A tale of two centuries

An invitation to take stock of your place in time, in a world in flux

Cosmopolis column in the Hindu Business Line, 29 December, 2017

During this year, I crossed a curious threshold. I’ve now lived longer in the 21st century than I ever lived in the 20th century. On its face, that passage seems like a totally arbitrary way to both imagine time and divide my life. Generations of people have lived momentous, eventful lives that didn’t span centuries or millennia. Other moments better shaped their understanding of themselves and the world around them: wars, plagues, revolutions, the invention of the light bulb or penicillin, or, going back even further still, the invention of the wheel. Compared to all those great events, the change from one century to the next is just a meaningless turning of the page.

And yet, I can’t help but find some meaning in the calendar, in my new sense of place in our current epoch. Time may be a continuum, but humans are historicising creatures; we feel the need to break up our understanding of the past into periods. People in the West refer freely to the “spirit of the 1960s” or the “style of the 1980s”, as if those swathes of time could be easily generalised, reduced to a handful of ideas, images, and sounds. What is true of our relationship to decades is also true of our relationship to centuries; to think of 17th-century India or 19th-century Britain is to summon a parade of shared images, of jewelled sultans and Victorian smokestacks.

In a purely mathematical sense, I now belong to the 21st century more than I do to the previous one. Oddly, that calculus makes me think of how I am actually a creature of the 20th century, how I was defined by its final decades in both trivial and enormous ways. Youth bears the real stamp of time. I am old enough to feel nostalgic — the surest sign of the onset of premature ‘curmudgeonhood’ — and can laugh with friends about recording songs for each other on cassettes, or how we memorised each other’s phone numbers, or what it was like to have to go out with coins in your pocket in case you needed to use a payphone on the street.

We had computer games and television, but my youth was not nearly as suffused with screens as my adulthood. I suppose I belong to that last generation of people who came of age without the mobile phone (never mind the smartphone), who remember what it was like not to have instantaneous access to information. The world existed at a remove. It was an object for our active curiosity. There was a necessary effort to knowing; future generations will never know what it was like to wait all those hours to receive the morning newspaper, then flip through the pages to the football scores from countries far away. Now, it’s so easy to experience the world through a kind of passive consumption. We have so much knowledge at our fingertips that its pursuit and retention become less important.

Over half the population of the world is less than 30 years old. Many of them will not have one of the luxuries of 20th-century adolescence: the quiet refuge of your mind. I shiver at the thought of what it must be like to be a teenager now, barraged by Snapchats and Facebook posts, having to perform your inchoate self on social media every day.

Let me not wave my invisible cane and grouch so much. Growing up in the late 20th century, I also inherited some of the illusions of the time. With the end of the Cold War and programmes of economic liberalisation spreading across the world, there was the sense of an endlessly opening world, the notion that a universal liberal order was here to stay. My own politics skew slightly more to the Left, and I grew up with the belief that it was inevitable and right that barriers of race, ethnicity, gender, caste, and religion would melt away, that the old structures of power based on these identities were doomed. The 21st century has dealt rebuke after rebuke to that 20th-century optimism, and we’ve seen in recent years in Europe, the US, India, and elsewhere the rise of particularly divisive, inflaming politics. One of the greatest figures of the last century, Martin Luther King Jr promised that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” To live in this age is to accept that there is nothing inevitable in the bending of history, that the only force that matters — and has always mattered — when it comes to justice is dogged human struggle.

This column appears in a physical newspaper, and most people (though certainly not all) who read it are probably people in the habit of reading a newspaper, that is, people firmly of the 20th century. You might think some of the nostalgia above terribly quaint, since you’ve experienced so much more change than I have. But as we enter 2018, I wonder if I can invite you, too, to take stock of your place in time, to root yourself, to explore the assumptions and experiences that shaped you and how they delivered you to your sense of the present and future.

I find it clarifying to imagine my place in time. To think about who you are in a world in flux requires you to make a judgement of the world itself, its ruins and creations, its trajectories and detours. It demands both your humility and your constant engagement.

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