We are living in a revolution but it is perhaps not what you may think. Let me explain. We are living today in times that I call, ‘Forks in history’. Forking times in history are characterized by turmoil. Epidemics, wars, economic collapse, political instability, civil war and so on. But it is precisely for that reason that the foundations of the structures of society are shaken, and it is given into the hands of ordinary men and women to change the path of destiny. The two World Wars, the First Indian War of Independence, or the Sepoy Rebellion – depending on the historian – in 1857, the American Civil War (1861–65) and others are examples of forking times in history, and we can see what the decisions of those who lived then bequeathed for us. Today it is our time. Let us do differently, so that we leave behind a legacy of honor.
To understand what went wrong, first a bit of history. The Industrial Revolution (1760-1840) was more than moving from handmade to machine-made. It changed three critical things: time of day, family dynamics, and method and content of education. These changes are almost never mentioned but they are far more important than the invention of the assembly line and literally changed our society in ways that one can safely say are irreversible. What are these changes?
Prior to 1760 society was mostly agrarian. If you want to see what that was like, I strongly advice a visit to the Amish in Pennsylvania or elsewhere. They are people who have decided not to change. Whether that is for the good or not is for you to decide and I am not going to describe it in detail here because for a proper understanding it is essential to visit an Amish settlement. They welcome visitors and tourism is a source of income for them, so please go and visit them. I can assure you that it will be interesting.
The Industrial Revolution changed the time of day from sunrise to sunset, to shift start and knock off in the factory. Your day could begin at 2.00 AM and end at 2.00 PM. And your night was from 2.00 PM onward or whatever the shift time was. At least one parent never saw their kids awake. This is also how the latchkey kid was born. A kid with the door-latch key on a tape round his neck, who lets himself into an empty house when he gets off the school bus. He/she takes food from the fridge and gives himself over to the TV or now, the mobile phone. It is estimated that in America schoolboys watch an average of four pornographic movies per week. With social media, smart phones, and the internet, I can believe that this is a global phenomenon. Let me leave you to figure out what that means in so many ways. As you can see, it was not only about the time of day but of all that came with it.
The second thing it took away was the primacy and value of parents as being their children’s teachers, guides, life skills coaches, and breadwinners. The primacy inspired respect and gratitude for parents. It ensured that values of family, community, culture, and religion were alive and continuously reinforced. Work was divided between men and women and boys and girls learnt different life skills from their mothers and aunts and fathers and uncles. This ensured that the bonds of family were strong and everyone, no matter how old or young had a place and value. Parents were valued as role models. Elderly grandparents were not shunted off to an old people’s home and left there to die alone. They had influence in all family decisions, were the repositories of family and community history, customs and traditions and were consulted for their wisdom. Serving them was considered an honor and children were eager to spend time with them and listen to stories which served the dual purpose of entertainment as well as being a powerful means of learning important lessons. To this day I recall with great happiness, my time with my grandparents, more than 55 years ago.
In the post-Industrial Revolution society, there was neither time nor place for the elderly and they became a burden, sent off to be cared for by paid employees. Values of family loyalty, cohesiveness, culture, manners, even family relationships and the privilege and responsibility that came with them, all went out the window. Even family face time became a scarce commodity because of the conflict of work and school times and demands of both places. Homes became de facto hotels where inmates came and went at will.
With the Industrial Revolution parents went to work. Children no longer knew what exactly their parents did, almost never entered the parent’s workplace, didn’t learn life skills, or culture, tradition, or religion, from parents. They were sent off to a school where one unrelated adult taught 30/40/50 children. He/she taught a set curriculum and inculcated in the children, his/her own values, which sometimes were totally alien to the child’s culture and tradition. For religious study they were sent off to an after school Maktab or Sunday School. Religion was no longer intrinsic to their lives but an extra chore, to be done when it couldn’t be sidestepped. The idea that religion was a guide for worldly life became alien and foreign.
