Then and now
We view the past with the benefit of hindsight knowing that those following us will gaze back at us to find our fashions quaint and our ideas misguided if not altogether mistaken. Our successors will make these judgements because their lives will have changed.
How, in just a few words, can we explain this change that occurs from one generation to the next? Perhaps we can begin with the permanence that existed within this change. There is a foundational unwavering constant to humanity and that is human nature. Human nature is a product of evolution and from our evolutionary past we have inherited characteristics that are not appropriate for today. We look back at the historical ravages of warfare and conflict with disdain and consider the likelihood that we will kill another person as small. But given human nature both are possibilities. The decrease in physical violence over time has been a difficult and precarious achievement. Every war was the war to end all wars.
If human nature remains the same from generation to generation, then what is it that changes? Though knowledge accumulates and fashions change it is the technology, as a manifestation of science, that makes the greatest social impact. Wind back the videotape of history and the changes that are most obvious, those that have the greatest social impact are a technological – trains, ocean-going ships, telephones, cars, aeroplanes, telecommunications, computers, televisions, smartphones.
Whatever era people lived in their worldview seemed to them rational and reasonable. We should avoid the temptation to regard our world as sensible and that of past generations as intellectually misguided. The only way we can enter the worlds of our ancestors is to engage with their mindset, to feel, as best we can, the way that they felt and thought.
If indeed we are to measure social change primarily through the impact of science and technology, then we need to understand how science and technology have themselves changed over time.