What does our “age” of hu­man­ity rep­re­sent and what might the fu­ture hold? Po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Christo­pher Ku­tarna pon­ders the big stuff this New Year.

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What does our age of hu­man­ity rep­re­sent and what might the fu­ture hold?

If we are lucky, amid the New Year’s hol­i­day we find a rare and pre­cious mo­ment of quiet calm. On our sofa, or un­der the stars, we re­treat from our re­lent­less pace of do­ing. We stop. We take a deep breath. We re­flect upon the year that has been and the year that might be. It is a sa­cred an­nual rit­ual, and it re­news us. But it also lim­its us. His­tory – the sum­ma­tion of the hu­man jour­ney – is writ­ten in chap­ters far longer than a sin­gle year. By con­fin­ing our re­flec­tion back­ward and our vi­sion for­ward to the last year or the next, we im­pov­er­ish our ap­pre­ci­a­tion of our own place in that glo­ri­ous story.

More prag­mat­i­cally, an an­nual lens on life also makes us more vul­ner­a­ble to shock. Shock is the psy­chic col­li­sion of our ex­pec­ta­tions with reality, and it is per­sonal proof that the forces shap­ing events lie be­yond our present field of view. The year gone by has been full of shocks: Brexit, Don­ald Trump and hap­pier sur­prises like the dis­cov­ery of a sec­ond moon or­bit­ing Earth. So we know, vis­cer­ally, that if we want to make bet­ter sense of this star­tling time we’re in, we need to take a step back and gain a much wider per­spec­tive. We need to stretch our ex­pec­ta­tions about what should be, un­til they en­com­pass the reality that is. Do that, and the com­ing year’s shocks may be less jar­ring. Do that, and we may spend less time reel­ing from their

im­pact, and more time shap­ing their con­se­quences for our­selves, our fam­i­lies and our com­mu­ni­ties.


So let’s re­solve to take that step back and re­flect, not just on the year that has been and the year that might be, but on the age we’re in.

I say we are liv­ing through an­other Age of Dis­cov­ery – a sec­ond Re­nais­sance. And it is, like the first, a time of flour­ish­ing ge­nius and risk. Some 500 years ago, voy­ages of dis­cov­ery by Christo­pher Colum­bus, Vasco da Gama and Fer­di­nand Mag­el­lan opened the world, gen­er­at­ing trade riches for some while spread­ing con­flict, eco­nomic col­lapse and pan­demics to oth­ers. Jo­hannes Guten­berg in­vented a print­ing press, and this new medium flipped the cre­ation and ex­change of ideas from con­di­tions of scarcity to rad­i­cal abun­dance in a sin­gle life­time. It also put most scribes out of busi­ness and em­pow­ered a sin­gle friar (Martin Luther) to ig­nite a Protes­tant Re­for­ma­tion that tore asun­der Europe’s supreme sym­bol of the sta­tus quo, the Catholic Church.

We know these forces – and these con­se­quences – in­ti­mately. In our own time, it is not Mag­el­lan but mar­ket eco­nom­ics that has cir­cum­nav­i­gated the globe. The Ber­lin Wall fell. The Cold War ended. The World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion was founded, and China (along with a wave of newly democra­tised coun­tries in Latin Amer­ica and sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa) joined it. The global

“Per­spec­tive is the guide and the gate­way.” – Leonardo da Vinci

economy has more than dou­bled in size since 1990, and now the eco­nomic poli­cies of trad­ing part­ners across Asia can do more to af­fect our job se­cu­rity than the politi­cians we elect back home.

Our new medium is not printed, but dig­i­tal. Guten­berg has be­come Zucker­berg. The tech­nol­ogy is dif­fer­ent, but the trans­for­ma­tions are alike: in­for­ma­tion abun­dance, cheap dis­tri­bu­tion, rad­i­cal va­ri­ety and wide par­tic­i­pa­tion. A sin­gle good idea can be worth a bil­lion dol­lars, and cre­ate just a few dozen jobs while de­stroy­ing thou­sands. A boy in his bed­room can be­come a global song­writ­ing superstar; a ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion can in­spire vi­o­lence far be­yond the ter­ri­tory it oc­cu­pies.

Through this Re­nais­sance lens, the two chief, con­test­ing truths of our life­time come into sharp fo­cus: this is the best mo­ment in his­tory to be alive, and it is the most frag­ile.

