The optimism of the Information Age has been replaced with the age of despair
All of us in the West have been brought up to think that history is a tale of progress. Our species has gradually been moving from darkness into light, and from our earliest days onward, everything has been steadily improving. Or so we are often told.
This belief is sadly unsubstantiated by any convincing evidence. And the more you know about history, the more absurd it seems.
History is largely a record of decline and failure.
Economic strife, inflation, military overstretch, foreign warfare, domestic unrest, famine, and disease have always conspired against us and usually defeated us. More often than not, we have to struggle through hard times, enduring substantial reductions in living standards and state capacity, or the total collapse of institutions. Think of the fall of the Roman empire, the Bronze Age Collapse, or the many collapses of Mesopotamian civilization. Or, in modern times, think of the fact that western Europe broke down into total war twice in the last century, and, in the space of a single long lifetime, the Russian state collapsed twice also.
Constant moral improvement isn’t a law of history either.
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For instance, the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance was a period of technological improvement and discovery. History teachers tell us that that was the era when Europeans threw off the ancient weight of tradition in favour of empirical observation and the scientific method. And yet, the so-called Dark Ages were substantially more enlightened. The most savage religious persecutions, civil wars, and witch burnings all happened at the end of the Renaissance, not during the medieval period when such practices were rare and officially condemned.
There is no reason to assume that every generation of human beings is better than the previous one. Nor does increasing knowledge and improving technology make us more virtuous, as is shown by the scientifically advanced and yet utterly inhuman Nazi and Soviet regimes.
The fact that we as a species actually made it out of the 20th century without exterminating ourselves was definitely a relief. But contemporary life in the 21st century has fallen far short of the end-of-century optimism of the 1990s.
We were constantly told in the 90s that, thanks to the Internet, we live in an ‘information age.’ Whatever that meant, the optimism associated with it is dead in the era of ‘fake news’ and ‘disinformation’. And the rediscovery of a common humanity at the end of the Cold War has been replaced by tribalism and a raging online Culture War.
Things are no better offline. A kind of loneliness grew over the course of the 20th century in the West, and worsened towards its end. Participation in clubs or civic societies declined. The number of men with no close friends at all has increased fivefold since 1990. Suicides have been increasing in America since the end of the 20th century, and in 2016 Europe was found to be the most suicidal region in the world by gross rate. Average life expectancy in America has begun to decline. Now hopelessness, despair, and a sort of ‘flatness’ have been invoked to describe the dominant feeling of our time. And the COVID-19 pandemic was a powerful reminder that nature still has the upper hand.
Declinism no longer elicits scoffing as it once did. And it can be found throughout the political spectrum. Donald Trump still speaks incessantly of American decay and Western stagnation, while Greta Thunberg prophesies imminent and irreversible doom. Many agree with them, and we will hear more such talk for some time.
Whatever is in store for us in the coming years, the failure of the optimism of the 1990s should be cause for humility. We need to realize that, for all our technological achievements, we are no better than our ancestors. Life has become easier in many ways, but at a high cost to our health and happiness, not to mention the natural environment. We have not become more virtuous, more civilized, or more humane.
The same questions about how to live well are still with us. They are arguably more pressing now because of the dislocations and alienations caused by technology. But to judge by contemporary nihilism and unhappiness, the 21st century has not yielded any good answers so far, and no amount of innovation will help.
So what should we do?
This is what my book In Defense of Civilization: How Our Past Can Renew Our Present is about. It explains what makes human civilization what it is. It shows what we are in danger of losing through decline or collapse, and points the way toward renewal.
I argue that civilized life itself arose because our ancient ancestors developed a connection with the past and felt that they had a place in history – a feeling that we are now very close to losing. Every former renewal of civilization has been inspired by memory of the past and a deliberate effort to imitate it.
Despite the uncertainties and tensions of contemporary life, and the perception of decline, we should remind ourselves that the future we think we want is never the future we actually get. Maybe we are finally ready to look to the past again.
Michael Bonner is a communications and public policy consultant. He holds a doctorate in Iranian history from the University of Oxford and is also an author. He is a contributing editor at The Dorchester Review, and his latest book, In Defense of Civilization: How Our Past Can Renew Our Present, was published by Sutherland House in 2023.
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