“There is no time like the present” is a saying which I am extremely fond of in general, but also especially today, when I try to widen it’s scope. There is really no time like the present, and I am utterly convinced that today, and in this time and this age, is the most exciting time to be a human being. And with that I mean that I am certain that during the history of man, it has never been more thrilling or exhilarating to be a part of the human society than right now. Why? Because the world has never undergone more changes than right now. The level of changes that our known society has undergone during the last decades, and the rapid rate of these changes, is essentially mindblowing. Just the fact that we can talk about a global society in a way that was unthinkable fifty years ago, is incredible.
These changes that are so fundamental, makes it both extremely interesting and challenging to try to understand society and work with the social sciences. That’s because for the first time, or at least so I get the impression of, we have no idea where we are headed (and by “we”, I mean the industrialised and global society, the sense of “us” as the world).
During the last five hundred years or so, “our” western society has undergone massive changes, but all these changes have been moving in a certain direction. This direction can be called the modern project. It has contributed to the industrialization of the society, increased specialization, enlightenment and a general increase in welfare. But most importantly, it has created a sense of meaning, a belief in development and science, and a belief in people’s power over their own situation and orientation in the world. In short words: Progress. And progress has been the modern world’s mantra for as long as any of us can remember.
However, many things that used to be clear to us is now becoming obscure. From the 70’s and onward, there have been a lot of changes that define the society in different ways. Social scientists don’t agree with what it is, although it has been given many names, like the postindustrial society, the postmodern society, the network society, the highmodern, the service society or the knowledgebased society. Like the names suggests, this indicates a development that has moved beyond the industrial production based society. Some says it in its essence even has become something else than “modern”. Instead of things, we (seem to) value knowledge, and instead of factory working, we work in service sectors. The institutions that once used to dictate our conduct have lost much of their meaning. Religion has become a private matter, and secularization has had an overall increase. Our families are no longer made up of two parents and two children, but entails a long list of half siblings, step parents, adopted kids, same-sex partners, co-habitations and separations. Individualization and globalization is two key terms to this development.
Individualization is essentially made up with the ideal that you rule your own destiny. Instant satisfaction is sought after, and you seek maximum profits for minimum input. It’s also a matter of putting your own interests first, instead of trying to live up to other people’s expectations. And ultimately, it’s the idea that you create your own identity on the identity market, using a.o. physical markers to show who you “are”.
Globalization means that the world has become a smaller place, that the world members have easier ways of communicating, and that the world market transmits wares and goods to all corners of the world. Large corporations become international, and people easily migrate across borders in search for employment and better life conditions. This also means that the world is more intergrated and dependent on each other. It can make the world a more vulnerable place, because the effects of a catastrophe in one country can be felt by other countries on the other side of the globe.
The renowned sociologist Ulrich Beck called this the Risk Society. We have moved on from the form of society where nature catastrophes were the worst humans had to handle. Now, we may be exposed to bigger catastrophes, catastrophes that are caused by humans and may be irreversible. Humans have gotten to possess so much power that we can create things we can’t control. We have the power to extinguish our own planet, let alone animal species and ecosystems. Coupled with this immense power is a decrease in the belief in progress as our societies become more prosperous as ever. The belief in the scientific project has reached a decline. Pathways that once seemed very straightforward and cut-out, isn’t as clear any more. Of course, for some countries that still faces big challenges in educating it’s people, dealing with epidemics, settling conflicts and creating good infrastructure and a balanced economical system, this has still not become an issue. But for the rest of us, who has got these things under fairly good control, comes eventually the question: What is humanity to do? How is the future looking? And where shall we concentrate our efforts?
It is becoming more and more evident now that progress in the meaning of increased production and increased consumption is a downward spiral. The amount of consumption that the western world has become used to is not sustainable. The economic crisis that started a couple of years ago, and the instability that has lead big parts of Europe into unemployment shows just that. We make up money that doesn’t exist, and sooner or later it will all crack. Optimism has been replaced with realism. And the reality is that humanity and the world we occupate is more fragile than ever. We have environmental issues that threaten to collapse on us if we don’t decide on a choice of action. And in all this we find individual people whose lives are no longer cut out for them. The endless list of choices we all have to take every day can be overwhelming for many of us. The world is at the same time both more integrated and more fragmented. There is no right and no wrong, because there is no longer a certain path that we are expected to take.
I am not a pessimist. I’m not an optimist either, but I think our time is exciting. It’s exciting as hell. And that’s what makes me love social sciences. One thing is certain: the development over the last decades has brought challenges that our old ways of thinking don’t provide a solution for. This is a new time, and we make it. So: What will be the World Society’s choice of action? What will our future be?