Educators removed God from the equation by promoting atheism in the name of science and stigmatizing what they called ‘blind faith’. They didn’t acknowledge that true belief is based on knowledge and is not blind at all. The confusion of often contradictory philosophies supplanted the clarity of Revelation and shouted down those who preferred the Word of Allah to the ideas of men. Most general education became pedantic and theoretical unless one went to a trade school and children graduated with almost no skills, and as a result, deficient in self-confidence. In an agrarian society children learn to work with their hands and with animals and other people and learn social and technical skills which give them confidence. Teenagers are given serious responsibilities that impact their families and communities and earn respect. In the post-Industrial Revolution society, childhood merely gets delayed and ‘children’ in their twenties are dependent on their parents in multiple ways. With the advent of technology education, children were driven further and further away from God and traditional religion. The new religion is Modernism which seeks to teach its theories as dogma and fact. It is totally materialistic, hedonistic, and worships desire. To fulfill desire is the ultimate goal of life to which end all effort is directed.
The Industrial Revolution was far more than the invention of the assembly line. It profoundly changed our values, culture, and behavior. It changed how we saw ourselves, how we measured our effort, what we gave significance to, what we ignored, how we taught and learnt, how we assessed and valued one another and the basis on which we measured success and failure. The Industrial Revolution changed the very basis of self-esteem. Just ask the next young person you meet to name three role models and you will see how the bases of self esteem have changed
Today as I speak, we have entered another far more pervasive, persuasive, and even more transformational revolution, that of Artificial Intelligence in all its forms. We must remember that ever more subtly and for that reason powerfully, technology is not only about its mechanics but even more about the psychological, even ideological changes it creates. Atheism seems to move hand in hand with technological development. The reason is that it gives mankind the illusion of being all powerful and invincible. Of being immortal even in terms of the things we create, if not by ourselves. We are told that with stem cell technology and gene manipulation we can grow what we like in our bodies to cure disease and prolong life, maybe even indefinitely. Granted, much of this is still in the realm of science fiction, like airplanes once were. But like airplanes, very soon it will become mundane and normal before we know it.
Let me read the menu for you. How about memorizing the Qur’an and learning Arabic in 5 minutes, and that too if you have a bad internet connection? How about traveling to Russia – you are asking why you would do that – or China – same question – or name your country, which is rich in sights to see but where you don’t know the language? But here’s the twist – how would it be if you knew the language as soon as you land? To quote Prof. Michio Kaku, the author of Hyperspace, which you should read, “As soon as you blink, your contact lenses will connect you to the internet and if you are not feeling well, Robodoc will tell you what’s wrong, prescribe medicines which will be delivered to you. If you are in an accident in a foreign country, you will speak to Robolaw on your watch which knows all the laws of all countries and will advise you what to do.” He said much more but I will leave it to your imagination and assure you that what is ahead is more than what you can imagine. That is not difficult to understand because imagination is a function of experience. So, get prepared for a world which will turn our society on its head. Final point, I am not talking about the remote future. I am talking about things that already exist and others which will build on them. We already have Robodoc, Watson, GPS, Siri, self-driving cars and so on. Much more will happen and very fast.
So, what must we do?
We live in a world where we seem to be surrounded by bad news. That leads to us feeling stressed, depressed, threatened, and hopeless about the future. Many people seem to feel that we are living at the end of times, and in a world and society that is terrible to live in. If you feel this way, believe me, you are not alone. However, the problem with this feeling is that firstly it is not true. Secondly, if you feel this way, then it debilitates you and takes away your initiative to do anything. It drains your energy, sabotages your ambition, and increases your anxiety to potentially dangerous levels. What should we do? Be grateful. Gratitude is energizing, joyful, encouraging, and very powerful. Ingratitude is the opposite on all these counts. The question is, what should we be grateful for? Let me help you with facts.
