What cheers me up in mid-2017?
The nature of my work means I have to spend a great deal of time with grim stuff. In looking hard at the future of education I study (among other things): rising income inequality, the possibility of civil strife, increasing acceptance of surveillance, the possibility of automation-fueled neofeudalism, racism, sexism, the decline of the humanities, higher education slashing at its core, governments behaving at epic levels of stupidity – and that’s all from a quick glance at one document on one of my hard drives. It doesn’t include climate change or existential threats.
So to stay sane, to keep my mind balanced, and to keep my work sharp and useful, I discipline myself to pay attention to positive trends when the negative ones loom too large. I build positive, hopeful futures alongside the dystopias and collapses.
Here on this blog I tend to share a lot of bad news about education. Perhaps too much. In contrast I’ve tried to write about positive things, like digital creativity and the rising generations, the heroic work of community colleges and the rising access to the first year of college for poor people. In this post let me add some more, identifying trends within and beyond education.
Caveat: I’m only writing here about major world trends. I also turn to very small things for cheer, like the play of sunlight through rising plants, the antics of our cats, and the laughter of my wife and children.
Not in any particular order:
Storytelling. Thanks to the advent of the digital world, storytelling is now far more democratized than it was in most of the 20th century. You don’t need to have access to a capital-intensive media center in order to get your tale out there. Perhaps we’ll look back on our time as a new renaissance of popular narrative creativity.
Online creativity in general, like podcasting, fan culture, remixes, and game mods. This development also includes game-based learning. As with digital storytelling, this is a democratic (lower case “d”, American readers) success.
Alternatives to copyright. We have a broad-based movement -still small, but growing – to offer new ways to protect and access creative work.
TV shows (as opposed to “news“) (and as opposed to Hollywood movies) are suddenly awesome. This renaissance has led to the fine problem of too much fine tv to watch. For anyone who remembers when tv was a vast wasteland this is a staggering transformation.
Millennials and Generation Z. We (Gen X, Boomers, and beyond) have really handed them a lousy deal. Between student debt, climate change, and global war, they are coming up in a really tough time. They also have the bonus of Boomers loudly disdaining them (which is sad, offensive, and funny all at the same time). None of this occurred below the radar or can only be realized through sophisticated analysis; it’s all openly done, public knowledge.
And in response? Millennials and Gen Zers haven’t turned to nihilism or despair. Neither have they started rolling out guillotines for us. Instead, they… just get to work, from taking classes to serving in war to fighting for ill-paid internships. They turn to creativity in a variety of fields, including politics (Occupy, Black Lives Matter). I honestly don’t think we older people deserve them.
(Combine the youngest generation and game-based learning, and what do you get? A world peace game.)
Progress for women. In the United States we currently see growing political traction on reducing sexual assault. Women’s economic status is rising, and women have access to a wider range of careers than ever. Women are increasingly free from mandatory childbirth, thanks to rising educational attainment, growing wealth, and cultural/policy shifts.
In education, women are now the majority of students in higher education.
Poverty is dropping. The proportion of people living in poverty worldwide has been decreasing for several generations. That’s mind-boggling, when you consider the scope and historical shift that represents.
Progress for LGBQT populations. This is truly astonishing, when you think of how far we’ve come in a scant generation. Think of the early 1980s, when gay sex was widely criminalized, gay-bashing a popular cultural sport, and many people (including national leaders) viewed AIDS as divine justice against sinning reprobates. Now? Gay marriage has gone from science fiction to a social reality. Transmen and -women are now recognized and publicly defended.
The lack of a Red Scare Even though the United States has been fighting its longest war against enemies defined largely by religion, we haven’t had an Islamic version of the anti-Communist Red Scares (1917-1920s, 1945-1950s). There hasn’t been a massive American campaign against Muslims. Instead, several presidents, including a religiously conservative Bush, led the way in celebrating Islam and condemning anti-Islamic behavior and rhetoric (for example). There’s no new McCarthy, no updated Red Channels. I don’t think we’ve really apprehended this.
We kill each other less than we used to. While Steven Pinker’s 2011 book has some flaws, the data looks good for the world since 1945. Deaths from wars and revolutions have gone down for a variety of reasons. As a child of the Cold War’s last and scariest phase, I’m still sometimes astonished that we didn’t nuke the planet. As is, my children are less likely to die in conflict than any people have been in history.
Increasing global communication and connection. It is easier to share information worldwide than it ever has been. We can learn from, talk to, listen to, argue with, fall in love with a larger and more diverse population. And we can connect on everything from art to work to politics.
Access to more information. The average person can get to more stuff than we ever have before. Think about the variety of sources and the sheer amount of content.
Science! We continue to grow what we know about the universe. Despite America’s stupid retreat from human spaceflight, we keep sending robots spacecraft to new locations and learning more about already visited ones. I’m still amazed we reached Pluto. And we’ve been getting incrementally smarter for nearly 100 years.
More use of renewable energy. Installations of solar, wind, and hydro are up worldwide. Prices are down. Despite Trump’s repudiation of climate change, the international tendency is towards shifting away from carbon.
Advances in medical care (but not financing!) are helping people live longer, survive more horrors, better endure suffering, and compensate for injuries. We know more about the human body than we ever have. We stopped several recent diseases – SARS, Ebola – in their tracks. This is astonishing, really.
At a personal level, I can count family members and dozens of friends who are healthier now than they would have been just 30 years ago. Some now living would have been dead.
Some good inventions. Think of improved non-oil power for cars, or the Tesla Powerwall, or ebooks, or 3d printing.
Earlier I mentioned digital creativity and the rising generations, the heroic work of community colleges and the rising access to the first year of college for poor people. I still believe in those, so count and recount them in this list.
Yeah, we can find problems with each of these trends. Yes, women still earn less than men, and there are some issues with lots of information, and there’s some anti-Islamic violence in the US, etc. There are also interesting problems with pushing optimism, as Barbara Ehrenreich has shown. No, I haven’t read Johann Norberg’s book yet. I’m not part of this New Optimism wave.
In this post I’m just speaking about the bright side of the many trends I track. Personally, keeping an eye on them – daily – helps improve my life and work. I hope they helped you.
(thanks to Alan Levine for helping with this one)