The Global Age

by Wolf Schäfer

Five hundred years from now, historians may call the long and eventful stretch of history since the second world war of the 20th century the Global Ages. They may use the plural to signify that they see a sequence of different periods and eras in the new historical epoch which was originally named the Global Age.

This change from the singular to the plural has happened before. The millennium from about 500 to 1500 A.D. was conceived first as a Middle Age in Latin (medium aevum); it became the Middle Ages only in the English-speaking countries after the 1840s, and it is still referred to in the singular in the German, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese languages. The Global Age of our time may thus well turn into the Global Ages of later times. In fact, we may already be in a position to perceive the second half of the 20th century as a distinct sub-era of the Global Age.

The Global Age was brought to life in the Cold War period. In the last fifty years more than two great powers and their allies were drawn into a worldwide political, military, social, economic and cultural struggle. The Cold War affected every country, all cultures, and the whole physical globe. Perhaps we know that too well. We are too close to the numerous events of our recent past, too familiar with the principal actors, too impressed by this long-lived conflict and its implosive end to see clearly the enduring new order of our history. So we must ask ourselves: What is the most important pattern of contemporary historical change? To name the history we find ourselves in, we must identify the leading tendency of our time and prove that something has come forcibly to the fore and is now irreversibly under way.

The end of the Cold War did not terminate, interrupt or slow down the processes of globalization. Globalization bonds the bygone time of the Cold War to the present time. Both times are therefore but parts of one historical epoch, the Global Age, which began its work around the middle of the 20th century.

It is hardly surprising that the time after the fall of the Soviet Union has yet to receive an acceptable name. We cannot expect to find a proper name for a time before this time has shown its historical colors. True, even a very short time can make a big difference, but the few years since the final lowering of the Soviet flag in late December 1991 are not in the class of momentous years, like, for instance, the three years from 1789 to 1791, or from 1989 to 1991. However, the uninterrupted thrust of globalizing events throws the last three and the previous fifty years in the epochal scales of our Global Age.

Even the post-modernists know by now that they cannot define an age successfully by calling it with negative post-this-or-that-names. If Modernity changed her name and all you hear is that she is no longer Lady M, you do not know if she is now Madam A, B, C or Z. Historians have time and again faced the double challenge of periodization and wrestled with the thorny question of how to cut the seamless garment of history at the right time with the right name. Finding the "right time" means to determine the beginning and, if possible, the end of an age, and finding the "right name" means to highlight what a particular age is positively about. The tripartite division of ancient, middle, and modern time, the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, bear witness to this risky, but unavoidable business of making history intelligible.

Probably the best way to miss the main tendency of our time and to trivialize the complexity of our age, is to look for a dramatic single event, one all-defining person, or a highly significant thing. Naming the age after a new machine, political figure, energy source, frontier, musical style, and so forth, captures one aspect of it. Yet our age has come up with many novelties, from electronic computers to pop music, all of them relevant. How could one item on our list supply us with the right label for all items? It is impossible, much too thin and reductionist an approach. We have to look for a thicker periodization, one that is capable of aggregating important changes on the one hand, and of accentuating the leading current and perpetrator of lasting historical change on the other.

The second half of the 20th century has witnessed the start of the Global Age, until recently without much understanding. Older historical trends have helped, but a new historical configuration has materialized without a master plan. A staggering multitude of interlocking and mutually reinforcing changes has linked all local histories. Global history today is no longer a pipe dream of world historians, but a vigorous reality in untold political, physical, social, cultural, technical and economic ways, not all pleasant. Nobody, however privileged or abused by the Global Age, is just a local fellow anymore. You may enjoy your immediate environment, or curse it, but you cannot hope to detach it ever again from the global streams that run through it with power.

Everything in this massively interconnected world happens simultaneously. Tourists and terrorists, arms and drugs, artworks and consumer goods, diseases, fashions and pollutants interact boundlessly, travel across all borders and make history in real time. The Global Age comes after the Western Age of Modernity and is not handicapped by the fact that the 20th century is winding down. The Global Age is busy with connecting all humans, nations, regions and cultures in ever more densely intertwined loops; it has no time for fin de siecle-weariness. The Global Age reaches out into the next century and beyond; it is preoccupied with its self-defining task: to create a history - for the first time in human history - that is shared by all current and future human beings, animals and plants on the third planet from the sun.

The making of the Global Age is a story that can be written now and, indeed, is waiting to be narrated. It is a history, however, that is not to be told in a Toynbeean or Spenglerian grand narrative; we are no longer operating within a single view of the world. Our global history must be written as an open-ended and decentered history from the various vantage points of competing cultural perspectives, diverse social locations and local spots in the global matrix of terrestrial places. Writing global history is a collective project for historians and social scientists, including journalists. No master narrative, but a commonly shared name for our age should be in order.

Future historians of the Global Ages will dig up a challenge of The New York Times, entitled "Name That Era," and they will say: "Look how people who had not had the same past realized in the 1990s that they had entered the same present." Our observers will note how many voices from all around the globe began to agree in the last decade of the 20th century that a Global Age had been ushered in by a global technoscience, a global economy, a global civilization and a global environment. And they will carefully reconstruct our imagined futures of the Global Age and politely say: "Look how interesting and yet how wrong."


Note: Sunday, March 19, 1995, The New York Times had asked its readers in its "Week in Review" section to pinpoint our era "on the map of history." The above was my response. The newspaper received a flood of answers, one reader sent 52. The New York Times commented: "hundreds of readers - professors, students, psychologists, bureaucrats and hackers - replied seriously. ... The responses came overwhelmingly from men and they were overwhelmingly pessimistic. The word 'global' appeared in more than 40 of the names; the prefixes 'dis-,' 're-,' 'post-,' 'fin de' and 'cyber-' (including two cyberias and one cy-barbaric) popped up repeatedly" (The New York Times, Sunday, April 2, 1995, "No Time Like the Present").

© W. Schäfer, March 24, 1995

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