Those were the truths that vied for supremacy 500 years ago in Europe. “We have seen more progress in this cen­tury … than our an­ces­tors did over the past 14,” pro­claimed Peter Ra­mus in 1569. For many, like him, health, wealth and ed­u­ca­tion leapt up­wards. (Ra­mus started life as the son of im­pov­er­ished char­coal mak­ers and ended it as Regius Pro­fes­sor of Rhetoric in Paris.) Cre­ative ge­nius cat­a­pulted. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelan­gelo Buonar­roti rev­o­lu­tionised Euro­pean art. Ni­co­laus Coper­ni­cus rev­o­lu­tionised Euro­pean no­tions of heaven and Earth.

To­day, a sim­i­lar up­lift­ing of the hu­man con­di­tion is un­der­way, only ours is faster, higher and more wide­spread. Take life ex­pectancy. The im­pacts upon our well­be­ing of eco­nom­ics, med­i­cal sci­ence, nutri­tion, dis­ease, drugs, disas­ter, war and life­style habits can all be sum­marised in a sin­gle ques­tion: “How long can I ex­pect to live?” Glob­ally, the an­swer has risen by al­most two full decades since the 1960s. It took pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions 1,000 years to achieve the pre­vi­ous 20-year lift in life ex­pectancy; we’ve done it in 50. (In Aus­tralia, most chil­dren un­der five to­day will see the dawn of the 22nd cen­tury.)

Or take in­comes. Global in­come per capita (world GDP/ pop­u­la­tion) stands al­most 40 per cent higher now than it was in 1990. Forty per cent higher per per­son, de­spite the fact that we have added two bil­lion more peo­ple to the equa­tion in the mean­time. In re­cent years, we’ve fix­ated on the out­sized re­wards be­ing paid to the world’s rich­est, but the poor­est among us are also mak­ing his­toric gains. When the Ber­lin Wall fell in 1989, two-fifths of hu­man­ity still lived in ex­treme poverty. To­day that frac­tion has fallen to less than one-eighth.

Or how about ed­u­ca­tion? In just over a gen­er­a­tion, il­lit­er­acy has plum­meted from nearly half to just one-sixth of hu­man­ity. And there are prob­a­bly more peo­ple alive right now with a higher ed­u­ca­tion de­gree than all de­grees awarded in his­tory prior to 1980.

Our ge­nius is flour­ish­ing, too. Med­i­cal sci­ence to­day is not merely treat­ing us with bet­ter drugs and ad­vice; it has be­gun ex­plor­ing how to trans­form our na­ture, to give us abun­dant life span, fer­til­ity and in­tel­li­gence be­yond ranges that we now con­sider nor­mal. Au­ton­o­mous ma­chines have al­ready be­gun to sup­ply abun­dant labour; one day, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence may sup­ply abun­dant cog­ni­tion. Syn­thetic bi­ol­ogy or nan­otech­nol­ogy may yield abun­dant clean en­ergy. The whole of sci­ence stands at the base of a very steep dis­cov­ery curve.


But in the same breath that we step back and recog­nise this age as hu­man­ity’s best, we must also per­ceive an­other, equal truth: that now is our most frag­ile mo­ment. The same trans­for­ma­tions that raise us to new heights of health, wealth, ed­u­ca­tion and cre­ativ­ity also ex­pose us to un­prece­dented risks. And they strain the bonds that hold so­ci­ety to­gether – maybe to their break­ing point.

Our ex­treme fragility lies, first, in the awe­some tech­nolo­gies to­wards which our sci­ence is so ea­gerly reach­ing. Five hun­dred years ago, gun­pow­der taught Europe that a break­through tech­nol­ogy could both de­fend and dis­rupt life. It re­mains true now. Ought we give our­selves the power to ge­net­i­cally mod­ify the hu­man or­gan­ism – to de­sign a more ad­vanced species of us? How deep might our so­cial in­equal­i­ties be­come, once they take on a ge­netic di­men­sion? Will ro­bots and au­to­ma­tion dis­place half of the hu­man work­force (as mul­ti­ple stud­ies now pre­dict)? Will ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence dis­place our free will, by prov­ing so much bet­ter than us at mak­ing the daily choices we now take for granted? Our sci­ence is ad­vanc­ing far more rapidly than our public pre­pared­ness to an­swer these ques­tions.

