ADELAIDE - Robert Hughes (1938-2012) was a famed Australian art critic and historian.
Perhaps his two greatest contributions to history were a book (and related television series) in 1991 on the history of art in the late 19th and 20th centuries (from which the title of this article is taken) and a history of Australia’s convict system, ‘The Fatal Shore’ (1987).
‘The Shock of the New’ seeks to explain the factors underlying the emergence of what we call modern art.
Hughes details a story of often sudden and dramatic changes in architecture, engineering, music, sculpture, painting, writing and artistic expression more generally.
That story is, in many respects, an allegory for the broader impact of change upon the wider world, which over the last 150 years has been both deep and profound.
Of course, change has been a constant feature of human life but its pace has varied strikingly over time.
When our ancestors first tentatively ventured out of the trees some five to seven million years ago the process of change was so slow as to be imperceptible.
For example, it was not until 2.5 million years ago that our ancestors discovered how to make stone tools. Clearly, there had not been a stampede towards modernity in the previous four million years.
Consequently, an almost unimaginably long period of time elapsed before our own particular species (homo sapiens sapiens) finally emerged as the dominant form of humanity on the planet.
We appear to have either absorbed or displaced at least five different species of humans, maybe more, but the fossil record is incomplete so we don’t know for sure how many species of humans have existed.
Our emergence as the dominant species probably occurred about 200,000 years ago somewhere in Africa but no-one can be entirely certain about the date.
Why our particular species emerged at the top of the evolutionary pile remains something of a mystery. Competing species of humans were in some instances stronger and maybe better adapted to the conditions of the time.
The supposition is that our comparatively big brains, language skills and manual dexterity enabled us to figure out how to work together more effectively to survive things like climatic fluctuations.
What is certain however is that our ancestors had to have been a very hardy bunch as well as capable of using their big brains to figure out more and more ways to do things more easily, efficiently and productively.
Eventually, our species became the principal agent of change in the world, rapidly outpacing nature in this role. Evolution is a marvellous mechanism for adaptive change but it is not a quick process.
We made some critical intellectual and practical break throughs, most notably the invention of agriculture.
This single innovation took place about 12,000 years ago and was the trigger for a marked acceleration in the pace of change in human societies, although it was still, by today’s standards at least, a very slow process.
Some societies changed more rapidly than others and some simply disappeared but, by and large, our species progressed at roughly the same rate across the globe until about 1500.
This was the year that is widely accepted as being an historic turning point when European societies began to change at a much faster rate than most of the rest of the world.
The reasons for this are complex and still subject to debate amongst historians but clearly have to do with a marked increase in curiosity about the natural world and how it worked. This led to the emergence of what we now call science.
Also, the knowledge and ideas of the ancient Greek and Roman world were rediscovered after having lain mostly ignored in various monastic libraries for centuries.
This provided an important source of inspiration for the emergent class of secular intellectuals who preferred to study science rather than theology.
Initially, Europe was not the most technologically or intellectually advanced society. The Chinese were in some respects well ahead, the Arabic countries had more advanced knowledge in areas like mathematics and medicine and the Mogul Empire in India was in many respects more sophisticated and certainly more cultured.
Despite starting from a relatively low base of knowledge, European intellectuals and scientists gathered information from various sources and began to generate ideas about the world and create technologies that had hitherto been unimaginable.
Initially, this was a fairly slow and erratic process but soon it began to accelerate very rapidly.
The age of enlightenment in the 18th century essentially supercharged the entire process, which accelerated relentlessly through the 19th and 20th centuries.
With astonishing speed European countries began to literally take over the entire world. Empires had existed before but nothing like the speed and scale of European imperial expansion had previously occurred.
By the time the European imperial era had run its course in the mid-20th century, what we call western civilisation had become nearly ubiquitous across the world. Its intellectual and technological marvels seduced most of those who came into contact with them.
Even those who purport to despise or reject western civilisation frequently find that they are heavily reliant upon what it can produce, especially weapons. It apparently requires a certain amount of cognitive dissonance to be a successful terrorist.
For a long time, the changes wrought by science and technology seemed to be almost invariably good and useful.
The revolutionary changes in the production and distribution of food arising from advances in agricultural science have in large measure solved the perennial human problem of famine, although famines created for political reasons remain a problem.
Also, advances in medical knowledge and technologies have ushered in an era where many diseases and illnesses that once were disabling or fatal can now be either cured or at least managed.
And communication technologies powered by computers have literally revolutionised how we interact with one another on a daily basis.
