GETTING READY FOR THE 21st CENTURY.

Author:Petersen, John L.
 
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The new millennium will see communication satellites weave an information web around the planet, forming a "global brain"; the continuing population explosion in have-not countries; an energy revolution that may make fossil fuels obsolete; a proliferation of environmental problems; and the threat of the Y2K bug that may paralyze computers.

What does a new millennium mean? That's like asking what a birthday means. Most of them don't mean anything; they are just another year passing--except for a few particular ones. If it is your 16th birthday and you can get a driver's license, that's special. On your 18th, you can vote, and you come of age legally at 21. Fifty probably signifies a particular transition to most people, and 65 is often time for retirement. It is not so much that the day has significance, but, rather, what happens to one on that day that makes it memorable. As often as not, a birthday is important when it represents a transition from one distinct time of life to another.

Years are momentous to individual people as decades, centuries, and millennia are to societies and civilizations. Past millennial shifts are particularly significant if they are coincident with major cultural change. On Dec. 31, 999, for example, most places in the world were pretty grim and, unless you were educated (and probably living in Europe), that day was not much different than the one before it. Jan. 1, 000. didn't exist until after the fact, so no one (except the shepherds and wise men perhaps) celebrated that particular day. The year 2000 will be different.

Unlike birthdays, social transitions happen over time, usually years. Historical evolutions from one era to another have taken hundreds or thousands of years. Nevertheless, as life has moved into its most recent periods, key events--such as the invention of movable type by Johannes Gutenberg and the invention of the transistor--can be identified as signals of the beginning of a new era. Usually, major social or economic shifts are obvious only in hindsight, but, in the present case, history gives substantive clues about what may be happening now that can be coupled with present and potential events which easily could be early indicators of great change.

Life on this planet has evolved in a fascinatingly regular way. Starting with single cellular life and marching through multiple cellular life, vertebrates, mammals, early man, and homo sapiens, the length of dominance of each era turns out to be about one-tenth of the previous one. That relationship holds to the recent past, continuing with the transition from hunter-gatherers to organized agriculture, the move into towns and cities, and the beginning of the industrial age. Nomadic hunter gatherers lasted about 50,000 years, for instance, while the period of lime dominated by the development of towns and cities was around 5,000 years, and the era begun by Gutenberg's movable type ran somewhat less than 500 years.

If that spiraling sequence of development, which roughly goes back to the beginning of life as we know it, holds into the recent past and near future, one could posit that the present computer or information age will be about 50 years long. Its beginning could be marked arbitrarily with the development of the transistor in the early 1950s, possibly to end shortly after 2000. This is but one of a number of indicators that raise the possibility that the beginning of the new millennium also could be the beginning of an important new period in the evolution of humanity.

The other characteristic of each era is a significant increase in knowledge, compared to its predecessor. Multiple cellular life is more complex than single cellular Fife. Living in cities and towns represents a higher level of information content than simple living centered on early agriculture. Each subsequent age is organized around far more intelligence than the previous one, perhaps by an order of magnitude.

So, the key to a new human era is the development of new knowledge that becomes the fundamental attribute of the succeeding years. This historical relationship of time and knowledge suggests that humans will (must) develop a great deal of knowledge in a short period of time in order to enter the next era of life.

What kind of knowledge will that be? There is no shortage of candidates, for this is a time of an explosion in knowledge. It has been suggested, for example, that more than 85% of the scientists who ever have lived are alive today, and that humans have learned more about science in the last 50 years than in the 5,000 preceding years. It is hard, if not impossible, therefore, to know before the fact which of the many big changes that appear on the horizon might be the seminal one that establishes humanity on a new trajectory. Clearly. the world is experiencing exponential advances in computer capability. Within the next decade, the planet with be circled by approximately 1,700 new communication satellites, weaving an information web around the globe that...

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