Thursday, March 12, 2009

Questioning the 'new.'

“He is less remote from the truth who believes nothing than he who believes what is wrong” according to Thomas Jefferson. The problem is not so much that we learn nothing from history, but that what we learn is too often untrue. In the days when several generations lived together, the patterns of history were much more evident in daily life.

Focusing too much on today replaces the long-term with the short-term, the permanent with the transient, memory with sensation, insight with impulse. There’s no time to look back and little time to think ahead. What we do and what we think is defined by those commercial forces who stand to benefit from a society that moves faster and faster, and by those who stand to profit from our addiction to speed.

Everyday we’re told, “We must learn to live with uncertainty.” When has that ever not been a part of the human condition? Do we assume in previous times of ignorance, superstition and belief in magic that people were living in certainty? A pervasive fault of modern management theory seems to me to be a lack of any appreciation of human history. It's a paradox that, in the midst of pervasive and rapid technical and social change, human personality hasn’t altered throughout recorded history. We've all inherited preferred habits of thought that influence how we make decisions and interact with others. However, we're not always conscious of what these are.

Stephen Bertman in Hyperculture: The Human Cost of Speed reminds us that one of the defining elements of any society is that we don’t realize how the culture we’re in defines our perceptions and determines our values. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with fast per se - but there’s everything wrong with too fast. Once we commit ourselves exclusively to what’s fast, we miss out on other things that are important, such as perspective, personal and spiritual growth. If we go too fast without questioning its impact on us as human beings, we suffer something like the effects of oxygen deprivation at high altitudes. So we shouldn’t just accept that electronic speed-of-light technology is self-justifying, but rather question its impact on that part of us that requires a real human interface. There are certain valuable aspects of life that can only come with time, slowness and duration.

Every time you find something ‘new,’ try to figure out what it’s an imitation of. Don’t be fooled by speed or by the mystique of the future. Because if you look closely enough at the present and the past, there’s usually a way of understanding everything that seems so new.

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