However, of recent times, it has become evident that our exploitation of scientific knowledge and the technologies thus invented has had more negative impacts than we had either realised or intended, notably the degradation of the environment through extensive pollution and human induced climate change.
I think that it is fair to say that the sheer pace and scale of technological innovation and the accompanying changes it brings has now reached the point where it has become a disruptive and disorienting force in the world.
For many people, there is an unnerving sense that events have passed beyond the control of the institutions, systems and people we rely upon to lead and create an orderly, liveable and sustainable society.
We seem to have become the servants of our technologies and the economy that they have helped create. Many people clearly feel, and in fact are, largely powerless in the face of the economic conditions and decisions upon which they have no discernible influence.
The destruction of the environment we rely upon to survive is now so serious and obvious that many people are becoming alarmed about the future and increasingly resisting what we once regarded as desirable industrial and technological developments.
All this is relevant to Papua New Guinea today.
I and many others who worked in PNG in the colonial era sincerely believed that by bringing the country and its peoples into the modern world we would be helping people to have more comfortable, happier and personally fulfilling lives.
We believed this because it was our personal experience of life in a more technologically advanced society and we collectively thought that the advantages of western civilisation were a gift we were giving, not something we were imposing.
Consequently, change was introduced in PNG at an incredibly rapid rate on the presumption that it could and should be prepared to take its place in the modern world within what was, in historic terms, an astonishingly short period of time.
It was assumed that PNG society as a whole could cope with this process without undue disruption even though there were no historic precedents for such a rapid change process.
There was no real thought about the potential impact of what Hughes described as “the shock of the new”.
That PNG did indeed manage to mostly cope with this process is a tribute both to the colonial administration’s efforts and, more importantly, the intelligence, pragmatism, flexibility and insight of the people of PNG.
Now, in many respects, I think that we are all experiencing the shock of the new.
The modern world seems, in some respects at least, to be running completely out of control. The bewildering complexity of our world seems to have now exceeded our individual and collective capacity to understand how things actually work, especially in relation to that mysterious thing variously called “the economy” or “the market”.
Now, the Covid-19 crisis has had the incidental effect of exposing some major problems with how the world’s economy works and our various ruling elites have generally proved remarkably inept or simply impotent in dealing with the situation.
Despite our big brains, clever technologies and advanced science, we currently are failing to cope with one of humanity’s most persistent and common problems, being a communicable disease.
Basically, a tiny organism that can only be seen using a powerful electron microscope has totally disrupted and partially paralysed the entire world and is currently defying all efforts to control it.
There is a respectable argument that Covid-19 is, in fact, a product or artefact of modern civilisation rather than a purely natural occurrence.
It is variously attributed to the degradation of the environment, the bizarre dining habits of some people or the deliberate manipulation of dangerous organisms for ill defined sinister purposes.
Irrespective of the causes of the pandemic, we appear to have reached a critical point in history where we may need to accept that the frenetic rate of change we have experienced since around 1750 needs to be consciously constrained in order to give us time to figure out how it might impact upon our collectively future.
This was not a luxury afforded to the people of PNG prior to independence in 1975 and it is arguable that many of its current problems stem from that fact.
In particular, PNG societies were neither culturally nor intellectually well adapted to cope with the shock of the new.
Now, very belatedly, it seems that much of the rest of the world is slowly realising that we may have the same problem, albeit largely self inflicted.
The catastrophic failure of the world’s richest, most advanced and most powerful nation to effectively manage the current pandemic is mute testimony to how serious this problem may be.
It has been suggested that most of human society in the 21st century reflects an uneasy combination of medieval minds with modern technology. If this is true, and I think it is, this helps explain a great deal of the dysfunction and conflict that continues to bedevil us all despite our supposed sophistication.
It also is an important reason for us to try to exert a greater level of control over the technological and economic juggernaut that has been allowed to run rampant over the last several decades.
It seems fairly clear now that just letting the market rip and hoping for the best is not likely to be a successful strategy for a sustainable future for our species.
I think that the Covid-19 pandemic is a warning from the future that we have to take sufficient time to consider just what sort of world we want to create and how best to do it.
Then we need to have some sort of plan whereby the nations of world commit to taking a defined range of actions intended to help create a new world that better meets our needs as a species.
This contrasts with what we have now which is essentially a miscellaneous collection of competing and sometimes antagonistic nation states either striving to secure control over a range of scarce resources or dominate the market for certain goods and services.
Some elements of such a plan already exist (for example, in relation to CO2 emissions), so we at least have a starting point for what will probably be a long and perhaps even painful process.
If we fail to do this then it seems highly likely that the shock of the new in our future will include many more things we do not want and are ill equipped to deal with.