When I was growing up from 1950’s to 1980’s, we didn’t have a refrigerator, gas, or electric stove. Food was cooked on firewood or coal in a smoky kitchen or outdoors. We routinely had no electricity for many hours a day and so no lights or fans. We had no central heating or air conditioning, and one car. Nobody had more because even one was a rarity. No TV. What was on your lap was not a computer. Phones were not smart, people were. We wrote letters by hand, licked the stamp, stuck it on the envelope, posted it and counted the days until the postman brought us a reply. We had malaria, cholera and typhoid, polio, and tuberculosis. Later we got chikungunya, and dengue. We always had the flu and when the doctors didn’t know what we had, they called it, ‘viral fever’. Today, malaria and poliomyelitis have been eradicated. The others remain. I can add to this list, but instead let us be grateful that we can talk about those days and smile.
Today with air-conditioning, antibiotics, painkillers, glasses and LASIX surgery for sight correction, cataract and bypass surgery, medical diagnostic equipment and advanced pathology, sneakers, thermal underwear, and jackets, eating out, non-seasonal fruits, treadmills, central heating, indoor flushing toilets, hot and cold water on tap, we, ordinary people, are better off and more comfortable than the wealthiest kings and queens of the past. Add to this that today our children routinely go to school, are literate and many go on to higher education. In Medieval Europe the majority of people couldn’t even write their names and that included most kings and queens. We live in countries where the only thing limiting your material growth, learning and career advancement is yourself. Anyone willing to make the effort can get to the top. See who are the people heading major corporations whose turnover is more than the GDP of many countries. Not a single one is a hereditary monarch or noble. There was a time, not too long ago where if you were not born into the right family, your fate was sealed. Today, your present situation doesn’t decide if you will succeed or fail. It only defines where you need to start. If you have ambition, determination, seek feedback, are willing to learn, sleep less and work hard, nothing but death can stop you.
Despite all this, we enjoyed life enormously and have wonderful memories, not because we had stuff, but because we had attitude. An attitude of gratitude. That was inculcated into us from the earliest and that is what is most necessary in the way we raise children today. Teach them to value people and use stuff. Not the other way around. Thankfulness is the open secret of happiness. So, while we look at all that is ‘wrong’ with society, let’s reflect on what is right. There is far more that’s right than what’s wrong.
Let me continue. Today our major preoccupation is Covid, right? Let us put that also in perspective. The Justinian Plague which started in 541 CE is estimated to have killed 50 million people—about half the world’s population at that time—as it spread across Asia, North Africa, Arabia, and Europe. While the exact origins of the plague remain unclear, it is estimated that up to 300,000 people died in Constantinople in the first year of the outbreak. There were approximately 5,000 deaths in the city every day at the height of the pandemic, even reaching highs of 10,000 on some days. The Justinian plague had a mortality rate of between 68-78%. Death would come between 2 – 5 days after infection. The plague resurfaced roughly every 10 years from 1348 to 1665—40 outbreaks in just over 300 years. Plague doesn’t exist today. Another major killer was Smallpox with a mortality rate of 30%. Those who survived lived with permanent scars on the face. DePaul Professor Thomas Mockaitis writes, “There hasn’t been a kill off in human history to match what happened in the Americas where 90 to 95 % of the indigenous population was wiped out over a century. Mexico went from 11 million people pre-conquest to one million.”
One of those alleged to have used Smallpox as a germ or biological warfare weapon against the Native Americans, right here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, is Field Marshal Lord Jeffery Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst, who allegedly ordered that blankets infected with the discharge of Smallpox sores should be sold to Native Americans. This was done and the result in a population which had no resistance to the disease was predictable. It wiped them out. Smallpox was eradicated in 1981. Now, compare the fatality rate of the plague and Smallpox to Covid 19 which never exceeded 1.5% at its peak. What do you want to say about Covid now? The fact is that if we look at change over time, the world today is healthier, richer, and better educated than in the past.
