Like many people of a certain age, I remember exactly where I was and how I learned about President Kennedy’s assassination. However, my experience of that event was very different from most other Americans.
That day I was in my sixth grade class at Balboa Elementary School in the Panama Canal Zone. It was shortly after lunch, and I was still cooling off after playing outside in the tropical heat. Our school principal, a slight, middle-aged woman, came to the door of our classroom. She spoke briefly with our teacher and then announced to our class that President Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. I remember the boy in front of me rather dramatically snapped his pencil in two on hearing the news.
Over the next four days everyone in the U.S. was glued to their TV sets. For the rest of that Friday, they learned what the President and First Lady had done before the tragic event and followed news about the search for and capture of a suspect. On Saturday they watched reports on the investigation of Lee Harvey Oswald and saw preparations for the President’s funeral in Washington. And on Sunday they watched in horror as Oswald was gunned down by Jack Ruby in the basement of the Dallas jail.
In Panama, we didn’t see those events and reports on TV. That is because in 1963 there were minimal satellite transmissions of network TV signals. Those of us living in Panama at that time had never seen live television from the States.
Without live TV coverage, the Canal Zone’s Southern Command Network (SCN) did the next best thing: it broadcast the radio coverage over their TV network. However, without live images to offer, they placed on the screen a static image of what looked like a gravestone: a granite-looking background with President Kennedy’s name on it, underneath which were his dates of birth and death. So we spent the time watching TV but hearing radio reports while looking at a mock-up of a headstone.
Television coverage of that event was the first of its kind. While it would be years before I ever heard of the “global village,” I sensed then that something unique and important had happened. And those of us overseas had not been a part of it. We were “out of the loop.”
Fast-forward to the present and things are very different.
In today’s world everyone is in the loop. With the Internet, satellite communications and cell phone networks, anyone can know what’s going on anywhere else in the world. And everyone sees events happening at the same time. When Barack Obama was declared the winner of the 2008 presidential election, celebrations in front of TV screens broke out simultaneously all around the world. Given what I experienced back in 1963, I found that amazing.
President Kennedy once said, “In a time of turbulence and change, it is more true than ever that knowledge is power.” Today, everyone has access to that power. In many ways this dispersal of power has overwhelmed the world as we have known it. The old world order has collapsed as borders fade, things spin out of control and many familiar institutions appear incapable of effectively reacting to the problems they face. Today individuals and tiny groups can wreak havoc all out of proportion to their apparent size and influence.
It all feels very unsettling and disturbing. The old rules no longer seem to apply, and many people question what the new rules are. Faith in traditions, institutions and political parties has fallen greatly. People are worried; some of them seem to be freaking out.
Rather than blaming one group or another for what has happened, perhaps our first step to address this new world is to simply recognize and acknowledge this change. We can start by noting it has taken place at all levels: for individuals, for governments, for businesses and for cultural institutions. This change is rooted in the revolution in technology that we have been experiencing since at least the 1950s. This revolution in technology, in turn, is rooted in the revolution in scientific knowledge that began in the early 20th century.
To succeed as individuals, businesses and governments, we need to come to terms with the way things are now, rather than the way they were in a warmly remembered past. We can mourn what we’ve lost by this change, much as we once mourned the loss of an inspiring young president. But we must recognize that the past is gone, and it’s time to live in today’s strange new world.
Albert Einstein once said, “No problem can be solved by the same consciousness
that created it. We must learn to see the world anew.” Why not try addressing today’s problems by borrowing concepts from the modern science that has been the source of so much of this change?
- Physicists tell us the building blocks of our world manifest both individual particle and collective wave qualities simultaneously; the only difference comes from how they are observed. Perhaps we humans are also always both individuals and members of collective groups at the same time. Maybe we’re not either individualists or collectivists, but both simultaneously.
- Physicists tell us that particles have two basic qualities: location and speed. According to the Uncertainty Principle, the more we can pin down one of those qualities, the less we can pin down the other. Perhaps in a similar way the more controlled and constrained people feel by businesses or government, the more likely they are to rebel against such restraints. Instead of mandating good behaviors, maybe we should focus on inspiring them.
- Complexity scientists tell us that complex organisms and systems can emerge out of basic ingredients – producing things like a woodland ecosystem or our modern economy. In such instances, the properties of the system emerge from the bottom up, within the context of that system’s environment. (A woodland cannot develop in an arid desert environment, for example.) Might we consider that the qualities and energy of any organization also emerge from the bottom up rather than the top down? And isn’t this what makes democracies more sustainable over time than the reign of any single individual – be they benevolent dictator or tyrant?
These are just three examples of how drawing ideas from modern science can offer us new ways of viewing the problems that so often stymie us today.
Thanks to modern technology – and the science that underpins it – it’s true: the rules have changed. However, thanks to over a century of study and exploration, scientists have been refining a deeper understanding of what the rules really are. Perhaps it is time for us to begin learning these new rules and considering how they might be applied to today’s problems.