Farrukh writes

The arc of time

Are you distressed by the rapidly changing world? Worried that you have no control over the broader currents of change? Or perhaps like me, you feel that your nose has been so close to the grindstone that when you look back to the past decade all you can account for is going through motions. This one, in fact, is quite an intriguing topic of dinner conversations. Recently at dinner, when I asked my highly accomplished friends how much they could recollect of the 2010s, they agreed with me that this one ran out pretty quickly without leaving any trace. Could it be a part of the aging process that time passes in a blur? Maybe. Or maybe it is that we all are so preoccupied with the minutiae of daily routines that we stop paying attention. In any case, if you are troubled by the rate of change please know that you are not the only one. In fact, so omnipresent is this feeling that experts have coined a term for it. It is called metathesiophobia. The Greek word ‘meta’ means change and ‘phobos’ means fear.

But before you worry too much about your mental health please bear in mind that no generation before the one that is alive right now has seen so much change in a lifetime. The younger ones among us are lucky that they never had to know the world without the internet. The youngest among them never had to contend with the immobility caused by the absence of smart machines like smartphones. But we vividly remember the days when a 35mm camera film could take only 36 photos and the pains we had to go to take them to get developed. If somehow this film got prematurely exposed to light all photos were ruined. When we had to wait at video stores to rent a film on a VHS tape. And when we got late in returning the movie the fines we had to pay. When we had to go to a music shop to get the mixed tape of our choice and all that money for only an hour of music play. When books on tape cost a small fortune and storing a large number of tapes per book was a logistic nightmare. And don’t even get me started on regular books. For someone like me who went through too many books in a short period of time retaining and organising books in a regular household was hardly anything short of a Greek tragedy.

And where are we now? Reading devices are getting more common with large storage and battery capacity. The prevalence of cloud storage and steadily improving internet bandwidths assure you do not need to physically store much. With the ever-improving smartphone cameras and their connivance with the social media outlets you seldom need to print out your photos and when you need them it takes just a printer to print out as many copies as you want without any loss of quality. Take as many pictures you want and keep as many as you want. Streaming services and over-the-top platforms ensure that you get a steady supply of movies, music, and videogames with a touch of the screen. Is this change dramatic enough for you? If not, more is yet to come.

And the technological backwardness that I just mentioned was still a coup of sorts for its age. Many of us recollect the gramophones and LP records of our grandparents gently being retired. The broken sounds they made and the ungodly racket that was created when the needle got stuck somewhere. Black and white TV sets being replaced with coloured sets. The thrill of using remote-controlled devices for the first time. The advent of portable telephones and Walkman. The introduction to primitive-looking walkie-talkies. The sad-looking computers which had to be attached to television screens and mere kilobytes of their data backed up on ordinary cassette recorders after hours of painful noise. All of this change in one lifetime.

Granted that human progress has not caught up with the flight of human imagination. There are no lunar or Martian colonies. No beam me up, Scottie. No flying cars or hoverboards used by Marty McFly. No galaxy-class spaceships. No aliens. No subterranean cities. No Jedi swords. Cities are still not inundated by moving holograms. No matter or food synthesisers or to borrow from the Star Trek lexicon replicators. No faster than light space engines. No portable wormholes. No all-purpose medical tricorders. But you know the direction things are likely to take.

Distressing? When you overcome the fascination of it all, of course, it is distressing. Just consider what difference the small changes make. When phones depended only on voice communication you could be creative with the truth about your location. Now with the ever-growing dependence on video calls how will you convince your spouse or your boss that you are in a hospital and not at a friend’s party? Privacy already seems to have gone out of the window. The smartphones you carry usually have uncovered cameras pointing in two directions and a highly sensitive microphone. Paranoia is already growing regarding the wide array of cameras strewn across our homes thanks to some creative spin by Hollywood and testimonies of the likes of Edward Snowden.

Then all progress comes at a cost. The population keeps growing rapidly making our cities more crowded and noisier, disappearing villages due to growing urbanisation. Pollution is only to increase despite valiant efforts by the conservationists. If humanity finally graduates to cryptocurrencies the environmental toll will be immense. With the growth of 5G networks that use considerably smaller cell towers, smart cars, dependence on drones, and the mushrooming skyscrapers meant to cater to the needs of a growing population, our lives and skylines are about to change dramatically. If you have not seen the videos of staff stuffing passengers into crowded subway trains in the world’s most populous city — Tokyo — you need to do so to know what faces us soon. Diseases are becoming more virulent and lethal.

All of this calls for planning and research never witnessed before. There is a need for one mega institution that keeps us informed. The problem is we look in the wrong direction for the solution. For three-quarters of a century, we have looked towards the United Nations for political solutions and global governance. In that aspect, the UN is designed to fail. But if it were to be treated as the world’s most powerful think tank and research institution, we could perhaps easily find the solutions we need to overcome our anxiety about change. A well-researched and well-informed future is the only way to prepare for what is to come.

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