This doesn’t mean that there are no problems. There are problems, many of them new ones. To solve them we must collaborate and work together across boundaries of culture, race, religion, and nationality. We must collaborate and share our blessings for the greater good of everyone. We like to talk about the ‘Global Village’, but don’t usually remember that one of the results of being a village is that what happens to one, will affect another. We are in this together, in the same boat, to sink or swim as we wish.
Remember that everything comes at a price. Be it automation, augmented reality, or Metaverse, it is creating a world that is increasingly further away from reality, human contact, and relationships. Social media is the tool to enhance the illusion of action, popularity, and influence and take away the real power from action, so that the manipulators can have a free hand once the forwarder and tweeter have forwarded and tweeted and gone back to sleep. The illusion of action takes away edge from the need to act and no result ensues. After all, which tweet put bread on the table or relieved anyone from oppression? People believe in conspiracy theories today, more than in scientific research and trust is the most devastating casualty. The result of spreading distrust is not that people distrust one source, they distrust everyone. That is what we are seeing today. Nobody is trusted. Neither government, nor clergy, nor scientists, nor academics. Not even parents and community elders. That makes people even more vulnerable to manipulation and is the reason why we see a new theory of world control every week, each more outlandish than its predecessor but hard facts about climate change and global warming are scoffed at and denied, even by our so-called global leaders.
We are social beings with a strong affiliation drive and need company, affirmation, and friendship. No matter how convenient the gadget or technology, if there is no human contact, it leads to loneliness, depression, and increasingly serious mental illnesses. In addition, not having to deal with people daily will take away our skills to do so. This will have a seriously negative impact on team working, marriage, raising children, influencing, politics, and just plain human relations. We started seeing signs of this from the 80’s with computer programmers which gave a programmer the ability to write code and earn a very good living without meeting people face to face daily, like say for example, someone in a machine shop would be forced to do. The poorly developed social skills of the programmer didn’t matter, until he got promoted to lead a team, in which he failed miserably. Worse happened to him in his personal life, marriage, raising children and so on. Paradoxically someone from the hotel industry did very well as a team leader of a software development team, though he had only sketchy knowledge about software development and couldn’t write a single line of code. We are human and we need humans. That’s why John D. Rockefeller is reported to have said, “I will pay more for the ability to get along with people than I will pay for any other ability.” I want to say to you that AI will never replace the human except in a mechanical, transactional way, nor take away our psychological need for human contact.
Let me pause and remind you that I am not anti-AI. That would be like being anti-cholesterol. It is there. It is nice. It is what makes Biryani worth dying for. What we need to do is to learn how to deal with it so that we can mitigate and minimize its negative effects. AI is hugely beneficial as it will automate all kinds of routine work and enable massive intuitive data mining and manipulation. But it will also influence how we think and what we value in ourselves and others. And that will affect how we deal with one another. We can neither reject nor run away from AI. We don’t need to, and we mustn’t. We must however prepare for the changes it will create which will have little to do with the technology but everything to do with our humanness.
I remind myself and you that the world ahead is more and more complex and complicated, and our life experience is of little value to our children unless we can conceptualize it into lessons that they can apply. Many children have said to me, ‘Our parents tell us stories about how they had no electricity in their homes and studied under a streetlamp and many such things. What am I supposed to do with these stories? They don’t apply to me. But if I say that, it will hurt them.’ What’s the answer to that? I know the answer. But do you know it? There is an urgent need for parents to spend more time with children, to understand their world, to upgrade their own knowledge and understanding of the new world is critical if they want to retain connection with their children. Simply paying bills is not sufficient. Remember that once kids get disconnected from you, to get them back is progressively more difficult. If they don’t see you as role models, they will find others that you will not even know about, and those others will teach them things that would make your hair go white overnight if you knew what that was. Don’t let it come to that.
We are living in a revolution. What we choose to do or not to do will leave a legacy that will be uniquely ours. Let us choose for the future of generations, not our own present, so that it will be a legacy of honor.