What If the 21st Century Begins in 2014?

Austrian artillery commander entering Jerusalem, 1916Futurist David Brin uses pattern recognition to suggest that the 21st Century really begins now, in 2014, writing at Bloomberg:

As if you didn’t already have enough to be nervous about, here’s something creepy to ponder as the new year opens.

This what-if isn’t technological, social, political or even science-fictional. Rather, it’s a bit of wholly unscientific, superstitious pattern-recognition. The last two centuries (and possibly more) didn’t “start” at their official point, the turning of a calendar from 00 to 01. That wasn’t when they began in essence, nor when they first bent the arc of history.

No. Each century effectively began in its 14th year.

Think about it. The first decade of the 20th century was filled with hope and a kind of can-do optimism that was never seen again — not after the horrific events of 1914 shattered any vision that a new and better age would arrive without pain. Yet until almost the start of World War I, 19th-century progress seemed unstoppable and ever-accelerating.

Consider the world of 1913, when regular middle-class folks in the U.S., U.K., France, Germany and so on were acquiring unexpected wonders: clothes-washing machines, gas stoves, gas and then electric lighting, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, vaccinations, telephones, radios, motor cars. Stepping outside you would see and hear human beings flying through the sky — with a looming confidence that soon you would get a chance to join them.

Science was pouring forth what seemed unalloyed goodness. New dyes and industrial textile methods doubled a working family’s access to fresh and beautiful clothes. Cheap iron bedsteads kept cheap spring mattresses clean, making sleep both healthier and far more comfortable. Nations were banning child labor and providing free schooling. Astronomers discovered what galaxies were. Physicists were pushing their pure and harmless science to fantastic frontiers. And the Haber-Bosch process brought cheap fertilizers that tripled crops, as chemistry proved itself to be everybody’s friend.

Think our era is similarly fast-changing? Just compare the kitchen of today with a kitchen of 1950. Sure, everything nowadays is shinier, smarter. Still, a person from 1950 could use our apparatus with fluid familiarity. But the drudgery-saddled housewife of 1880 would blink in bedazzlement at what her daughter used in 1913. Life itself was changing at a pace never-before seen, and mostly for the better.

Yes, all of those techno-advances continued after World War I. Social changes such as women getting the vote were harbingers of more to come. But after 1914, the naivete was gone. People realized that the 20th century would be one of harsh struggle accompanying every step of advancement. And along the way to hard-won better times, the age would spiral downward first, into the deepest pit that humanity ever knew, before our parents (or grandparents) clawed their way out of the nadir of 1944 — the focal year of a century that truly began in 1914.

All right, that’s just one data point. Is there another? Well, look at 1814, the beginning of the Congress of Vienna and the so-called Concert of Europe that made possible the continent’s longest extended period of overall peace, as the great powers turned from fighting bloody wars to perfecting their colonial empires…

[continues at Bloomberg]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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8 Comments on "What If the 21st Century Begins in 2014?"

  1. Antonella Ercolani | Jan 3, 2014 at 9:11 am |


  2. Liam_McGonagle | Jan 3, 2014 at 9:40 am |

    A friend and I were just thinking along these same lines during a conversation yesterday.

    Because of a poorly constructed verbal convention whereby we refer to administrators of large institutions as “leaders”, we mistakenly guage progress by the actions of the neglible handful of extremely dim, thoughtless people. And as a result, we never recognize how far we’ve come until some time AFTER we’ve crossed significant thresholds. You know, the point where even those thickos have gotten the punch line.

    Which can be good or bad.

    • emperorreagan | Jan 3, 2014 at 12:15 pm |

      He seems to be looking for magic leaders in his closing especially.

      For instance: A cable news exec rediscovering some notion of citizenship? How about a decline in the importance of cable news?

  3. Damien Quinn | Jan 3, 2014 at 10:16 am |

    I’m not entirely sure where he got the impression that the first decade of the 20th century was optimistic, I’ve always been struck by the bleakness of the period in art, music and literature. Modernism is very dark.

  4. heinrich6666 | Jan 3, 2014 at 3:37 pm |

    The 20th century was filled with war. The 21st century will be filled with war.

    • Damien Quinn | Jan 3, 2014 at 3:59 pm |

      Ah yes, but the nature of war has changed.

      In the 20th century the rich used poor people to kill other poor people in order that they could settle disputes. The problem was that those poor people often felt guilty afterwards and would demand that something should be done.

      The rich have finally agreed and, seeing how useful robots have been in their factories, they’ve decided to use robots to kill poor people. That way nobody needs to feel guilty.

      Ahhhh progress!

  5. Well, obviously the Civil War was really the Vietnam War, playing by these rules…

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