Our fragility is also a func­tion of the po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and dig­i­tal open­ness that we have laboured for three decades to achieve. Re­nais­sance Europe very quickly dis­cov­ered that its in­trepid voy­ages had not merely con­nected the world, but tan­gled it to­gether. They learnt that they could not dis­en­tan­gle them­selves when bads, like syphilis and credit crises, be­gan to flow as eas­ily through so­ci­ety as New World goods. They learnt that eco­nomic in­te­gra­tion didn’t smoothly yield ben­e­fits for ev­ery­one; in­stead, it cre­ated knots of win­ners and losers – within so­ci­ety, and be­tween so­ci­eties. Within Eng­land, for ex­am­ple, one his­to­rian de­scribed “a golden age for the Shear­ers … [that] left the Shorn with just enough on their backs to keep alive, and not al­ways that.” Mean­while, across Europe whole economies rose or fell, through no fault of their own, as city-states fell be­hind na­tion-states and Mediter­ranean trade gave way to At­lantic em­pire-build­ing.

And Europe learnt that peo­ple and their gov­ern­ments strug­gle to adapt to rapid and mas­sive shifts in their reality. Pop­u­la­tions re­sist be­ing torn from com­fort­ing truths: that Earth is the cen­tre of cre­ation; or that hu­man­ity’s three branches – Euro­pean, African and Asian – de­scended from Noah’s three sons af­ter the flood (how, then, to ex­plain “Amer­i­cans”?). Charis­matic pop­ulists, their voices hugely am­pli­fied by the new power of print, arose to val­i­date Re­nais­sance Europe’s in­se­cu­ri­ties. They blamed weak and cor­rupt lead­ers for fail­ing to steer peo­ple through a rapidly chang­ing world with their val­ues and tra­di­tions in­tact. In Florence, Europe’s most lib­eral and lit­er­ate city-state, a dem­a­gogue named Savonarola whipped an ex­cluded mi­nor­ity into a frenzy, swept away a Medici estab­lish­ment that had ruled for half a cen­tury, and in­cited a mass cam­paign against lib­eral val­ues that ended in his his­toric Bon­fire of the Van­i­ties. Later, in Wit­ten­berg, an ob­scure friar named Martin Luther launched a blis­ter­ing cri­tique against the Catholic Church in Rome. Its lead­ers, he ar­gued, were more con­sumed with milk­ing their hi­er­ar­chy of priv­i­lege than with nour­ish­ing the peo­ple’s spir­i­tual


well­be­ing. Rather than fall on deaf ears, as sim­i­lar cri­tiques had of­ten done in the past, Luther’s reached a dis­cour­aged au­di­ence that was ready, in its anx­i­ety, to rise out of the pews. The re­sult­ing Protes­tant Re­for­ma­tion split in half the most per­va­sive author­ity in Euro­pean life, sparked a cen­tury of re­li­gious wars and led to the largest refugee cri­sis since the fall of the Ro­man Em­pire.

By co­in­ci­dence or fate, 2017 is the 500th an­niver­sary of Martin Luther’s revo­lu­tion. A full half-mil­len­nium di­vides then and now, yet the par­al­lels of this and other Re­nais­sance up­heavals to the present day are clear and im­me­di­ate. The fragility of this age con­fronts us daily in our news­pa­pers and our news feeds. And it is far more ur­gent, more real to us than that other, equal truth … what was it again? Oh, yeah: ev­ery other gen­er­a­tion that has ever lived wishes that it could be alive in ours.


When, in the early 1500s, Michelan­gelo carved his statue of David, from the Bi­ble story of David and Go­liath, he didn’t cap­ture David’s mo­ment of victory, as so many artists be­fore had done. In­stead, he carved the mo­ment when David raised his eyes, recog­nised the fate­ful con­test un­fold­ing be­fore him and de­cided to join it. Michelan­gelo wanted his city, Florence, to un­der­stand: that was the mo­ment they were in.

We are in it, too. And we, too, are called to ac­tion by the his­toric stakes of the time we live in. To wel­come, not sup­press, ge­nius. To make new maps to help us bet­ter nav­i­gate chang­ing world. To stoke virtues, like dig­nity and ci­vil­ity that his­tory has shown can help so­ci­ety get through its tough­est mo­ments to­gether.

One rea­son that we re­flect at New Year’s is to bring fresh mean­ing into our lives. For­tu­nately, the times we live in gift it freely. If we raise our eyes, we can­not help but see: this is an ex­tra­or­di­nary mo­ment in the hu­man story. And it is ex­traor­di­nar­ily frag­ile.

What we do in this mo­ment is up to each of us to de­cide.

Go­liath is wait­ing.

Chris Ku­tarna is co-au­thor with Pro­fes­sor Ian Goldin of the book Age of Dis­cov­ery: Nav­i­gat­ing the Risks and Re­wards of Our New Re­nais­sance (St Martin’s Press and Blooms­bury). He is a fel­low at the Ox­ford Martin School at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford.

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