“Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance. God help me, I do love it so.” — George S. Patton (in the above shot played by George C. Scott in his greatest role.)
Is the world going to croak?
Put in geological terms, will the Phanerozoic eon, which began with the Cambrian explosion a half billion years ago, end at the close of the Anthropocene epoch, when the human species, which has permanently put its mark on the Earth, commits suicide with nuclear weapons? This became a lot more plausible as soon as Putin rattled his nuclear saber.
Well, life will survive, even if humans do not. And that will happen whether or not the globe warms as much as the IPCC assures us it will. If temperatures in the climate of our current interglacial interval peak with both poles free of ice, the Mississippi river will meet the Atlantic at what used to be St. Louis. Yet life will abound, as life does, at least until the Sun gets so large and hot that photosynthesis stops and the phanerozoic finally ends. That time is about a half-billion years away. That might seem like a long time, but given the age of the Earth itself—about 4.5 billion years—life here is much closer to the end than the beginning.
Now let’s go back to human time.
I’ve been on the planet for almost 75 years, which in the grand scheme is a short ride. But it’s enough to have experienced history being bent some number of times. So far I count six.
First was on November 22, 1963, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. This was when The Fifties actually ended and The Sixties began. (My great aunt Eva Quakenbush, née Searls or Searles—it was spelled both ways—told us what it was like when Lincoln was shot and she was 12 years old. “It changed everything,” she said. So did the JFK assassination.)
The second was the one-two punch of the Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, on April 4 and June 6, 1968. The former was a massive setback for both the civil rights movement and nonviolence. And neither has fully recovered. The latter assured the election of Richard Nixon and another six years of the Vietnam war.
The third was the Internet, which began to take off in the mid-1990s. I date the steep start of hockey stick curve to April 30, 1995, when the last backbone within the Internet that had forbidden commercial traffic (NSFnet) shut down, uncorking a tide of e-commerce that is still rising.
The fourth was 9/11, in 2001. That suckered the U.S. into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and repositioned the country from the world’s leading peacekeeper to the world’s leading war-maker—at least until Russia stepped up.
The fifth was the Covid pandemic, which hit the world in early 2020 and is still with us, causing all sorts of changes, from crashes in supply chains to inflation to complete new ways for people to work, travel, vote, and think.
Sixth is the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24, 2022, just eleven days ago as I write this.
Big a thing as this last bend is—and it’s huge—there are too many ways to make sense of it all:
- The global struggle between democracy and autocracy
- The real End of History
- At last, EU gets it together
- Putin the warlord
- The man is nuts
- Zelensky the hero
- Russia about to collapse, maybe
- Ukraine will win
- Hard to beat propaganda
- Putin’s turning Russia into 🙈🙉🙊
- It’ll get worse before it ends badly while we all do more than nothing but not enough
- Whatever it is, social media is reporting it all
- World War Wired
- Russia does not have an out
- The dawn of uncivilization
I didn’t list the threat of thermonuclear annihilation among the six big changes in history I’ve experienced because I was raised with it. Several times a year we would “duck and cover” under our desks when the school would set off air raid sirens. Less frequent than fire drills, these were far more scary, because we all knew we were toast, being just five miles by air from Manhattan, which was surely in the programmed crosshairs on one or more Soviet nukes.
Back then I put so little faith in adult wisdom, and its collective expression in government choices, that I had a bucket list of places I’d like to see before nuclear blasts or fallout doomed us all. My top two destinations were the Grand Canyon and California: exotic places for a kid whose farthest family venturings from New Jersey were to see relatives in North Carolina and North Dakota. (Of no importance but of possible interest is that I’ve now been a citizen of California for 37 years, married to an Angelino for 32 of those, and it still seems exotic to me. Mountains next to cities and beaches? A tradition of wildfires and earthquakes? Whoa.)
What’s around the corner we turned two Thursdays ago? Hard to tell, in spite of all that’s being said by Wise Ones in the links above. One things I do know for sure: People have changed, because more and more of them are digital now, connected to anybody and anything at any distance, and able to talk, produce “content” and do business—and to look and think past national and territorial boundaries. We make our tools and then our tools make us, McLuhan taught. Also, all media work us over completely. We have been remade into digital beings by our wires, waves, and phones. This raises optionalities in too many ways to list.
I’m an optimist by nature, and since the ’90s have been correctly labeled a cyber-utopian. (Is there anything more utopian than The Cluetrain Manifesto?) To me, the tiny light at the end of Ukraine’s tunnel is a provisional belief that bad states—especially ones led by lying bastards who think nothing of wasting thousands or millions of innocent lives just to build an empire—can’t win World War Wired. Unless, that is, the worst of those bastards launches the first nuke and we all go “gribbit.”
Our challenge as a species, after we stop Russia’s land grab from becoming a true world war, is to understand fully how we can live and work in the Wired World as digital as well as physical beings.