There has been much angst as to whether we are living in a golden age of human prosperity or whether are we living in an age of decline or possible regression. In the 1980’s, at a time when I was studying political science and history, there were catchy subfields attempting to explain and understand social trends and movements. Does anyone remember, or has anyone heard of cybernetics or futurology? The latter is best represented by the author Alvin Toffler who wrote Future Shock and The Third Wave.
A dominant view (if not THE dominant view) of history and social progress is that every generation is inexorably marching forward in time with the intention of making the world a better place. This can be found in titles such as Ray Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed and The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Eric Schmidt’s The New Digital Age, and Steven Pinker’s, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Alternatively there are more critical or skeptical views that include a wide range of thinkers such as Niall Ferguson’s, The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday: What We Can Learn From Traditional Societies, and Jane Jacob’s last book Dark Age Ahead.
This interpretation, which often conceals a particular western bias, is that through technology and innovation human society is continually improving. An alternate point of view suggests human societies and even human progress can be cyclical, considering there could be periods of stagnation or even regression. Of interest, is that the debate transcends the typical left/right divide; what really separates the parties is not the usual battles of the ‘culture wars’ between the modernist’s and the traditionalist’s, but more a moral debate of what is lost or sacrificed in our head long rush to the future. It is hard to imagine many situations where Jane Jacobs and Niall Ferguson would agree on anything or even speak the same language, but I think their core principles are aligned on this topic.
What do the critics of the techno-evolution brand find to argue with? I think it is the idea we have forgotten or even willfully ignored our historical past and traditions, best described by what Jacob’s calls “cultural amnesia”. It doesn’t matter if the perspective is more from the liberal/left tradition where the expansion of ‘human rights’ is our most important contribution, or if the belief is from the conservative/right where property rights and the rule of law is our most important legacy. Both have emerged from our historical traditions, and it is my contention they must be remembered and respected, regardless of our own personal views, both collective and individual, of these rights. These principles had to be fought for in order to be won, and they could just as easily be lost if we choose to forget.
There is a definite role for libraries to be a protector of this grand tradition, the antidote to the threat of the cultural amnesia that Jacobs was referring to. In my opinion this is best exemplified in laws two and three of Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science . Specifically, “every person his or her book” and “every book it’s reader”. Just as in international relations, where civilization is struggling with the difficult task to fulfill the ‘responsibility to protect’, innocent people get caught in conflict not of their choosing. We who care about the cultural realm have a “responsibility to remember”.
Here are some more suggested reads:
Roy H. Williams, Pendulum: how Past Generations Shape our Present and Predict our Future
Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization’