Hinges of Opportunity: When the World Moves, The Important Thing to Figure Out Is What’s Being Born

Last Updated: Jul. 2, 2014

October 14, 2001 | By Joel Garreau

Hinges in history—1914, 1929, 1945, 1963, 1981, and maybe the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

These are pivots on which our lives move from one world to another.

After we swing past them, it’s hard to remember what the previous world felt like, or what sense it made. (Why did ‘50s fraternity boys compete to see how many people they could stuff into a telephone booth? What was a telephone booth?)

Reasonable people differ on when these cultural revolutions have burst through. Some point to the start of World War II or the fall of the Berlin Wall as hinges, rather than peaks in an ongoing narrative. Such debates fuel the history book industry.

Can people living through such a hinge know what’s hitting them? Some doubt it.

“You can’t possibly tell whether it is a hinge until you have two historical periods to connect it to, one before and one afterwards,” says Freeman Dyson, the renowned Princeton quantum physicist and futurist. “It makes no sense to attempt historical judgment about an event that happened only two weeks ago.”

However, few deny that hinges in history do exist. Especially if they’ve survived one. They know how it feels. The way magazine covers from before the hinge seem so quaint. (Who was Gary Condit?) Fewer people in restaurants. More people in churches. The adult sense of determination and decency. The way detachment makes you sound like a sociopath.

“This is about as obvious and mighty a hinge as any that we are likely to experience in our lifetimes,” says Michael Marien, editor of the World Future Society’s “Future Survey.”

All the more reason to learn that the lessons from past hinges are about opportunities.

The Moment of Impact

Hinge moments don’t appear out of nowhere. Forces build, like water behind a weakening dam. Telltale signs appear. Then comes the cusp, the straw that breaks the camel’s back. History swings open to a new world. The personal computer arrives in 1981, breaking open the Information Age. A Serbian terrorist shoots Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, and ushers in World War I. (On Aug. 3, British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey saw the hinge. He famously said: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”)

The spectacular changes are small parts of complex dynamic systems. A day at the beach teaches us about these. We build a sand mound, letting the grains stream between our pursed fingers. Up and up the mound builds. Suddenly one grain of sand adds more weight than the accumulated structure can bear. The sand mound collapses. A new reality is born.

It’s impossible to predict which grain will finally cause the great disruption, because that is a function of the total history of the entire pile. But we remember watching it happen.

Comparably, everyone of a certain age remembers where they were when they heard about the end of World War II in 1945, or the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. Maybe they’ll remember where they were when they heard about the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001. There’s no way to tell yet.

Big headlines aren’t the same as hinges: MEN WALK ON MOON, for example. Somehow they don’t evoke vast and irreversible changes. Natural disasters—the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, Hurricane Andrew—rarely correlate with major social change, although the 1755 Lisbon earthquake caused philosophers to doubt their notion that we were living in “the best of all possible worlds.”

Nor do most massacres—the 1978 Kool-Aid suicides of Jonestown, Guyana, or the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo gas attack in Tokyo. But then, there is the Holocaust.

Economists are endlessly puzzled by financial bubbles. They wonder what causes them to inflate, and what makes them suddenly collapse. “Market psychology,” they say, as if that explains anything. But such hinges have real effect. Ask those who enjoyed the rocketing stock market of the 1920s if the crash of 1929 made a difference. By the second half of 1930, a contemporary economist said, people felt “the ground give way beneath their feet.” Two years later, 24 percent of the workforce was unemployed.

A New Tale

What changes after a hinge is our stories of ourselves. Who we are, how we got that way, where we’re headed, and what makes us tick. The lesson is that any cultural revolution represents a grand new alignment of great forces—technological, economic, environmental and spiritual. These shape the tales we tell to make sense of our new world.

The period 1880-1914, according to Robert Hughes in “The Shock of the New,” was “about the blossoming of a sense of modernity in European culture…in which the myth of the Future was born in the atmosphere of millenarian optimism that surrounded the high machine age.”

This belle Époque was marked by ebullience, idealism, confidence. Giants walked the earth, from Edison, Ford and the Wright Brothers to Picasso and Cezanne and Duchamp. There were few uncertainties about the new machines—the phonograph, the automobile, the electric light. They were seen as unqualifiedly good, strong, obedient servants. Change equaled progress.

In 1910, five young Italian painters issued “The Manifesto of the Futurists.” It said: “Comrades, we tell you now that the triumphant progress of science makes profound changes in humanity inevitable, changes which are hacking an abyss between those docile slaves of past tradition and us free moderns, who are confident in the radiant splendor of our future.”

How antique. They sound like the dot-commers of—could it be?—only two years ago.

During the gruesome and pointless years of World War I, with its machine guns and poison gas, “machinery was turned on its inventors and their children,” wrote Hughes. “After forty years of continuous peace in Europe, the worst war in history canceled the faith in good technology, the benevolent machine. The myth of the Future went into shock, and European art moved into its years of irony, disgust and protest.” Construction became destruction. The future became the past.

Those who study human perception have a useful description of such a shift. Stare at a certain drawing. At the center is a white figure that looks like a vase, a chalice. Suddenly all you can see is the black part of the same drawing, the part at the edges that looks like two faces staring at each other. Psychologists call this a “figure/ground” reversal. The drawing hasn’t changed. It’s just the way we see it. Yet the shift is no less real for that. What had been central suddenly has become peripheral. What had been ignorable has suddenly become central.

Carole Horn, a Washington internist, tells the story of a woman who called for a sleeping pill prescription because recent events were keeping her up at night. “I’m sorry to bother you,” the patient said. “I’m sure I must be the five hundredth person to call like this.”

“Actually, that’s not true,” the internist later said. “She was the first. All the other calls were for anthrax and smallpox medicine.”

What’s Being Born

Whenever there is a sharp departure from the norm, the easiest thing to see is the dark side. It’s child’s play to imagine how plans might fall apart tomorrow, say professional scenario writers. What’s harder and more important, they say, is to see long-view opportunities for shaping the new world that is being created.

The potential for hinges of history can be great.

“Brushes with death cut the crap,” says W. Brian Arthur, the Santa Fe Institute economist who was one of the pioneers of the new science of complexity. “If we are not frightened, they tighten us up. As a result the mood in the country is suddenly adult and serious—and, for the most part, in the best traditions of the United States. It is a mood of determination and decency. Of work ahead. Of generosity and a love for freedom. It remains to be seen if this mood prevails. But it brings us into a fine-pointed sense of purpose.”

At the 1945 hinge, at the end of World War II, pessimism was rampant. Half the world was in ashes, Roosevelt was in his grave, his replacement was a little-known former haberdasher, and millions of veterans would soon be home looking for work. By far the number one issue on people’s minds, according to Gallup, was jobs. A return to the Depression seemed all too likely. The most strike-ridden year in American history was 1946. Meat shortages were widespread. In 1947, America’s GNP hit its lowest level since 1942, adjusted for inflation. The pessimists’ worst fears seem confirmed.

The rest—as the saying goes—is history.

After 1948, America’s gross national product, adjusted for inflation, grew at an average rate of more than 4 percent a year for 20 years. That kind of sustained boom was without precedent. America was changed forever.

During the hinge of the early ‘80s, major corporations made mind-bogglingly small-minded bet-the-company mistakes about what was being born. In 1980, IBM projected that the total U.S. market for personal computers for the next five years would be 241,000 machines. The actual number was almost exactly 100 times that. Soon after, AT&T decided cell phones wouldn’t amount to much.

At our 2001 hinge in history, the optimistic scenarios have already described reality better than have the early disaster scripts. Consider the ubiquitous op-ed panics of last month that have not materialized. The president has not gone off half-cocked with indiscriminate military strikes that turned the world against us. Neither has the U.S. naively stigmatized all of Islam. The emphasis has been on multinational, multilateral cooperation. Those early fears of failure kept columnists frenzied only four weeks ago.

Instead, several aspects of the optimistic scenarios have materialized. It’s hard to recall such global agreement on any subject. Even the French are on board. Outpourings of altruism are rampant. For the first time in 30 years, two-thirds of all Americans tell pollsters they trust their government to do the right thing. No one has revoked the iron law underpinning the health of our economy—that computer innovation is still doubling every 18 months.

Of course, any of this could go wrong tomorrow. That’s what the instability of a hinge feels like. But at this moment, the disaster scenarios have not been a reliable guide to the future.

