The Wisdom of Generations

Did you know that at the equator, the Earth spins at a fixed rate of around 1,000 miles an hour? Probably not. The reason you cannot feel it turning is that, along with everything else on the surface of the planet, including the oceans, the forests and the cities, we are all spinning at the same constant speed.

Movement and synchrony are signs of vitality and of progress. Clues that we are alive. They are one of life’s constants — even if we do not notice them. To remain static is to be moribund. Or dead! Although we are not usually all that sensitive to the pace of change, and certain events, like the nine months gestation period it takes to grow a baby, do not vary much, it is remarkable how human knowledge and expertise have been accelerating exponentially since the dawn of history. Let me give you an example from my own life.

I stopped writing music in 1984 — a year before my 40th birthday. Although this was an intensely poignant decision at the time, since I had been composing music almost daily since the age of five, there were a number of valid reasons for discontinuing. For one thing I felt the urge to experiment with words rather than sounds. I had become jaded by the solitary nature of composition, and the competititve nature of the profession was sapping my love for the art of music-making and performance. But mostly it was because my music, dubbed by critics as part of thenew complexity — a surefire way to kill off any interest on the part of concert-going audiences incidentally — was played by fewer and fewer musicians. Meanwhile the number of people who were inclined to attend concerts of “cerebral art” was shrinking. I had to face facts. Being a composer of modern classical music had become an indulgence I could no longer afford. What is the point of relating this story?

The last piece I wrote was a 24 minute music-theatre work called Quete — for percussion. It had been commissioned by a brilliant student of mine at the Victorian College of the Arts. Peter Neville, a member of Elision Ensemble, lauded internationally for its virtuosic flair and courageous programs, was one of the most talented young musicians in Australia at the time. Regrettably, the piece made so many demands on the performer, and required such dexterity, that it was pronounced unplayable.

Quete remained unheard for the next 32 years. Then, in February 2016, Kaylie Dunstan, a final year student at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, decided to include the work in her graduation recital. She played this incredibly complex piece from memory, to a highly appreciative audience, with a precision and sense of maturity that was breathtaking.

The same story in terms of skills development can be seen in sport. Jackie Charlton, who played in the soccer team that won the World Cup in 1966, recently acknowledged that the current England team would most likely demolish his old team with their superior use of data, intensive training techniques, spontaneous inventiveness, individual skills and levels of fitness. I imagine that the same principle would apply to most fields of endeavour where performance expertise, physical endurance, mental toughness and agility are on display.

A related issue is the time it takes for entire societies to adjust to new technologies and to adapt to changing conditions. In our modern world the interval between conceptual design, commercialisation, and market uptake is extremely compressed. In 1995 hardly anyone knew about the Internet. Barely a decade later it had become so ubiquitous that we could not imagine life without it. At the beginning of 2007, nobody had even seen a touch-screen smart phone with a camera. Steve Jobs unveiled the first ever iPhone in January of that year. By 2017 over 66 per cent of the population owned a smartphone with its music streaming and photographic capabilities considered the most important components.

Each of these trends represents a radical shift in the ways we are able to live, play, work, entertain and engage with each other. But there is a deeper, more profound pattern here that links to my initial ideas about new skills acquisition and development. For underlying each shift is the astonishing rate at which knowledge is discovered and applied. The just-in-time industry vogue of the 1970’s has given way to a real-time actuality in diverse fields. The ultimate leap forward in this regard is the noosphere of regenerative consciousness, which is already informing the reinvention of failing systems including energy, agriculture, education, social wellbeing, human relations, and so much more.

This is exceptionally good news for humanity. It is symbolic of our flexibility in the face of circumstances that threaten to disrupt every organisation and institution on the planet. Of course there are tricky pathological disorders still to be overcome — like our inexplicable readiness to espouse scientism as the only means by which society can establish norms and epistemological values. But at least we can now have renewed confidence in our potential to address those worse case scenarios that have so many of us throwing up our hands in horror and declaring the end of life as we know it.

Obviously the difference between being able to deploy knowledge rapidly, aided by the digital development of both human and machine acumen and skills, and wisdom (that is accepting the need for substantial change in the first place) raises further issues. But even then the situation is possibly more optimistic than not.

The youthquake of activism and civil disobedience spreading around the world is a sign that young people everywhere are refusing to become heirs to the avaricious world we have been so busy making on their behalf. They see through our hypocrisy and have no intention of being bullied into compliance by unelected oligarchs. They are making their voices heard and I doubt they will want to compromise.

If we can avoid gender-biased coding and diverse ethical traps, artificial intelligence will be used to make the world work for everyone. New modes of organising, such as peer-to-peer models and revitalised cooperatives, will erode the more predatory aspects of capitalism. Experiments with how power is exercised will eventually offer more engaging forms of democratised governance.

But the greatest hope for human durability and prosperity is a barely-visible tipping point: the speed at which we will agree to cooperate to redesign human presence on Earth.

The darkest hours are just before the dawn. And dark forces of destruction are stalking civilisation today. I believe these will be transitory and that a new dawn is on the horizon. We must be thankful in that regard for the various crises afflicting us — from our addiction to materialism, pressure from 7.7 billion people causing the failure of our most life-critical systems, the culture of fear that incites us to blame others for our predicament, and the anxiety and distress that perpetuates the illusion buying more and more stuff will bring happiness, when we already know that is not the case. For while these burning platforms are certainly dangerous, and pose a very real risk, the determination to resolve them is becoming a tsunami.

The regenerative impulse lies deep within the human soul. Although the future is a fairly meaningless concept for most people, the decisions we take tomorrow will be critical. For it is then we will realise the need to let go of those parts of our nature that are destructive and bring us only pain.

Instead we will find ways to inhale the joy of what it actually means to be a sentient human being. The most powerful emotion we can harness is unconditional love for life. That, and the realisation we are not separate from each other, nor from the planet in which we all live, will free the most profound renewal of the human species in our history.

It will not be forced. Nor can it be engineered to any great extent. Ironically that fact alone is sufficient to alarm those among us who try to control every outcome.

This transformation will be born of its own accord, in its own way, in its own time. How can I be so sure? Because there is simply no other way if we are to avoid extinction or living in an environment that is toxic to health and well-being. Only as a unified family, rather than separate competing tribes, will we rediscover the wisdom of generations, and use this to transcend history and our own prior accomplishments.

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Richard David Hames

Philosopher-Activist and Executive Director at Centre for the Future