My nephew Eric Peterson digitized this picture from a slide kept in a dark box for fifty years. The little girl in the stroller is my wife Cyndi. At full resolution, glowing on her iPad, the immediacy of this image is practically dishonest. It suggests we can’t possibly have lived so many years since that day.
But we have.
I think about the decades between that summer and ours, and I’m reminded of the early sixteenth century. (Bear with me.) In 1517, Martin Luther committed the act of proto-blogging that split the One True Church. A little more than 25 years earlier, Europe was startled to find entire continents blocking the backdoor to Asia. And only a little before that, the printing press had overturned the prevailing economics of knowledge.
That means an elderly European in 1520 could have lived through all three disruptions, watching in amazement as books made learning easier, the Reformation made faith harder, and the world about doubled in size.
Those examples are easy because they’re familiar milestones in the western civ narrative, but that string of decades isn’t unique. We’ve seen wholesale paradigm shifts just since this picture was taken – the clear-cut technological and scientific ones, of course, but also deeper and less visible social revolutions, in how we relate to each other, and understand our roles as citizens, workers, and neighbors.
And here’s where the trick of perspective comes in. I think every generation has told itself it’s at the fulcrum of human experience, that the world was one way for the time before them, and then entirely different afterward. The 1960s flower children thought so, and yet their revolutionary aspirations were trifling compared to the Bolsheviks’, or the Oneidans’, or the Jacobins’. So I really have to pause before falling into the same trap.
The world wide web, putting our collective intelligence into real time, is materially different from the boost we got with Gutenberg.
And I think we’re really going find extraterrestrial life, pretty soon. Not smart, but on the order of the weird single-cell things we find in blazing hot hydrothermal vents, living under the ice on Europa.
I think the Higgs Boson will prove overrated as the god particle, but that its corroboration of the Standard Model in theoretical physics will accelerate our rethinking of philosophy and theology, of free will, ethics, and epistemology.
I really do. And if I’m right – if this isn’t just another trick of perspective – then like my hypothetical elderly European, our college students today will look back half a century from now and find changes on a scale we cannot imagine, with knowledge easier, faith harder, and the world a whole lot bigger.
All of that in an interval as fleeting as the time since my wife sat in that stroller.
Diane Halpern famously observed that teaching in college means preparing students for what we can’t anticipate, “the test we don’t see them take.”