* Disclaimer: this is a personal-type of post, touching on sociological themes. It is not academic in nature, neither related to the politics of science and technology.
In this piece I reach out to you as a reader and ask questions for you to help me figure out, as I do not have full clarity on the subject. Such insecurity arises not from not doing my homework, but due to the changing, turbulent conditions in which our lives unfold. But are they as fast paced and radically changing as we are lead to believe? How much should we worry about our future? This is the first of a series of posts that will touch upon our relation as humans with our interpreted past and the unknowable future.
I write this from a point of view in which anyone can become familiar with. What will I be doing in five or ten years? Will I have a job? Will a robot replace my job? What will be the state of the global economy? Will there be peace? Will there be drought? Will I afford meat? Will my neighbourhood still be safe? Will it be demolished? Is it a good idea to bring children to the world? I will draw from two anecdotes, in order to get the conversation started. Both relating to having children.
Some years ago I had a chat with a close friend about how much turmoil there was in the world and how we should be wary of having kids. We are constantly led to believe that the world is sinking, dragging us all to nowhere; earth included. His reply puzzled me. Plain simply, he said that humanity has always struggled, perhaps much harder in the past than now. Looking a few decades back, he could easily point out the tragedies brought by two world wars, the Vietnam War, and multiple civil wars in countries which at the time were not even nations. Think of territories in Africa, or Asia, many of which we have only came to know about through movies, such as Blood Diamond. Countless fierce dictators portrayed in the movies moving around in Mercedes around dusty roads in Africa, or Latin America. The conflict with the Khmer in Cambodia may not be known for many. I may not even know about all the tragedies inflicted in the last century. The atrocities committed by Stalin, Mao, Hitler, and so many other monsters. Disappeared people in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Central America, and yet so many people yet to disappear; many of which may never be found and buried by their families. Two atomic bombs smashing cities. Yes, I could write several books on genocides, civil wars, displacements, and tragedies.
So, are we in peace? Do we live in a stable world? The question has become much more complex, it is no longer about bringing children to the world on the brink of war. Hence, the question has become one of what type of world we’ll we live in? And how can we adapt to it? Will things go well in the end? Think of pensions. Debate nowadays revolves about the aging population, and how population needs to grow to sustain their pensions and relatively healthy life conditions. There is fear of delaying the age for retirement. But people in my generation, born in the 1980s, mock about pensions. We most certainly won’t benefit from having a pension. And we don’t have any clue of how we’ll be taken care of when we are no longer ourselves.
This brings me to my second anecdote, a bit more personal. My brothers, after they had their children, were fast to secure access to ‘higher education’ for their newborns. In Colombia there are sort of insurance companies that for a fixed amount, guarantee that 15-18 years down the road your child could have guaranteed access to a five-year undergraduate degree in a Colombian university. I suppose for many parents this would bring plenty of peace of mind. But, does it? I had arguments with my brothers from my position that it would be unknowable what the world would look like in fifteen years. It’s impossible to know whether undergraduate degrees would be attractive, or vocational/technical degrees would be more appealing. Perhaps it would be a better bet to send their kids to study abroad, for example to Scandinavia, where higher education may still remain free and accessible to all. Or maybe they’d get a better return on investment by starting their own business. To close this story, my brothers ended up not purchasing such insurance, but rather keeping some long-term savings for when the time comes.
The reader may think I am overreacting, victim of the fears of the 21st century. We can speak of ‘risk society’, ‘liquid modernity’, ‘post-modernity’, and other catch phrases to sketch out times, but these sophisticated concepts do not capture the uncertainty that we all face. The ‘2008 crisis’ happened just seven years ago, which many (including myself) struggle to make sense of. What was it that really happened? Will it occur again? This week, the Chinese market supposedly had a tremendous fallout. Weren’t the Chinese destined to lead the global economy? Oil prices sink to its lowest price in six years, but next year it is unknowable what the prices will be. Most occurrences seem to at an all-time low or high. The most severe drought in California in a century. The worst ‘El Nino’ phenomenon yet to be seen. The warmest year on record. The worst crisis since the 1930s. The most deforested area in history. It seems like we’ve lost sense of what is a record.
And so we keep hearing about stories from distant locations, often embedded in socially constructed concepts that may bear little resemblance with reality: global markets, migration, welfare (or the lack of, in my country), ‘nanny state’, ‘failed state’, wars on drugs, terrorism, economic migrant, slavery, child pornography and so on. We get the idea that reality is reshaping itself all the time, with little space to maneuver. But how does all affect me as an individual, in my local context?
Yes, I adopt here an individualistic approach because I am certain that I am not a construct. And I can have a relatively good understanding of what happens in my surroundings. Beyond myself, things get blurry. When we start to think about national statistics, indicators, refugees in Calais, expelled Colombians from Venezuela, these are events that occur elsewhere. And are only accessible to us through news, social media, or published material (the so-called ‘public sphere’). And as such, it is difficult to make sense of them. The catch is that these occurrences, as far as they seem to be, and as packaged into sophisticated constructs as they maybe, end up affecting us as individuals one way or another. There is no escape, we are now (or so are we sold the idea) exposed to much more systemic fluctuations of our daily life. I obviously have no clue about how to deal with such uncertainty. Coming back to the central idea of this post, how does this differ from the past? Was the past any more stable than now? This, I leave as an open question.
If I were asked, I would reply that the past has seen more turbulent changes than today. We tend to take for granted what we see today as ‘normal’. Women had to struggle for voting rights, and are still struggling for equal treatment. People of color were once segregated and previously enslaved. In Colombia, my parents in order to reach places in the countryside had to go through rivers and trains, sometimes riding horses, with highways being more or less a recent development. Up until the early 20th century, there were still uncontacted tribes, for example in the Amazon and in New Guinea. This is but a tiny representation of changes that have took place in the last one or two centuries. So, my aim is not to question change, nor to question how rapid change undergoes. It is certainly underwhelming.
The question I want to emphasize, is how much people used to be aware of change and non-local events? In other words, how much was people aware of what was going in the world? And how does knowing about this affect our daily lives? Should we really care about the global news? People most likely were less informed about the world than they do now, due to the lack of possibilities brought about by information and communication technologies (which in turn, have challenged the power of the state). Events would eventually affect their lives, so I do not know how they would handle this. I guess they would just take life as it comes, without worrying in advance. Maybe I should just go to North Korea and ask people. We, as 21st century dwellers, worry about one present, and about multiple futures. And such uncertainty is not only exhausting, but it impoverishes the soul. It inspires us to assume that in constantly redrawing and rethinking our future, most likely our place in it will not be as good as it is now. And that, keeps me awake at night. Does it do the same for you?
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of our times is waking up to see that the future is not how we were promised.