A Russian friend recently shared a witty observation about his country: “In two years, everything changes; in 200 years, nothing changes.” That is certainly true for Russia, a nation whose every lurch forward seems to leave it farther behind. Is it also true for what we call progress? Are all the dazzling technological inventions and social transformations of our time nothing more than superficial variations on an unchanging template?
Certainly the pace of change in life today is dizzying, for better and for worse. We are in incessant contact with each other and can instantly access all the knowledge accumulated across human history; we will soon be transported in driverless cars and healed by robot physicians. On the social front, to be gay or transgendered is ceasing to be a curse of Cain …
Yet it is also true that the more rapidly we move forward, the greater the resistance. At the most terrifying end of the reactionary spectrum, fanatical Islamists adopt cutting-edge technology for their murderous rush to an idealized past. And even in a bastion of prosperity, literacy and freedom like the United States, there is a bizarre and spreading resistance to science, whether on climate change, vaccine or evolution.
So does that mean, as King Solomon opined almost three millennia ago, that in the end there is nothing new under the sun, that the frenetic pace of invention and evolution of the 21st century ultimately amounts to been-there-done-that? I know that when I stand on a cliff over the sea on an autumn day mesmerized by the ceaseless crash of waves below, it is hard to resist the wise monarch’s conclusion that “It has been already in the ages before us.” But then I remember that we are causing these seas to rise dangerously, and the fish to vanish, and I wonder, will it really be the same in the ages after us?
These are the questions we ponder in our annual selection of Turning Points, cataloging the ideas, trends or inventions that will shift our trajectory and make 2016 different from 2015. Not surprisingly, several of our authors explore the challenges of the awesome, rapidly evolving universe of the Internet — how to keep it a “safe and vibrant place”; how to cope with the “reputation economy” fostered by online ratings; how it has upended the world of fashion. Our authors anticipate the coming of robots and the continued expansion of cities, and they explore the interplay of politics and economics. We look, too, at the pernicious forces we have set loose, the wars that achieve nothing except to uproot whole populations and render them into desperate and suspect refugees.
My Russian friend and Solomon are right, of course, in the sense that in the end we remain bound by the same passions, the same natural rhythms and mortality as all our ancestors were. But the paradox is that part of that constant is an insatiable curiosity and an extraordinary ingenuity that forever seek to channel those passions, manipulate the rhythms and defy the mortality. Change is in our genes: We and our fellow creatures are programmed to forever evolve in order to survive. And when we mess up, we change again, and again, and again. Nothing new under the sun? We’ll change that, too.
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