rather than extended. One person can run a company from home. All this empowers the individual. The challenge is for people to find things to identify with and ways to interconnect and have a social life.

10. Decreasing relevance of the Nation-State

Are international treaties making the nation-state irrelevant? Given that all the above points reflect global issues that seem to cross national borders with increasing ease, does this mean the end of the nation-state?

Indeed, I wonder if others who compiled a list of ten issues that most characterized our times would come up with many different issues. Seen in this light, is the nation-state the best instrument to tackle the challenges posed by all these issues?

Can we rely on political systems that were designed to put the interest of the nation first, to adequately deal with problems of a global nature? Can we rely on national politics to solve global problems? Worse, is the rise in prominence of all these global issues perhaps the result of an over-reliance on national politics?

If national politics is indeed in decline, what will replace it? Localism? World Government? Chaos and anarchy? Dog-eat-dog? Global politics? The latter is an oxymoron as long as politics remains inherently national. Perhaps the biggest challenge of our times is to find coherent ways of dealing with global problems, without delegating that task to national politicians and without relying too much on the Nation-State model of politics to solve those problems. We need to come up with modern responses to modern problems. How can we claim to promote competition in the light of a declining bio-diversity? How can the Internet create new ways of politics, such as digital voting, opinion polling and lodging protests? We need all the imagination of webdesigners, writers, film producers, artists and product designers to visualize, articulate and otherwise express ideas, using the media of our times to point at solutions that fit our times. Let's redesign politics to fit our modern times.

Sam Carana

1 comment:

Sam Carana said...

I've always been fascinated by lists of topics that define modern times. Many of the topics aren't new, but the fact that they make the current top ten is significant.

Interestingly, I asked the same question back in 2001 and I ended up with a quite different list:
1. Cars
2. Nuclear disarmament
3. Overpopulation
4. Science and Technology
5. Consumerism
6. Globalisation
7. Capitalism and Corporate power
8. Cold War
9. Decreasing relevance of the Nation-State
10. Exploration of Space

Isn't it amazing how much the lists differ, even though many of the people who responded were the same. Only a few topics are the same on both lists, and even that may partly be the case because I chose to group responses under that topic. Are our times today so much different from six years ago?

Personally, I was surprised - even disappointed - to see that nuclear disarmament didn't make the top ten this time, despite all the media attention for the situation in North Korea and Iran. Perhaps the media aren't that powerful in agenda-setting after all!