The Speeding up of History

Woodcut of a printing press operation by Jost Amman, circa 1568

I can’t help observing that things seem to be moving a good deal faster today than they ever did in previous eras. My grandmother was born in 1932. Her childhood home had no flushable toilets, no heating or air conditioning, no car, no television, no radio, and certainly no computer. I scarcely need to mention that at the time she was born penicillin had yet to be discovered, “the pill” had not been legalized, the idea of sending a man into space was ridiculous, atomic science was in its infancy, there was no social safety net in the U.S., and the populations of such countries as China and India were only 1/3 of what they are now.

Universities were mostly for the rich or abnormal. In contrast, it wasn’t at all strange for people to drop out of school well before the age of eighteen. The Catholic Church still forbade saying Mass in anything but Latin, and Islam had barely touched the West. The entire continent of Africa was under the control of more powerful European nations. In the U.S., African-Americans were treated as slightly less than human and Japanese-Americans were being placed in internment camps. This is to say nothing of the enormous upheavals in the global economy and popular culture. The world, in short, was a vastly different place in 1932.

When I consider the weight of all of these changes, it causes me to realize that my grandmother has lived through a truly shocking number of tectonic shifts in the human situation. At no other point in history has change occurred at anything close to this rate. We are seeing now in a decade what our ancestors saw in a century – only they would have been lucky if they made it to half a century before succumbing to any number of conditions that are now curable.

During the Protestant Reformation, it took years for “heretical” pamphlets to make their way across the European continent, or at least months. Now, such dissemination can be achieved in less than a day, thanks to the Internet. Historians may speak of “14th century fashions”, but what would they suggest for the predominant 20th or 21st century counterpart? Styles now change constantly, with some lasting for only a season. There is also a chaotic mixing of styles from all over the world and the rapid return of previous fashion trends. All of this is the result of better global communication and the prominent role of such fashionable cities as New York, London and Paris.

It is also important to note the constant shifting of global alliances and the way in which continuous media coverage has influenced modern politics. Consider the fact that in the 20th century we saw the rise of two new superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union – with one also falling in that same century. The European colonial empires were brought to an end and replaced by a wave of nationalism that swept the globe. Political ideologies now compete in a worldwide “marketplace of ideas”, and it is the same for religions. By the end of the century, India and China showed signs of displacing the United States and Europe within the next century. No one would have guessed that in 1900, when Queen Victoria was still on the throne and ruling as “Empress of India”. The longevity of the Roman Empire, despite its ever-present corruption and fragmentation, now seems eternal in comparison.

If the current trends of technological development hold, I see no reason to think that this rapid amount of change will cease at any point in the near future. Rather, we may soon look back on this time and observe that it was relatively quiet in comparison. How much will we see before our grandchildren are old enough to read about it? Will they be shocked at the number of people who used to die of various cancers, all of which will then be treated by a seemingly obvious cure? Will they be amazed at the collapse of the West from within and the rise of the East? Will they wonder how we could put up with such long airplane flights when travel is then possible in 1/3 of the time?

ENIAC was the first electronic, Turing-complete device: an important advance in computing technology. U.S. Army Photo circa 1947-55

I have been writing a series of novels that take place in the 12th century. I constantly have to ask myself, “Just how fast would the main character have heard about such and such event?” First, I have to calculate the distance between where she is and the event in question. Then I have to decide if it will be a single messenger stopping to take rests, or multiple messengers handing off to one another, or indeed if the news will just arrive naturally as travelers whisper it in one another’s ears and eventually someone mentions it at Court. Will the messenger be traveling by horse, on foot, by boat, or as part of a caravan with lots of baggage? Is the messenger a good rider or a poor one? What is the weather like that time of year and how will it affect the condition of the roads?

Suffice it to say, even within the kingdom of England, a message could take quite a long time to arrive: perhaps even a week or more. Yet, I can now sit in Dayton, Ohio and at any time of day hop on to the BBC website and find out exactly what is happening in England. If that is too slow for me, there is always Twitter.

Our modern society relies on speed of communication in more ways than one. It may have been the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson who first said, “A week is a long time in politics,” which is now sometimes changed to, “A week is a lifetime in politics.” I’m sure you, like me, can think of multiple instances where a person’s careless words have led to a nationwide protest, firing, and act of repentance all within the same week. It used to be that if you could just hold on past that first crush of hysteria, you might be able to keep your job. Now the 24-hour news cycle and the chattering classes on social media lead to dismissals in record time, with executives desperately afraid of the uproar.

We also see this speeding up of history having an effect on Wall Street, where high frequency trading is big business. To make a rather complicated process as simple as possible, I will just say that certain people want to ensure that if a stock is about to gain or lose money, they will be the first ones to get in at the best price. They set things up on a hair trigger alert, and this is why we often see such precipitous rises and falls in a stock’s price. People aren’t actually taking the time to process the latest earnings report and make a decision to buy or sell. Computers are doing it for them based on data that is run through a pre-existing algorithm. Being faster than your competitors is so important in high frequency trading that firms shell out enormous amounts of money to place their servers closer to the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange. This can cut off a fraction of a second from the amount of time it takes for the electrical signal to move from one computer to the other, thus giving them the edge.

Some in the Christianity community are anxious about another way in which history is speeding up: the changes in sexual ethics in the West. I for one was not at all surprised by the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage, nor by the current movement to grant more rights to transgender persons. Maybe that is because I am a Millennial, and by the time I was a teenager these things were all well underway. But for many who grew up in a time when Christian notions of sexual morality were closer to those of the wider society, this has come as a real shock. Everyone is rushing out to get their copy of The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. They ran into the arms of President Trump to save them from the big, bad liberal elite who want to lock them all up.

Are there liberal elites out there looking to marginalize conservative Christians? Absolutely. Are we really in danger of being locked up? Probably not within the lifetimes of the people who are most concerned. Who knows what might happen by the time I am old and gray, should I last that long. I think the people on the East and West Coast underestimate the number of Americans who still hold to a more traditional set of ideals and who are far more likely to show up on voting day than the younger set. That is why Donald Trump won: because of the anger and fear of many who feel that they have been marginalized, demonized, and driven underground.

What will the speeding up of history mean for us in the future? The musical Hamilton assures us that, “You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” I have no idea what history has in store for us, but this much I do know: it’s going to get faster.