Bob Brehl: The social times have been a-changin’

  • December 27, 2019

When told this issue of The Register would be dedicated to not only a year in review, but a decade in review, the idea immediately intrigued me.

The first thing I did was google the date Jan. 1, 2010 to see what happened on that day. Lo and behold, a suicide car bomb killed 105 and injured 100 more at a volleyball tournament in Lakki Marwat, Pakistan.

Terrorism. That awful word and deed. Over the last decade we’ve seen it spread worldwide and come to Canada; from a shooting on Parliament Hill to a van killing people on the sidewalk of Yonge Street in Toronto. Are we more obsessed with terrorism today or more immune to it in our day-to-day lives than we were 10 years ago?

Pondering that question led to another question: What are some of the most significant social transformations we’ve experienced over the last decade? In other words, what sorts of things have entered our collective psyche that we talk about a lot more today than we did in 2010?

So, here’s a list compiled (in no particular ranking order) which in no way can be considered complete or absolutely correct, but could be a springboard for discussion over the holidays as we prepare to enter a new decade.

Ageing and changing demographic implications: For the first time in history, in 2020, the number of people aged 60 years and older will outnumber children younger than 5 years, according to the World Health Organization. And this demographic shift is speeding up: by 2050, those over 60 years will nearly double in the world from 12 per cent to 22 per cent.

What are the implications on society, families, governments and business? A longer life brings with it opportunities for individuals and societies. More years offer the chance to carry out new activities from further education to pursuing long-neglected passions to helping younger generations.

But so much of these opportunities and contributions depend heavily on good health. When an elder’s health fails, will the burden on younger family members become too great? Wait-times in Canada’s health system are already too long. Will they exacerbate and what about the growing strain upon the tax base to pay for healthcare? Will medically-assisted suicides continue to rise?

Technology and its consequences: This topic is a behemoth with many, many subsets. Perhaps the biggest unknown is Artificial Intelligence (AI) and whether its benefits outweigh its risks? Benefits range from medical advances such as finding cures for deadly diseases to robotic surgeons that don’t make mistakes. But the risks are plentiful, too, especially the doomsday scenario of AI outsmarting humans.

What about smartphones? They’re a great convenience, but do they make us dumb, too? Pedestrians glued to their phones are getting hit by cars and walking into things. Are we losing some of our humanness to Siri and the other automated assistants?

On the other hand, all this screen time has had positive societal affects. For example, teenage pregnancies are lower than they’ve been for years (and the abortion rate has declined in tandem), and psychologists say all the screen time and “virtual social encounters” are part of the reason.

Social media turning into the dominant media: Social media is brought to us via modern technology, but it warrants its own separate category. Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any other social media popping up, are they making us anti-social? The nasty things said to others online are often quite remarkable and would likely never be said to others in a real face-to-face social situation.

And since our digital footprints point us in defined directions, the algorithms are  triggering a phenomenon called “motivated reasoning,” an unconscious, biased way of processing information that can trap even the smartest people into believing falsehoods that support their ideological and partisan dispositions. In other words, we’re seeing and reading more and more things that align with our belief system and avoiding different points of view. Is this making us less human?  

The rise of political correctness: Has the rapid growth of PC been a threat to free speech and individualism, especially on university campuses, which have long been the bastions of independent thought and expression? Or has it made society more aware and concerned about those not considered part of the majority?

Climate change: The vast majority of scientists conclude it is occurring, but where opinions differ are on the impact. Are we doomed or can things be straightened out before it’s too late? Is it the most important issue going forward and will it require billions of tax dollars every year to combat it?

There are many challenges ahead and I’m sure there are plenty of topics missed here. Who knows what we’ll be talking about in 2030?

To conclude on a Happy New Year note, Harvard professor and thinker Steven Pinker, a Canadian, often says in his many books and speeches that now is the best time to be alive in human history for a myriad of reasons. His latest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, is worth a read if you’re feeling the world is going badly.

(Brehl is a writer and author of many books.)

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