I recently started reading Verlyn Flieger’s A Question of Time: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Road to Faerie and it got me thinking. Flieger discusses the changes that were occurring in the world during Tolkien’s life, particularly during his late-teens and early-20s. In many ways, this begins as a New Historicist read, noting the major movements and such that were part of Tolkien’s socio-historical context, beyond the old references to WWI. Flieger examines the movements and countermovements that occurred in the early-20th century in science, art, and philosophy, thoughts and knowledge that changed worldviews. The work of Freud, Jung, Einstein, Planck, Pound, Joyce, and Picasso. Each of whom essentially changed how we view the world, or responded to such changes.
This got me thinking about my grandparents’ lives. They went from radios and public phones to four channel black & white TV and rotary dial to cable, smartphones, and streaming TV. Even in my own, relatively short, life, the technological changes from VHS to Blu-ray, landlines to pocket size cell phones, green screen dial-up computers to tablets. Not to mention all the scientific advances, medical advances, changes in psychology, and philosophies of the last three decades.
Unlike Tolkien, I grew up with theories of uncertainty regarding the world and continual change, from Einstein to Schroedinger, Jung to Freud, and others. I grew up with the idea that change is the only constant in the universe. I grew up in a household with science and mythology, both of which essentially teach the same thing via different methods and languages. I love the “uncertainty” theories, multiverse theory, and all the possibilities that come from them.
But, I can also understand why some people desire the comfort of perceived solidity often found in conservative religion and revisionist history (the idea that history never changes, therefore our knowledge of history never changes). The very things that I enjoy, the uncertainty they engender, can be frightening. The perception of something going on, unchanged, for 1700+ years (as false as that belief is) can be a comfort, I suppose. Personally, I think that way lies stasis, which is in many ways equivalent to death. But, that’s me.
The fear is then fed by our changing technology. For instance, dissemination of news. In my grandparents’ day, there was only an hour or so of news a day (on the radio and at the movies) and newspapers came out twice daily. Reporters had to be good at what they did. They had to condense the entire day’s news into an hour block. Even in my lifetime, I recall only having news on TV at 5, 6, and 11, or about three hours of news a day. Even then, reporters had to keep things condensed and focused.
Today’s 24 hour broadcasts let reporters get lazy, with ten, twelve hours covering the same story. The coverage starts with Geraldo, then Van Susteren, then O’Reilly, then Hannity, for instance, all talking about the exact same event. It is easy to see why fear develops and gets out of hand. It is easy to see how 10+ hours of coverage of the same event turns into the belief that multiple events occurred, thereby amplifying the reaction.
While our technological advances have unleashed at era of unprecedented access to information, I’m not sure that it is good for society or the individual psyche, especially when the internet news and mobile update elements are added.
Thinking about these things, I think it is easy to see why we appear to have increases in mental disorders, people (a shrinking number) clinging to conservative religion (theoretically stable and unchanging), and an inordinate growth of fear among the general public in developed nations, particularly the U.S.