Picking up where Part Two left off: I explained what seemed to be a contradiction this way: It feels to me, and has for several years, that life as we know it is undergoing a fundamental transformation. That the period from c. 1985 to 2020 may be as momentous, and as tumultuous and life-altering, as the period from c. 1870 to about 1900.
Between 1870 and 1900, Americans began using the telephone and the automobile. They saw their first movies, and electricity became a normal part of daily life. They began using motor-powered elevators and experienced the amazement of roller coasters and other amusement park delights. Cameras and photography became commonplace.
We’re so used to those technologies that in 2009, it’s a mental stretch to imagine what it felt like to encounter, say, the telephone for the first time. Or to experience electricity for the first time. Or to read newspapers filled with photographs of far-away people and places. Or to see a movie.
But thanks in part to those new technologies, people’s conceptions of “normal” changed with astonishing speed. More important, people invented various technologies that altered the way that people experienced space and time and motion in new ways. And, in turn, changed the way that people interacted with each other and in and upon the world.
It’s no accident that in the early 20th century, both Picasso and Einstein devoted their creative energy to exploring the relationship between time and space.
For the past few years, I’ve been wondering: Are we living through an era of similar tectonic change? And will our relationships to one another change, too? For example, consider this comment from a British researcher warning about the negative impact of internet use on the brains of young children (*1):
. . . [C]hildren’s experiences on social networking sites “are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity”.
Yes, I realize that the person interviewed in the Guardian sounds like a cranky old broad who wants the world to look and feel as it did fifty years ago. But — she’s not the only person making this argument.
Indeed, as discussions go, it’s a hot topic. See, for example, this book by Mark Bauerlein, in which he details the studies behind the “our brains are changing” argument. There are plenty of others out there; google “digital natives” to get a sampling.
In any case, there’s now enough substantive research out there that it’s legitimate to ask: Are digital technologies altering our perceptions of time and space? And therefore our interactions with each other and with the world around us?
Are we, in effect, living through a moment of profound transformation, one that’s (potentially) affecting the way our brains are wired, but the way we perceive the world?
Now to return to the question that the student asked me: How will the brewing industry look in, say, 40 years. The first answer I gave reflected my conventional, Ph.D-trained-historian’s “safe” answer based on reason and logic. There’s nothing new under the sun; today is just more of the same. Capitalism will unfold as it always has.
But another part of my brain says: What if that’s not the case? What if — we’re living in a present where the “conventional” is in fact collapsing and we’re creating a future that will be radically different than the present? More next time.
*1: Tip o’ the mug to Jacob Grier for bringing my attention to the Guardian article. (Which, ahem, he first mentioned in . . . you guessed it, a Twitter post.)