The New Revolution by Elinor Teele
Time, as some would have it,
is not a linear line from generation to
generation, but a spiral. As we stand at the beginning of the century, it
somehow seems as if we had been thrown back to another time in the world's
history, when another worldwide revolution was just about to start.
In the second half of the 18th century the western world was beginning to
hum with the sounds of the new Industrial Revolution. The steam engine was
modified by James Watts to be used in industrial settings; canals and
railroads dramatically improved the flow of goods and people, making it
quicker and easier to go longer distances; textile manufacturing blossomed
with new factory-style looms; printing technologies made writing available
to the masses.
The period was notable for its intellectual energy. The Enlightenment
encouraged discoveries in chemistry, physics, philosophy, and biology. It
promoted rationality and the pursuit of knowledge through empirical means.
English Literature of the period displayed the sophisticated works of Pope
and the “warts and all” biography of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell.
Johnson himself compiled A Dictionary of the English Language, just as
encyclopedias were beginning to become popular in France and Great Britain.
Energy led to violence. The American and the French revolutions were
alternatively seen as necessary surgeries on infected, gangrenous
governments or appalling displays of murder. Napoleon began his march
across Europe; independence movements fermented in Italy, the Balkans,
Ireland, and Greece; revolutions had a knock-on effect in South America.
It was also marked by abuses on a worldwide level. The slave trade from
Africa was booming; workers in the new factories suffered long hours and
dangerous conditions; children were used as labor. Cities became congested
and poor sanitation led to outbreaks of disease, especially amongst the more
vulnerable young and elderly. Rivers were polluted with the dregs from
factories, forests were milled, and habitats destroyed.
The first half of the 21st century has seen the rise of the technological
revolution. It's as if we are standing in the same footprints as those at
the end of the 17th century, looking towards the future. There are some
intriguing parallels in the two mass movements. For one, both have seen an
enormous surge of creativity and inventiveness. Computers have shrunk to
the size of key chains and information can be communicated to practically
anywhere in the world instantaneously. Advancements in nanotechnology,
biochemistry, and medical science herald a new horizon on how we view the
human body, hastened by the encouragement of scientists and business.
Cloning is worming its way into the public consciousness.
Like the railroads and steamships of old, people now drive hybrid cars and
fly regularly on airlines around the world. The difference now is that time
is measured not in hours and days, but in minutes and seconds. Although
there has been a long history of exchanges with “foreign countries', the
world has now shrunk to such a degree that people are increasingly hard to
classify in national terms. Marriage and immigration are destroying the old
ways of identification. Languages and cultures are disappearing.
Literature has had its parameters shifted when it wasn't looking. People
still read books, since the physical ease of carrying them from place to
place has yet to be bettered, but many readers of periodicals, magazines,
and newspapers do it online. The blog format has exploited the form of the
published personal diary (ala Samuel Pepys) to give each and everyone a
worldwide readership. The web is an enormous encyclopedic hodgepodge, a
vast array of information that has yet to be comprehensively organized or
A reshuffling is taking place politically. Formerly impoverished countries,
such as India, join former empires, such as China, to use both industrial
and technological developments to grow. If they can marshal their
populations, similarly placed nations, like Indonesia and those in Africa,
could follow suit. Currently, economic revolutions have replaced the
physicality of the 18th century, although recent conflicts in the Balkans,
Africa, and the Middle East still suggest people identify with ethnic and
Unfortunately, human nature seems not to have changed dramatically. The
technological revolution still demands an enormous amount of power to drive
it, usually created by fossil fuels and nuclear power. Stuck between the
industrial and the technological, we gobble up the world's resources as fast
as it can create them. Climate change is threatening low-lying islands in
the Pacific and heralding meteorological chaos in future years. Success has
actually had a detrimental effect on people's health in some countries:
increased access to drugs, poor food choices, environmental pollution, and
increasingly sedentary lifestyles are starting to shorten people's lives.
If the parallels hold up, what does this mean the future holds for the
world? The 19th century saw a consolidation of the previous century's
achievements. Like the personal computer or the telephone, industrial
methods were always being refined. Advancements in trains and ships, in
turn, led on to the possibilities of automobiles, as well as air and space
The human psyche is always on a quest for new frontiers. Whereas once there
were places inhabited by native peoples, it is growing increasingly hard to
find an unvisited patch of land. The likely course, then, is towards the
two extremes of the spectrum: outer space and atomic investigation. Space
travel is now being offered as a tourist venture, while the human genome has
yet to be comprehensively analyzed and explored. Science is now focused on
ways of combining the formerly disparate disciplines (e.g. how to live in
The availability of print media in the 19th century allowed for the
advertisement of goods and services, and transport enabled faster delivery.
Sears and Roebuck catalogs graced the wooden tables of American farmwives.
Now Amazon and E-Bay provide a worldwide network of buying and exchange.
Exoticism has led to commodification; just as the china trade saw imports of
mass produced Chinese goods in the 19th century, so the 21st now has rooms
filled with Indian wooden chairs or Thai silks. Travel expands our
perceptions of culture, making our own works more diverse.
Empires like the US and England reinforced their growth of the previous
century, and we may expect China and India to do the same. African
countries, in particular, may follow the South American route and have a
period of shifting sands as they reinforce their national identities in the
global consciousness. The Middle East is an uncertain realm at the moment,
but if dialogue is reached between warring factions, it is possible that
(with the exception of Israel), they could form a Middle Eastern Union.
Human rights abuses in the 18th century eventually led to movements
advocating for the abolition of slavery, rights for working men and women,
and regulations for the grimy city streets. At the moment, the clamor for
environmental change is a low roar, but as more and more people feel the
effects, it is likely that ecological organizations will see an increase in
membership. Similarly, voices for marginalized peoples and disappearing
cultures will likely be louder as they become extinct. These kinds of
movements are dependent upon changes being so dramatic or prominent that
action is seen as a necessary step.
Unlike the 18th century, however, many are retreating away from the cities
and back into the countryside, as “white-collar” workers operating from home
offices and via telecommunications. Skilled physical laborers are at a
premium in “developed” western countries and birth rates are down. This
will put an emphasis on finding people who are willing to work in physical
and low-paying jobs, which may once again reassert the class- orientated
nature of society in western countries.
In general, the energy seen today is less nation-based than it was in the
18th century. Multi-national corporations and organizations are directing
it either towards profit or worldwide initiatives, instead of nation
building. Interior revolutions, if they are to reoccur, may be orientated
more towards the fragmentation of countries into smaller ones rather than
unification. Religious fervor may increase as a backlash against a
seemingly “cold” or “rational” technology of robots and devices, which
appears to allow little for human interaction or “irrational” beliefs. This
could see an upswing in emphases on morality and piety, as the Victorian era
was reputed to embody.
The world, as Shakespeare would have it, is a “giddy place”, and the more it
rushes round, the more likely it is to arrive in the same place it was
before. New revolutions means new changes, but the trajectory often feels
Elinor Teele is a freelance writer with a PhD in English literature
from the University of Cambridge, England. She has won first prize awards
for her short stories in New Zealand, with a forthcoming work appearing in
Quality Women’s Fiction Magazine. She has published non-fiction articles in
various publications, including newspapers and reviews.
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