There is an idea called “The Unprecedented Era” that I consider very important to understanding our present world. I once tried to explain it, but looking at that post now, what I wrote was a little too elaborate. So this is a restatement in plainer language.
We live in a period of time characterized by its ever-changing and unprecedented nature. Although obviously, every time is unprecedented in its own way, the gap between the past two hundred years (approximately) and the rest of human history is so great that it cannot be crossed. We are different. We must acknowledge this difference.
For the first time in human history, the majority of the population is not dedicated to agriculture. For the first time in human history, we understand the workings of the human body and the cause of disease. For the first time in human history, we have real knowledge of the structure of the world and the universe. No one born previous to our time could understand us; we cannot understand them.
In the centuries leading up to the Unprecedented Era, the process of science began to discover real, usable information about the universe. When this information began to be put in use in technology, the Era began. Change begat change, rolling waves of change, change in every aspect of our lives, moving across the globe, reaching and connecting all humanity—whether or not they wanted that change.
Due to the unprecedented nature of the Unprecedented Era, all earlier examples of human history are no longer useful. For example, we see folks, worrying about the fate of the United States, compare the situation to the fall of the Roman Empire. But this is useless. We are so far detached from the context of Late Antiquity—in life spans, in technology, in knowledge—that there can be no comparison. Invoking the “Fall of Rome” can have no use other than the purely rhetorical.
The Unprecedented Era can be characterized as Protean and Adolescent, a time when everything is being continually originated and formed. Due to this, it can be difficult to be an “adult” in the Unprecedented Era, because the social context learned as a child is being constantly undermined by change. Gaps open between generations, each new age cohort thinking they understand better than the last, only to find themselves overthrown in turn.
New identities become possible. Identity formation has always happened, but not at the dramatic rate allowed by the permutations of ideas, facilitated by communication, on a scale of billions. There are more ways to be a human being now than ever before, far more, and they keep generating themselves.
In such upheaval, humanity is in a continual process of experimentation and discovery. Every day we live, we are effectively asking “Does this work?”, testing our ideas, our livelihoods, our societies. Not all the experiments turn out well, and some have ended horribly: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Maoist China. We must be careful. Yet the change will necessarily continue, so there is no way not to try something new. We can at least try to make change humane—and often have.
How shall we react to the fact of the Unprecedented Era? Well, we’re humans, which means we will have the full range of reactions. Some will be thrilled to embrace the new, some will find the constant earthquake to be hellish. If I were going to give advice, I would say: don’t get too used to anything, things you like as well as things you don’t like. Either may disappear or be transformed into something unrecognizable.
How will this all end? We can’t know. I would not be surprised if humanity doesn’t realize the Unprecedented Era has ended until the even is well into hindsight. For the moment, though, the earthquake continues.