My brother is teaching a semester in London, and he casually video Skyped me last week to show me around his apartment, which is small but charming. I reciprocated by hauling up the cover of the e-book I am reading, and shared my desktop to show a YouTube performance of Renaissance music I thought he would enjoy. We chatted a bit more and hung up. No “long distance” charges.
So what? Well, none of this could have happened 10 years ago. Not only that, you probably wouldn’t have understood the paragraph in the slightest because it contains words and actions no one had heard of. Had I told you in 1992 that in 20 years, virtually anyone would be able to speak in wireless real-time video to anyone else on the planet, even to the point of sharing a real-time digital experience, you would not have believed it.
And if I had added that the technology was not outrageously expensive, but rather being carried around in the pockets of students and commuters everywhere, this would have seemed too outrageous for science fiction. What amazing force in the universe hath rained down such blessings on us mere mortals?
The truth is that we all live in a world today that would have been unimaginable to us only very recently. It is so much woven into our lives that we don’t think about it much anymore. And contrary to the rap on the digital age, that it is all about geekery and gadgetry, the real driving force behind this innovation is the flesh-and-blood human being and the oldest desires known to humankind (such as wanting to stay in touch with family).
Another quick example. I was emailing with a U.K. choir director two nights ago, and I mentioned a book of chanted music. He hadn’t heard of it, so I sent him a link, from which he downloaded the material (that magic click that creates a copy!). This morning, his choir sang the piece in church halfway around the world, and he let me know that it was fabulous.
Here we have it: digits flying over oceans in a matter of seconds, and then embodying themselves in beautiful music, sung now with the same human energy as music was sung in the ancient world, that transforms real lives. The person kneeling to prayer didn’t know and didn’t need to know how the music arrived there. The technology is just the means; the end is the improvement of human life.
Such cases like this are only a tiny snapshot of two things I can briefly recall. Just today so far, I’m sure I’ve read articles I never would have seen, talked with people I would have long ago lost touch with, found out about events that would have remained forever unknown to me, connected with someone who found something I said interesting enough to consider … and just now, I recall that I heard word that a friend with asthma is out a Shanghai hospital all safe and sound. None of this would I have known only a few years ago.
Again, ask the question: What is causing all of this amazing change? What is the driving force, the source of the manna, the wellspring of all this avalanche of human progress?
I’ll tell you what is not causing it: politics. It’s the great lie, the most-gigantic drain of valuable human energy ever conjured up in the mind of man. What is politics but a grand argument about how we should rule each other? Meanwhile, every step forward in history has come not from this task, but a completely different one.
American politicians are always running on a platform of change. They explain how their policies will make your life better. They map out timetables. They present a portrait of a future. Above all else, they presume that the future is theirs to control, and voters often go along with this idea. As an example, look no further than the history of the State of the Union address.
What if none of it is true? Just think about education. Everyone has a plan for how to improve what exists. So it has been for a hundred years. Meanwhile, the private sector, through physical and digital technology, is reinventing the entire enterprise from the ground up through every possible means. This decentralized, private-sector-driven, technologically sophisticated education reform is making it almost impossible not to be educated about something with each passing hour.
Online academies are opening by the day. Universities are putting their courses online for free. For-profit companies are distributing every manner of teaching tool one can imagine. For-profit learning centers are opening in every town, all making a buck from teaching kids what the public schools have failed to teach. For that matter, the History Channel alone offers more sweeping programs than any public school textbooks two generations ago.
Anyone in the world can be a teacher to the world today, with a laptop and an Internet connection, and so, too, anyone can be a student.
It’s true in health care reform, too. For all the problems in the pricing system and the terrible insurance system, health care is getting better, mainly due to private-sector innovations. The best radiologists in the world can examine your scans in minutes, no matter where they actually happen. Access to medical information is no longer trapped in a dusty book but flies all over the world from hand-held devices. Error is more likely to be corrected this way, saving and changing lives.
Society is not waiting for the politicians. When you listen to what they say, when you watch what the bureaucrats do, when you look at what the agencies are regulating, you suddenly realize that the political monstrosities that burden the world are hopelessly out of touch with the kind of progress that people are experiencing in their daily lives now.
Politicians can make the world a worse place, to be sure. But if you look at the actual trends that are driving change in a positive direction in our world today, none of them is inspired by political initiative. They take place outside the public sector, and even outside the purview of the politicians and bureaucrats. Sometimes it seems as if the political class is clueless that the world has long ago moved on.
What is driving the world in a forward direction? It is people connecting with people through free association, communication, money exchange, enterprise, risk taking, commercial aspirations and the practical arts. And from these forces, we are newly discovering the wonderful fruits of civilization: arts, music, philosophy, faith.
And truth. Truth above all. The truth that is all around us, the one that the public-sector machinery somehow cannot and will not see, is that global society is making a future for itself without the help of the world’s self-described public servants. The state in all its manifestations struts and preens — builds monuments to itself and waves its flags — but when it comes to really making change, we must look elsewhere.