The printing press is invented by Gutenberg, and the trajectory of Western Europe dramatically changes. People like Martin Luther are able to write their protests against abuses of the Catholic Church and these protests gain wider dissemination. Thus, the Protestant Reformation is birthed, with the all sorts of diverse movements loosely joined together in their opposition to the Vatican: Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists on the Continent and the Anglicans on the British Isles. Then a time of bitter conflicted enveloped Europe in religious wars, climaxing with the Thirty Years’ War. Eventually, this resulted in the Peace of Westphalia, thus setting the stage for the dramatic intellectual shift that is the Enlightenment, catalyzing one of the biggest growth in economic and political power history has ever seen.
The Internet, not invented by Al Gore, is widespread, and the trajectory of the world is dramatically changed. Various individual people are able to express their own thoughts and stories for anyone across the world to see. Thus, what is born is a pluralistic postmodern paradise of various ideologies, identity groups, interest groups, etc., all of which protest the injustices and abuses of the political and social institutions of our day. Particularly in America, this conflict has developed in what might be term a Cold Civil War. What is the future of this?
I tell these two very simplified narratives to convey an important point. The nature of the 15-18th century Europe dramatically changes due to a innovation in information technology. Now, we are witnessing a similar, albeit sped up, similar type of change in the world, although my knowledge mainly extends to American and somewhat to Europe. The very change in the medium of information transfer has allowed for the expression of abuses that previously went overlooked, minimized, or forgotten. The #MeToo movement is one salient, recent example. Less visible issues of privilege and racism are brought to our attention more and more. Thus, the traditional centers of power become challenged and the protests movement have the ability to develop a critical mass, grow, and thus become persistent challengers to the traditional centers of power. And so, just as the printing press allowed the spread of information, galvanizing Europe into two bitter factions who interpret much of the same information with very different emotions and responses, we see the same happening in America and the West. What will become of this? Will America and the larger West have its own modern Peace of Westphalia moment?
Likely not. With the Peace of Westphalia, there was a conflict of identity but there was still a substantial amount of common religious ground that the rulers. The European religious wars were more like two brothers fighting with each other. But today, the two sides in the conservative and nationalist movements and the progressive coalition of various smaller identity groups, have a conflict both in identity and in ideology. The main common ground is a shared landmass and decision making institutions. If that is the case, a hopeful optimism for the future will rest upon a social, political, and/or religious movement that can be persuasive enough to draw people in, who can convince people to shift their ideological bases so that people can be drawn together into a union defined by qualified trust rather than the present persistent distrust. Otherwise, the future will be careening towards either perpetual distrust and conflict or domination by the victor.