A New Age Is Here — Welcome to the Perpetual Horizon

    On the final morning of the postmodern era, I awoke to a ringing telephone. A parent calling from work, smothering the receiver with gruff paranoia: “Get up and turn the TV on and get all the cars full of gas. They’ve shut down all the airports. Someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center.”

    Stories of that Tuesday morning will open countless books for the next 100 years as countless historians, politicians, novelists, social critics, essayists and terrorists recall the few hours that introduced life in the new era. That crucial ingredient and its aftermath — international insecurity as it feels after a smoldering hole replaced the World Trade Center complex — rang in the age where the possibility of mortal, political and social doomsday always lurks just a breaking news update away. While we’re too close to see it fully now, thinkers in the future will describe Sept. 11 as the symbolic end of the modern and postmodern, 20th century-chapter of human social relations, and the beginning of a new, as-yet-unnamed period where the tiring pace and bewildering fractures of those ages are replaced by an insecurity so pervasive it focuses our life on the single moment as never before.

    To understand how differently we will live now, we have to get a sense of how people lived in the past, and how quickly everything changed. Before industrialization drew people out of the rural communities they’d occupied for hundreds of years, people were able to count on things being pretty much the same tomorrow as they were today. The serfs would always be at the bottom, and the rulers always at the top. Social norms would go unspoken, and thus unchallenged. Authority was handed down from God through the King and the Church — and whatever mythical sense they made of the world more or less automatically became everyone’s interpretation.

    Science and industrial technology changed all that very quickly. The move to cities, factories and a wage-based labor force brought new uncertainty to human life in the places it occurred — suddenly, everything (social norms, centers of authority, styles of expression) could and did change. Towering metropolises isolated the individual man in a sea of strange faces, an unfathomably alienating experience for people who’d grown up knowing everyone in their village. Art gave up representing things traditionally and became obsessed with structure and its medium. Technology like radio and, later, television, broadcast the same experience to thousands, helping to create a popular culture. People generally felt like things were gradually changing toward something, that technology would somehow relieve them of the worst burdens of life.

    The death of that rational idealism, of the faith in the modern age’s narratives of progress and improvement, marks what some call the postmodern, the era into which we were born. Constant change became the norm. Media and the milieu of its performance (now inescapable as images became the ubiquitous standard of communication) played always out of order, disconnected, jumping from one time and place to another. The authoritarian, progressive culture was shattered by a chaotic one, where villians became heroes and the sharpest irony became the highest chic.

    Suburban development and the break-up of the traditional city exacerbated our social isolation from each other as marathon freeway commutes became commonplace. The communities they created resembled the bricolage of TV channel surfing: unconsidered, obsessed with the superficial, lacking order.

    Authenticity, as it meant in the pre- and modern eras, evaporated as the speeding up of life canceled patience for depth and nuance. Attention spans were replaced by a fascination with deliberately constructed, self-referential, instant reality: Las Vegas, Hot Topic, MTV.

    But while much ballyhoo was devoted to the rise of the soundbyte in the postmodern era, that’s nothing like what we are going through. According to the New York Times, Americans are in such a rush that we can’t even wait to order our drive-thru food from a nearby person — McDonald’s is experimenting with a system where orders are beamed from the restaurant to a call center where trained receptionists take calls at blazing speed, then zap orders back to the kitchen of the original restaurant. It only saves a few seconds, but in our age, a few seconds can mean everything — and hot fries with it.

    It means billions for the technology industry, who roll out ever-new consumer products with the promise of saving a few clicks off that video download. It meant life for a few Londoners last summer, running just late enough to miss the tube train that al-Qaeda blew up (How often do you, running late, agonize over the seconds it takes for that Buick driver to awaken and realize the light’s turned green?)

    Like the postmodern and modern before it, the changes of the new age can’t be seen as all good or bad — it’s both. Technology has largely dismissed traditional authority and retied some of the bonds to our fellow man, although not in the ways that anyone expected. We can talk all we want to strangers and friends through digital technology, but do we know them as well? Then again, is there as much to know? Do we not try, with varying degrees of intention and success, to brand ourselves to be increasingly easily decipherable for potential consumers of us? Is that not the point of fashion — to be a Cliff’s Notes for choosing with whom you’ll socialize?

    Then there are the disasters, which seem to arrive with the frequency of new message beeps in online chat. Think of how they’ve come: War in one country, then another, lack of justification notwithstanding, the casualties countless. A massive wave washes away hundreds of thousands of people. Genocide slaughters another few hundred thousand; no countries intervene. A titanic hurricane inundates a major city, killing thousands more.

    The scale, in addition to the frequency, is horrifying, especially if you start thinking of potentials: Will Iran nuke Israel? Will global warming drown civilization? Will the United States elect another Republican president?

    We never know what will happen next, which makes the idea that we’re moving toward something, especially something better, hard to hold on to. The president doesn’t tell the truth and neither do any other leaders; the poor are getting poorer; the institutions and norms our parents counted on are failing.

    Yet we’re free to consume (for now) as never before, with most of the world’s working force tuned into a hyperefficient shit-making machine from which First World consumers can purchase goods for the pleasure of defining and redefining themselves.

    Despite the admitted vagueness of this explanation (give me a book), a new uncertainty — the age where all of life revolves on the digital second — seems to have been kicked off (thematically, not technologically) on Sept. 11, where cell-phones conveyed the mortal jeopardy of thousands with harrowing frankness. Insecurity — economic, social, political, moral — is now perpetual. Instant communication turns every tick into a horizon of change on a scale never experienced by humankind — so be ready the next morning you wake to a ringing phone.

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