Talking about a generation

When the people came to the prophet Shmuel and begged him for a king,
he thought they were crazy. “A King you want? But he’ll ruin your
lives,” he told them, and insisted that the system of Judges that the
people lived under for centuries was better suited for their lives.
The judges gave them freedom. Unlike a king, who ruled them all,
Judges would only arise when external threat created a need. The rest
of the time the people would live in their tribes, each to their own,
handling their internal affairs and going about their daily lives. No
taxation for projects far from their own, and beyond the upkeep of the
tribe of Levi who did not have land of their own but instead served as
priests among the People, they kept what they grew and the flocks they
tended. But we want a king, like all the other nations, they demanded.
And Shmuel, unable to hold back their interest any longer, gave in. A
king they wanted, a king they’d have.

In the course of human history, our societies change in accordance
with the opportunity horizon afforded to them. Mainly, our purpose is
to protect those close to us, and provide for them as much as possible
the creature comforts in life. As the range of possibilities for such
comforts increases, our trade routes expand. As our trade routes
expand, we need to secure the merchants who bring us our comforts from
across the world. And as our need to secure our trade grows, so too
grows the reach of our government. As Robert Wright shows in Nonzero,
societies and their governments are limited by the communication and
commerce technologies afforded to them. Genghis Kahn, whose empire
stretched half way across the world, developed the passport in order
to provide some sense of coordination between his provinces, developed
a rapid communication system consisting of men ready on fast horses,
and appointed family members who ruled rather autonomously because
passing orders across the empire was a month by month affair. The Inca
Empire stretched almost as long, and set up a series of base stations
and roads across it so runners could pass messages one to the other in
a country-wide relay race as power was extended. In the fifteenth
century, as ships came unto their own, the local kingdoms of Europe
became vast empires, projecting strength as far as they could
transport troops and commands to those troops.

It was in those days that a new type of thought developed, what we now
know as Politics, and in this case the political theory of the West.
Since the time of Abraham and before there was always a political
thinking of sorts, but such thinking mainly had to do with local
affairs, focused on material constraints and appeasing the deity.
Individuals were mainly agrarian, each handling their own life’s
affairs in the area of their farm or village. Urbanization changed
this, as did the increase of trade brought about the expanse of the
Empire. In the age of vast, sea faring empires, Europeans not only
encountered civilizations vastly different than their own, they were
able to correspond back with their friends and families in their
native lands to share with them the experience. True, cultures have
been clashing for most of history. What had changed at this time was
that the ability to communicate over large distances provided a sense
of perspective never before realized, and an opportunity for central
control never before possible. In light of these two new factors,
individuals in the West began to examine the roots of power and the
right to creating political union. Thought of social contract
developed, and discussion of ‘life in nature’ framed the decision of
individuals to give up the liberty they experienced in their farms and
villages and come under the control of a central body. From there came
discussion of rights, from the rapid change that followed came
theories concerning the conservation of the past, and the rest is
political history. Each theoretician attempted to draw from works of
thinkers past, to show that their thought had its roots in the
everlasting truth of man, but it cannot be masked that for most of
human history, politics simply did not interest nor impact the
majority of our species.

When in the middle of the world Politics built, it is hard to remember
how new our system of Politics actually is. The Jewish People had two
thousand seven hundred years of history behind them when the French
coined the terms ‘right’ and ‘left’ to denote positions on a spectrum
of thought. When Adam Smith revealed a paradigm to discuss the Wealth
of Nations, the Jewish People had a thousand five hundred years of
business law recorded in the Baba Batra, and when Thomas Jefferson
wrote that the colonists of the New World found truths to be
self-evident, the Jewish People had read for two thousand years from
the books of Moses that they should chose life, and chose liberty with
it. The wisdom of the ages might have informed the great thinkers who
build the current paradigm of life, liberty and society of the present
day, but we need to recognize that theirs was a new project entirely,
and thereby not one that is necessarily axiomic as to life in society.

In common behind the quest of Shmuel and John Stuart Mill, or any of
our other political theorists of the West, is that they could not have
made the statements they did were they in another time or place. The
global historical context, and especially the conditions made possible
due to the technologies of the day, provided the setting wherein they
would make their statements and craft their political theories. As
times change, context changes. As context changes, new ideas are
needed for how to organize society under new conditions. The
development of these frames generally starts with the perceptive
within the first generation to live in a world in which the paradigms
of old clash with the world of opportunities they have known since
birth. This happened with the youth movements, as these First
Industrials fled the urban areas of Germany and France and central
Europe and built new worlds in the woods. As they grew up, these same
individuals frequented coffee houses, and shared their poetry about
the new nation-states which were emerging out of Imperial Europe. They
built new ideas for politics, some of which clashed violently, much of
which influenced our thought until the present day.

We are no longer in that age, however, and the generation that is now
coming of age is being pulled in new directions. The First Digital
generation, the generation that grew up as the internet blossomed, who
started communicating with friends ten at a time over instant
messenger, has a new world set before them. Unlike the world that
those of us who remember a time before email were born into, their
world happens much faster than our own. It is measured in minutes and
not days, and conversations are by default developed in groups and not
one-to-one. Concerns that the last industrial generation has
concerning privacy and work life separation are fading, as social
networks align lives and share with individuals the whole person on
the other side of the line.

First Digitals have not lost the desire for personal, deep, intimate
contact. Quite the opposite, as the world grew, and the opportunities
for mass communication became ubiquitous, First Digitals go local.
They focus on personal connections and local impact, and are ever more
interested in developing community bonds that are based on a shared
set of activities or interests, bonds that may stretch around the
world but stay local thanks to the reach of technologies and the speed
of transportation.

If this world frightens the Last Industrials it is only because of its
strange foreignness. Since most Last Industrials do not remember the
world that was before the last technological revolution, they
naturally try to understand the new world in their terms. They apply
theory of liberalism or conservatism, argue about national policies
concerning privacy and morality, and expect the youth to follow in
their path. As an exercise it is important. As a policy for crafting
the future, it may prove negligible.

A simple analysis of status updates on social networks can provide a
basic idea of what youth are thinking about today. As opposed to blogs
of the late 1990s, early 2000s, who followed the broadcast model and
dealt mainly with items that co-existed in the mainstream media,
social networks have opened the world up to the First Digitals in a
way our fathers could never have imagined. Arguments about abortion?
They exist. But in the realm of personal choice, not national policy.
Discussions on privacy? Sometimes they surface, but these are resolved
by letting each individual determine their own settings. As such a
paradox emerges: at a time in which communication technologies of
global reach can enable a global government to emerge, First Digitals
are concerned with affairs local to their world of meaning, and
provide more and more space for the individual to determine the life
they would like to live. If a current ideology were to describe them,
it might be libertarian, but that itself is not quite right either.

The good news is that due to the dynamics of time, the world of
tomorrow will at some point become the world of today. The bad news
for the Last Industrials is that the type of tomorrow we would like to
have for our coming generations will be built on the platform that the
First Digitals build, and that platform may run contrary to the
desired tomorrow of the preceding generations. How, then, can the
organizations and institutions we currently have influence the First
Digitals and their choices? Through the narratives the older
generations offers, and through opportunities for partnership that
bring the First Digitals into direct relation with the older
generations so as to see themselves the bearers of a tradition that,
while changing, retains a quality of uniqueness and consistency.

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