“We’ve stumbled along for a while, trying to run a new civilization in old ways, but we’ve got to start to make this world over.”
If these words ring true to you, take heart: We’ve been here before. Thomas Edison wrote them in a 1912 letter to Henry Ford. Edison saw the U.S. poised at the precipice of a new industrial civilization, but instead of exuberance he felt despair.
Today we stand on the edge of a similar precipice. The world bequeathed by Edison and Ford lies behind us. Now we travel another road to yet a new civilization –– an information civilization that will transform the lives of all peoples. President Obama is expected to endorse changes to the NSA’s surveillance procedures in a long awaited speech at the Justice Department on Friday.
What’s at stake is of far greater significance than the NSA, Big Tech, or the politics of the moment. President Obama has been thrust into the center of the ring in the fight for the soul of the new civilization that will dominate this century. If he uses this opportunity to build a bridge to the future, he will need active support from Chancellor Merkel and other world leaders. But if he falls short, the spotlight will turn to Germany and the EU in search of epochal leadership.
Edison despaired that without epochal leadership the promise of industrial civilization would be stillborn, silenced by the weight of the old order and its will to power. Rapid industrialization challenged American and European societies beyond their imaginative limits, outstripping their ability to reconcile the avalanche of change with a larger vision of the kind of civilization they wanted.
In America, Jeffersonian ideals had turned black with soot as industrial production surged ahead of all competitors. Despite vast new industrial fortunes, life was short and workdays were long and dangerous for ordinary people. Half of all steelworkers earned less than 18 cents an hour and a third worked seven days a week without overtime pay. A cabinet level Department of Labor, first proposed in 1868, was still a year away.
Poverty was the norm, and the few dominated the many. In Germany, where the principles of social law had already taken root, the rise of labor remained deeply contested. The number of organized workers grew from 280,000 in 1890 to 2.5 million in 1914. Only then did the state finally grant legally secure status to collective bargaining agreements.
Edison understood that the challenges ahead were not technological but institutional, social, and moral. He decried the “wastefulness” and “cruelty” of the old order as “all wrong, out of gear!” He saw that everything ––laws, business, work, politics, education –– would have to be reinvented if the new technologies were to fulfill their promise for a successful industrial civilization.
A new revolution
Today we face similar dilemmas. Information supplants industry as the template of the future, and things we thought were solid turn slippery: industries, jobs, work, education, healthcare, and even the very definitions of our rights, responsibilities, and freedoms. Every institution, practice, purpose, framework, and assumption faces reinvention. Once again the old ways are dying, and it’s hard to imagine what comes next.