Seems like every fifty years, the world makes a major breakthrough — the introduction of a new age. The 1750s saw the birth of the steam engine which facilitated shipping across the Atlantic. Railway lines began springing up in the 1800s, giving birth to rail transport. The first electronic communication was made possible in the 1850s through the telegraph. The 1900s saw the birth of the telephone, the radio, the preponderance of electricity in homes, and the mass production of the automobile. The 1950s was the coloured television through which people felt much more connected to one another — they watched the same programs at night, and had a lot in common to talk about, the following day, in their break rooms at work.
These dates correspond to periods of great economic prosperity, especially in the western world. More importantly, they gave rise to better ways of connecting people — moving people and information much more easily from one place to another. They have all culminated in the most recent age — the age of information. The 2000s ushered in the internet. This ultra-fast medium for moving information from one place to another has completely eliminated the need to physically accompany the information being sent. We saw the introduction of a new era: the information society.
We now have information at our fingertips. So much information is available to the average person than has ever been before. You don’t know how to get to a place? Instead of asking around for directions, put the destination into your GPS and away you go! Feel a little twitch in your right eye? Instead of waiting in line to see a doctor, Google the symptoms and you have a bunch of diagnoses from which you could then narrow down to treat your particular issue. We have so much information available to us these days that it should be virtually impossible to make mistakes or to be lost.
But lost and mistaken we often are. The disadvantage of having things at your finger tips is that they soon find their way up your armpit and become crutches for you. Steam engine ships were not readily accessible to just anyone. Neither was rail transportation or the telegraph. As technology evolved and became more readily accessible, we became much more reliant on it. So just like we are utterly dependent on telephones, electricity and automobiles, we have become totally addicted to staying informed. Not in touch, but informed. We don’t ask questions of each other anymore — it’s fastest fingers first! “Google is your friend”, they say.
The problem is that this drives us apart instead of bringing us together. The purpose of steam ships, railways, telegraphs, and telephones was to bring people together; to help them get to each other faster and more often; to help them stay in touch with one another. That is why those fifty year time periods were marked with tremendous economic wealth. Because when people communicate with each other better, they can collaborate better. They can better cooperate with one another to create something of more lasting value than they could’ve been able to, otherwise.
But our poor use of the internet is defeating the purpose of helping us to communicate with each other better. We are instead being reduced to individual islands of people who think they know all they need to know about each other and the world, simply because they have quick access to random information. We have come to rely so much on the often misleading information about people on social media that we don’t bother to reach out to them and find out how they are really doing. We have such poor research skills that when we’re fed with propaganda through the media, we do our own ‘research’ by posing biased questions on Google. Questions that could only pop out the kind of answers we want to hear. It’s like we’re more interested in finding people who agree with us than in finding out the truth; seeking meaningful connections where there is none. We think we know so much about everybody and everything, but we truly know nothing!
Going by the fifty-year trend, it’d be interesting to see what the 2050s would bring. The world, as it is right now, doesn’t seem to be creating much of lasting value. The materials used to manufacture cars, household items, buildings, and the like, seem to be of cheaper, lesser quality than those that were used in the past. Maybe because we know so much, we figured we could make anything work. And instead of this tremendous economic expansion, nations seem to be going deeper and deeper into debt and are more interested in redistributing their existing wealth than in creating more.
One thing is sure though, if we continue on the path of shutting out real relationships and focusing on virtual ones, we would increasingly lack the opportunities to collaborate effectively with one another and create something great. In that case, the 2050s could as well be a downer. The period of reckoning; when we’d realize that all that we thought we knew turned out to be but empty knowledge. That we’d been running on assumptions about each other and the world that were simply not true. The next major breakthrough might as well be the realization that with all the information we had at our finger tips, we’d been unknowingly living in an age of misinformation.