Even though the world seems to be under a cloud of serial struggles and daunting difficulties presently, there is still good cause to be hopeful that we will find our way through whatever comes. It’s not because we can just wish it all away, or because we can delude ourselves with confabulated stories about what is actually taking place in the world. It’s because we humans have, over the millennia, consistently demonstrated the capability to repair what we’ve done or begun in the wrong way, and to turn the challenges we face into opportunities, by deliberately and purposefully working toward those aims with hope and determination to make them a reality.
We sometimes lose sight of our history as human beings. Our focus is too often narrowly confined to recent history, and only to the events of our collective recent memory. Thirty or forty years ago, none of us who are old enough to remember well the state of the world back then had any idea what the state of the world would become in 2020. Young people who weren’t even born yet in the 1980’s and 1990’s have only a very short span of history to draw upon for viewing the events taking place now, and unless those of us who can remember those times have some sense of the history of humanity, it may not be possible to have sufficient perspective to conclude that we have endured through times that contained much greater peril and challenges for the world.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned or that the difficulties we face currently are any less urgent to address. It’s not simply a matter of the degree of peril that informs the times we live in; it is the need for us to bring a degree of perspective to these times informed by our mutual history.
We are capable of fixing what’s wrong and we can educate ourselves to better understand what it is that is needed to put us back on the road to progress, but the way to start back in that direction requires us to step back a bit first, and at least look at what led us to be in these circumstances, aside from the most recent news reports on television and the internet. We don’t really have to go back that far to see the difference between the way things are now and the way they used to be before the technological explosion brought the invention of digital devices and instant communication of events from all over the world.
A good illustration of how life has changed over the years can be found in my experience of responding to a recent column by Marc Fisher of the Washington Post, which expressed sadness about the loss of the neighborhood bookstores to the much more economical and less complicated practice of ordering books online at places like Barnes and Noble.com or Amazon.com. In much the same frame of mind as many of us who cherish the experience of walking amongst the rows of freshly printed pages and browsing our favorite sections, inhaling the scent of new books and cappuccinos, and thumbing through our cherished, secret, and silent worlds, Mr. Fisher’s lament struck such a chord with me that I emailed him expressing my empathy and agreement.
Not even thirty years before that, I wrote a letter to a well-known columnist, Darryl Sifford of the Philadelphia Inquirer, about a column he wrote. I typed my message on a manual typewriter, neatly folded the single sheet of paper upon which I typed, stuck it in an envelope with a stamp on it, and mailed it. A week later, he responded with a nice note, which he also typed on a manual typewriter, and mailed to me. I sent my email to Marc Fisher by clicking “send” on my Hotmail account with my “mouse” at 5:58 PM and received his response at 6:04 PM, just six minutes later!
Going back a bit further in time, the presence of televisions in homes across the USA only became commonplace in the 1950’s, and was, at that time, the primary medium for influencing public opinion, with newspapers a close second. Prior to WWII, the invention and usage of the telegraph took place in the 1830’s and 1840’s, and radio communications came later in the 1890’s. These inventions revolutionized long-distance communications of the day, which previously took place over much longer periods of time.
Within the time frame of the establishment of the independence of what would become the “United States of America,” writing letters or conducting any sort of regular correspondence between individuals took weeks or months to send, be received, and for the recipient to respond. Communicating with individuals overseas in England or France was only possible by placing your correspondence on a boat heading that way, and news of any kind was painfully slow in arriving and being dispersed out into the world-at-large.
There was no formal highway or railway system. You rode a horse or hired a carriage to travel whatever distance you needed to go. At Monticello, the famous home of Thomas Jefferson, when anyone was invited or expected to visit, they had to plan weeks in advance, and no guest could be expected to stay less than a week or so. Travel was an onerous endeavor for anyone needing to arrive anywhere with any urgency.
Imagine the logistical challenge faced by both the British and the American militaries to marshal their forces for battle, slogging their way through largely unchartered terrain, with no well-established roadways or knowledge of which route might best be chosen. It’s a wonder at all that our country was able to get itself off the ground under such daunting conditions, and other urgent matters like healthcare, education, commerce, social interactions, and the necessity of conducting the foundational financial operations of such a large organization must have been exponentially more difficult given the state of the world at that time.
We take so much for granted these days as we travel with relative ease, flying large distances to nearly any destination in a matter of hours; driving our cars and assorted other vehicles to places even hundreds of miles away in a day or two. I can communicate with anyone interested in receiving such communication instantly just about anywhere in the world.
I can speak to and see each of my family members simultaneously, regardless of their location, as long as they have internet access, and before long, depending on the affordability and widespread availability of recent technological innovations, it’s likely we may eventually be able to enjoy a virtual reality experience of sitting next to them in real time.
There are a number of options in this regard which exist already that are not widely available, but which can mostly be accessed by those with sufficient resources and relevant knowledge of how to access them. Eventually, it will likely be as common to possess such technology in the future as owning a cell phone is today, and people may one day look back at our options for communication in our “modern” society in the 21st century and muse about how quaint it was to push buttons and swipe screens on one of those “old-fashioned communicators.”
As always, the future holds enormous promise and potential for both progress and difficulty, and it is really up to us which option holds sway in the main. I suspect that the choices we make in the near future will have lasting effects that may be even more difficult to mitigate unless we begin to take the time to consider the broad scope of ideas and efforts made by our ancestors to resolve and build upon, what were for them, serial struggles and daunting difficulties.
With best wishes for a prosperous and healthy new year to all my subscribers and readers…John H.