I love history. I read history for fun, and not just "popular" histories but dusty textbooks, articles, analyses, dissertations, and other stuff. Amateur historians often develop our own theories of history: How history happens, what is history, how you can tell, and so forth.
My theory is that history has a cycle: Like a wave, it has amplitude and frequency. Frequency describes the speed with which humans build new social and economic and political and cultural structures. Amplitude describes the degree or extent of the change that is represented with each wavelength. Wavelengths may be driven by many things: Climate shifts, new technologies, religions and philosophies, catastrophic events, or combinations thereof.
Human history isn't long, in absolute time. The human race in its current form has only been around maybe thirty or forty thousand years. "History," by definition, refers to records of events, and in the case of humans, the means to make durable records has only been around for possibly six or seven thousand years. Really accessible and understandable (to the amateur historian) records go back only three or four thousand years--and copious, descriptive records don't really emerge until about 2000 years ago in the East, and perhaps 1400 years ago in the West.
Still, in that 2000 years, the wave pattern is pretty clear: A gaggle of recently-emerged religions underlay a series of social and cultural and political developments that built on an earlier, less-documented (but perceptible) wave of migrations based on a combination of new technologies (agriculture, shipbuilding, materials engineering.) In the West, more new technologies, climate shifts and population pressures resulted in another wave, and history began again: New political, economic and social structures that were no longer completely defined by (although still informed by) the religious and social norms of the earlier wave. That wave was carried along by a series of revolutions (American, French) and culminated in an Imperialist alignment enabled by the beginning of the next wave, beginning history again with the Industrial Revolution. And with each wave, each new history, the amplitude has increased.
Each wave, each new history, has its roots in the previous history, and I have often wondered if it was apparent, to people living in the interstices, where one history ended and another began. It's academic. And highly subjective. But I would like to make the argument that history is beginning again, now, before our eyes. And the fundamental change that is defining this new history is the abandonment of linear, hierarchical structures of thought, economic and political organization, in favor of non-linear, distributed structures.
It is a shatteringly fundamental change that will ultimately affect every aspect of the human experience.
Non-linear, distributed structures have always been present in human cultures. But in the West, and latterly in the industrialized world, we have chosen to base our economic, social, and political structures on linear and hierarchical models. Their simplicity served us well, to a point.
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth Centuries (C.E.) we believed that all knowledge could, and eventually would, be able to be encompassed by humanity. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries we came to terms with the realization that the Universe--from macro to micro--is complex beyond the ability of human cognition to encompass. And if not the complexity, the sheer volume of knowledge, accumulating picosecond by picosecond, will forever put the ability to know and understand everything out of our reach.
In a universe of such unlimited complexity, linear and hierarchical structures pose critical limits that we, as a species, must transcend to survive.
Non-linear, distributed structures of thought, of social, economic, political and cultural organization, offer a new set of tools.
And in OWS, we are seeing them emerge from the nascent and theoretical state to the hypothetical and experimental state.
I am living at the beginning of our new history, and I know that I am doing so.
It's a breathtaking, humbling realization. And an exhilarating one.
Now, every time some commentator or journo or pundit talks describes OWS as "loosely organized" or "incoherent" or "unstructured" or... whatever adjective they select in their struggle to describe what they are seeing, but not comprehending, I see just what Copernicus must have seen when he looked at Ptolemy. You poor saps. Don't you know that a new history has begun?
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