As if you didn’t already have enough to be nervous about, here’s something creepy to ponder as the new year opens.
This what-if isn’t technological, social, political or even science-fictional. Rather, it’s a bit of wholly unscientific, superstitious pattern-recognition. The last two centuries (and possibly more) didn’t “start” at their official point, the turning of a calendar from 00 to 01. That wasn’t when they began in essence, nor when they first bent the arc of history.
No. Each century effectively began in its 14th year.
Think about it. The first decade of the 20th century was filled with hope and a kind of can-do optimism that was never seen again ― not after the horrific events of 1914 shattered any vision that a new and better age would arrive without pain. Yet until almost the start of World War I, 19th-century progress seemed unstoppable and ever-accelerating.
Consider the world of 1913, when regular middle-class folks in the U.S., U.K., France, Germany and so on were acquiring unexpected wonders: clothes-washing machines, gas stoves, gas and then electric lighting, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, vaccinations, telephones, radios, motor cars. Stepping outside you would see and hear human beings flying through the sky ― with a looming confidence that soon you would get a chance to join them.
Science was pouring forth what seemed unalloyed goodness. New dyes and industrial textile methods doubled a working family’s access to fresh and beautiful clothes. Cheap iron bedsteads kept cheap spring mattresses clean, making sleep both healthier and far more comfortable. Nations were banning child labor and providing free schooling. Astronomers discovered what galaxies were. Physicists were pushing their pure and harmless science to fantastic frontiers. And the Haber-Bosch process brought cheap fertilizers that tripled crops, as chemistry proved itself to be everybody’s friend.
Think our era is similarly fast-changing? Just compare the kitchen of today with a kitchen of 1950. Sure, everything nowadays is shinier, smarter. Still, a person from 1950 could use our apparatus with fluid familiarity. But the drudgery-saddled housewife of 1880 would blink in bedazzlement at what her daughter used in 1913. Life itself was changing at a pace never-before seen, and mostly for the better.
Yes, all of those techno-advances continued after World War I. Social changes such as women getting the vote were harbingers of more to come. But after 1914, the naivete was gone. People realized that the 20th century would be one of harsh struggle accompanying every step of advancement. And along the way to hard-won better times, the age would spiral downward first, into the deepest pit that humanity ever knew, before our parents (or grandparents) clawed their way out of the nadir of 1944 ― the focal year of a century that truly began in 1914.
All right, that’s just one data point. Is there another? Well, look at 1814, the beginning of the Congress of Vienna and the so-called Concert of Europe that made possible the continent’s longest extended period of overall peace, as the great powers turned from fighting bloody wars to perfecting their colonial empires. Those two years ― 1814 and 1914 ― each marked a dramatic shift in tone and theme (in the West, that is), so much so that they represented the real beginnings of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Suppose the pattern holds ― and remember this is just a thought experiment ― what might it mean about the true 21st century? What theme will typify or represent its arc?
First, let’s dismiss one parochial notion ― that the terrorist attacks of September 2001 were the major break point between centuries. Nonsense. We were engaged in the same struggle before and after. The U.S. shrugged off more damage during any month of World War II. Indeed, nothing could be more “twen-cen” or 20th century than the overwrought focus that some (not all) Americans apply to Sept. 11. Much of the world assigns no particular relevance to that date.
Oh, we are still in the 20th. Consider the pervading doom and gloom we see around us, right now. Post-apocalyptic tales and dystopias fill our fiction, films and politics, especially the Young Adult genre where today’s teens seem terminally allergic to stories containing hope. How very ’60s. And ’70s. And so on.
There was a similar sense of apocalypse in 1813 Europe, but at least there were good reasons, after decades of ferocious struggle that seemed poised to last forever. What excuse do we have, in a time when per capita violence has been plummeting for decades? When the fraction of kids ― worldwide ― who are well-fed and in school is higher than ever? Sure, the planet faces dire problems. But the things keeping us from addressing pollution, oppression, climate change and all of that are political inanities. The War on Science that has hobbled innovation, for example, can be won if we do one thing ― tell the gloomcasters of both left and right to get out of our way and let us get back to problem-solving.
Indeed, the only real obstruction we seem to face is a dullard-sickness of attitude, dismally ignoring every staggering accomplishment since 1945. Hence the question: Is it possible that a new theme for our 21st century requires only that we snap out of our present funk?
If only. That would truly be the Dawning of an Age of Aquarius, forecast by hippies long before the old 20th was anywhere near done with us, but arriving at last. You shake your heads, but it could happen.
We can still choose our own fate. Next year, we might decide to cheer up and rediscover the can-do optimism that was crushed by the czar and kaiser and a small group of insipid, inbred aristocrats, exactly 100 years ago. We could choose to become problem-solvers, in part, because (let’s imagine) someone in 2014 discovers a simple, cheap and safe IQ-boosting pill. Or politicians decide to get over their self-serving snits and resume the adult craft of negotiation. Or some cable news owner decides to rediscover citizenship. Or some brave director releases an inspiring film that astounds people with an unexpected idea called hope.
Or else go ahead and wallow in the obvious notion that 2014 will see a violent ruction of its own. A phase transition into a century whose theme we’ll all regret. Or we’ll see a continuing retreat from confident civilization, a turning away from the Enlightenment Dream, relapsing into fearful obeisance to a leader, or New Lords, or some simplistic ideal.
That, too, could take place. In which case, please don’t give me any prediction points. All I did was spot a pattern. I don’t want respect from a people who would allow something like that to happen.
By David Brin
David Brin is a scientist, futurist and author whose novels include “The Postman,” “Earth” and, most recently, “Existence.” His nonfiction book about the information age, “The Transparent Society,” won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association. ― Ed.