We are living through the first era after time.
History has been defined in large part by the interaction of people, places, and ideas that were previously isolated. Wars were fought between countries filled with people who’d not only never traveled beyond their own national borders, but had limited to no awareness of those places (other than what their leaders told them).
Ideas percolated in pockets of place and time, so it would take decades for the socialism of the Paris Commune to inform Lenin’s tirades on his Finland Station train ride. It took a little longer (and a horrendous internecine war) for the US to catch up with Britain and outlaw slavery.
Science was more collaborative, though the image of a lone scientist having a eureka moment in a lab wasn’t just an invention; it took almost 75 years for a smallpox vaccine to move from discovery to general use, as conversations were conducted via hand-written letters (geographic distances made gathering experts in the same place an infrequent event).
Culture and the arts were almost wholly dependent on pockets of creativity getting discovered or ignored. “Schools” for painting or music composition were collections of individuals who did something in some particular way, to the exclusion (or with willful ignorance) of other approaches. They were often unknown outside of their own communities.
For all of his fame across Europe, consider how few people ever heard Mozart’s music during his lifetime.
When you see a collection of art from so-and-so place and time, it was likely discovered by a collector who revealed it for a wider audience. For every find, there’s a far larger list of artists who were missed, and their art lost to history.
The evolution of fashion can be set on a broad spectrum, but each era had a “look” that was defined in large part by what was available to consumers, whether conceptually or commercially. People weren’t aware of what their grandparents wore, especially before they could see them in action via photography, and there was an unofficial bias against the past in Global North countries that celebrated progress.
The next fashion trend was defined in large part by what it didn’t include from the last one.
The Internet changed everything by making anything instantly available to anyone.
Nobody has to toil away in solitude anymore; ideas, inventions, and issues are shared incessantly, blending both the present and past into a wash of experience in which all of us are immersed.
People have reacted to this fact in two broad directions: The broad reach of information moves us to embrace global thinking (like development or climate issues) or mash-ups of ideas in culture and there arts, or to drill down and purposefully focus only on simple political or fashion ideas. Our era is notable for whatever someone chooses to note.
Elites and remixes vs. values and cosplay.
Businesses are valiantly trying to buck this trend, hawking new cars and clothing each year in hopes of forcing people to replace what they own out of shame or guilt of appearing dated. But that time-tested approach doesn’t work in an era defined by timelessness, not to mention the added concerns of sustainability.
Those wide lapels on my 70’s era blazer aren’t out of style because I get to choose what era’s fashion I prefer, and it means an unsuspecting sheep didn’t need another shave to keep me current. Keeping a car running longer is a badge of honor for a growing number of people.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I don’t think we’ve figured out how to practice politics; the immediacy of Twitter-fed conversations could well replace the clash of isolated cultures as the cause of wars, for instance. Consumerism is changing, and may morph into some sort of embrace of older practices of co-creation and sharing.
But, unlike eras before the advent of the Internet, I think our era will be remembered as the first era that embraced every era. What’s unique to our time may be that nothing’s uniquely ours.
Maybe our era won’t be remembered as a “thing” whatsoever, as the perspective of time will become irrelevant.
Has history become a long, endless continuum of nows?
[this essay first appeared at Medium]