It is easy to think, with all the goings on at present, that we are in an “unprecedented” time, that no other time in history has been like the one that we are in currently. That is, however, a short-sighted view. Pandemics far worse than Covid have devastated the world. The Spanish flu, just after the Great War, is just one example.
However, one area we could reflect on is the tectonic shift in power and empires that we are witnessing at present. Is this unprecedented? About 170 years ago, the world was undergoing monumental change. The gold rushes in California and Australia, the development of communication through the telegraph, undersea cables and railways, the power plays between empires old and new, made the planet a swirling mass of eddies and changes in which the outcomes were hard to predict and the effects of which we still see now.
Ben Wilson in his book Heyday: Britain and the birth of the modern world(W&N,2016) explores this period with a sense of the electricity and energy that represented the age. In fact, it gave me a clearer picture of why China has its current ambitions when one recalls the humiliation it suffered under various European powers throughout that period. One can understand why the Chinese say, “this will never happen again.”
The hero of the story is “gutta percha” a nonconductive resin from a Malaysian tree that encased the telegraphic cables that were laid across oceans. This invention commodified news. The first with the news could “weaponise” (a modern turn of phrase) information that, in turn, could be used to make money or corner your enemies. Reuters was at the ground floor of these advances
For the inhabitants of the C21st we see the first hints of social media, the 24 hour news cycle and the way it informs and twists information in the growth of communication in this period.
Wilson makes the claim that this era was the beginning of modernity. The irony, I find, is that modernity thinks so highly of itself, even now, that we fail to see the origins of many of the realities that presently surround us, whether it is the enigmatic confusion we call “Afghanistan” or the suspicion of vaccines that has been ping ponged via the media.
“Heyday” reminds the reader that we have not just arrived out of nowhere. We all have a past. And if we fail to recognise that past, in the words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it!”
Manipulation of sand and electricity by industrial engineers has allowed us to have devices which allow each of us to be the centre of the universe, without a past or a future.