LONDON — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, is a deeply spiritual and thoughtful man. Again and again he brings us back to the really central question of our times — central in all societies and all religions, and becoming more so in a globalized age. What now binds us together? What are the bonds that maintain civic society, and within it, the family structure, with all its relationships, duties and obligations, upon which civil society rests? Of all Britain’s religious and spiritual leaders, Sacks is the most inspiring — and the most effective in sharing his insights.Spiritual leaders tend to come in two sorts — the inspiring and the uninspiring, the relevant and the irrelevant, those in touch and out of touch. Sacks clearly comes in the former category — he inspires, through his books and views; his questions and concerns are highly relevant, and he is in touch.
Or is he? Until very recently I had no doubts on the matter. His worries were mine, and he expressed them far better. But the other day I suddenly paused. In an interview (in the Daily Telegraph) the rabbi, repeating his views about the prospect of family breakdown, added that the great debate, or conversation, as he calls it (on the social challenges in the 21st century), “has not started.”
Not started? This amazed me. Where had Sacks been? All around us the great debate is reaching a crescendo — about the future of the traditional (patriarchal) family structure, about the future of the community, of society as a whole, of the nation-state, of relations between states on the global stage. The arrival of the network age, linking growing millions of people, regardless of border or nationality, in common causes and communities — mostly good, but some selfish or evil — has pitched this debate up to a new level of intensity. The flow of books, learned and superficial, pouring forth on the issue all through the 1990s, has become a cascade. Countless seminars and editorials focus on it. Will the informational age tear nations apart, as well as families? Will supranationalism pull one way and regional and local pressures the other, leaving the nation-state in crisis? And if so, what will then command our loyalties?
Never has a conversation or debate been so intense, or so widely shared through the marvels of the World Wide Web and the age of light-speed interactive dialogue. The older, and more taken-for-granted a nation-state happens to be — and this applies especially to old nations like Japan and Britain — the more intense the discussion is proving.
In Britain, the debate is particularly acute, not only because every commentator has been predicting the final demise of the family unit, with statistical trends to prove it, but because Britain is now facing the real possibility of break-up or transformation into a much looser federal structure. The boiling issue of national identity is now at the top of the agenda.
So Sacks worries me when I read his words. It makes me feel that a lot of otherwise learned and uplifting people have not understood the nature of the amazing technological revolution that is taking place around us. It may not change human nature, but it calls in question just about everything else and it is possible, if one is out of touch with it, to get very pessimistic and gloomy about the immediate future.
Thus there is a chorus of prophets, opinion-makers, forecasters and “futurologists” who simply see the millennium future as a projection of past trends. Families, they declare, will break down even faster, divorce will go on rising, marriages declining, “materialistic” market forces and self-interest prevailing, values evaporating, crime rates increasing, the environment worsening, world population exploding and science and technology destroying the planet.
But the more the network age unfolds, the more these defeatist and negative extrapolations look seriously out of touch. First, why is it always assumed that trends cannot be reversed? In any age they can be — and have been. In the information age now upon us, this is more likely than ever. It is communications that govern human relationships, whether at the most intimate level or at the social and political level — and it is communications that have been utterly transformed, especially the communicative process of education, by the recent technological breakthroughs, and which promise to go on being transformed.
Second, globalization and the Internet have created a new brand of capitalism and brought into being, in the words of Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, “the ultimate marketplace.” The doomsters see this as a negative development because they do not understand the ethical and moral content of the market process. Nor have they kept up with the fact that the global electronic market has new potential for personalizing contacts, for promoting trust and obligation and for creating myriads of new web communities, thus binding societies together, not undermining them.
Third, the pessimists, or those who are deaf to the current debate, assume a future world of turbulent social change, like the past, and of obsession with “progress,” which has all too often turned out to mean breakdown. But they may be wrong about that, too. Technology will, of course, go on reinventing itself and presenting new challenges. But the wider social mood may be changing fast, more toward a compensating search for balance rather than frenzied “improvement” and progress. The flavor of the new millennium may therefore be much closer to that of traditional societies and values than the high-tech, disruptive societies of the late 20th century.
All in all, what the information revolution may now bring is not a collapse in old values and virtues but their reassertion, as instant information and dialogue, and the huge uplift in education they offer, bring home their worth, and emphasize the emptiness and trashiness of the recent past.
So my own forecast is stronger families, more cohesive societies, more respected and valued nation-states, more intimate and effective international cooperation and understanding, more balance and less “progress” in social affairs — all of these things being reinforced, not weakened by information technology. Of course, I have no proof of any of this — but, then, nor have they.
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