William Strauss and Neil Howe noted in their prescient 1997 book, “The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy:”

“As in a blizzard, simple but fundamental verities will reemerge. These are the familiar elements of legend and myth that have endured over time simply because they are required in times of peril. Classic virtues that didn’t necessarily pay off in an Unraveling (like loyalty, reliability, patience, perseverance, thrift, and selflessness) will become hard currency in Crisis. Were history not seasonal, these virtues would have long since atrophied, vanished from memory as useless to humanity. They remain in our tradition because, once every saeculum [era] they are reaffirmed in full glory, rewarding those who embrace them and penalizing those who do not.”

The fundamental things apply, as time goes by.

The Long-Ago Yesterday

To take the long view of the hinge we’re going through now, you have to start at least with the narrative of the 1981-2001 world we just left.

On the dark side, the ‘80s felt different from the ‘60s and ‘70s in part because of AIDS, which was first so named in 1982. No longer would casual sex seem so cost-free. A time when sex rarely involved considerations of death now seems so antique. Will we someday see carefree air travel in the same light?

Far more significantly, however, 1981 was marked by what for most Americans was the real launch of the Information Age. The first IBM personal computer would lead to the popularization of the Internet, and then the World Wide Web. Sadly, of course, today cheap, ubiquitous e-mail means that small shadowy networks of partisans can coordinate their activities with a precision that used to demand bureaucratic hierarchies.

The Net has cultural implications. Part of its promise was that it would make ideas impervious to totalitarian blocking. That’s a threat to traditional societies. Everything from pornography to dangerous books with ideas about gender equality and independence would be instantly accessible everywhere.

Osama bin Laden and his like believe that with such ideas, the West is destroying ancient cultures. In this they may be correct. Young people worldwide are growing up surrounded by ideas and values that have nothing to do with those of their elders. Every Lakers cap in Islamabad, every Britney Spears T-shirt in Jakarta tells the tale.

Conventional wisdom today holds that we have nothing that traditionalists want. Actually, the problem is the reverse—we have a great deal desired globally by the young. And we have developed the technology to deliver it. We are now paying the price.

This technological upheaval has also changed us. The great myth of the Information Age has been that of the brilliant lone cowboy changing the world. That’s our Bill Gates myth. It began with William Hewlett and David Packard starting their corporate behemoth in a Silicon Valley garage that now has a historical plaque on it. Did it end with the dot-com stock-market collapse? With the World Trade Center destruction?

Francis Fukuyama, author of “The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order,” says that now “people suddenly realize they aren’t these independent, self-sufficient individuals that they thought they were. They are weak and vulnerable and need help from other people, and that’s why communities exist. All of a sudden you realize that you do live in a country and you are attacked because you are an American and you’re going to be defended only by other Americans.”

Fukuyama wonders if this cultural revolution will alter class divisions. “Over the last 20-30 years, the gap between one of the investment bankers working in the World Trade Center and the fireman who was coming to rescue him just went like this,” he says, spreading his hands wide apart. But now he points to the symbolism of having a firefighter ring the bell to reopen the stock exchange. “All these stockbrokers giving them a standing ovation, saying these are our heroes. It was very moving, and I think the symbolism is important.”

He wonders if the children of investment bankers might consider other kinds of careers. “Public service might come back. People would actually be proud to serve in the federal government.”

A New Life

No one knows whether we have indeed entered a new cultural revolution. There are a lot of guesses around.

“We’re coming out of a period in which change was the hero,” says Lawrence Wilkinson, a co-founder of Global Business Network, a scenario planning firm that helps organizations think about the very long-term future. “Now change is the enemy, but it is still a main character. We’re going to have to work through that until things settle.”

Wilkinson sees long waves of economic, corporate and social disruptions in history followed by periods of “lock-in,” in which change is digested and normalized. He thinks we may be heading into a period of lock-in.

During the disruptive phases, “innovation outruns the ability of control mechanisms to rein it in. We’re socially less cohesive. There’s usually a pretty serious redistribution of wealth and power. Fortune 50 companies disappear. Everything about the world our parents knew comes unglued. Everything they took for granted about standards of living and careers began to go away. There’s tons of change, and a lot of wealth creation. But it takes some adjusting to. There is a fatigue with change. People end up saying, ‘Thank you very much, but we’ve had enough new stuff now.’

“If 2001 is the marker of the Internet bubble bursting, and the nonexistent New World Order unraveling, that could be a pivot that moves us toward a substantially different kind of life,” says Wilkinson. “It could be more unified, more settled down. There will be competition, but by the rules and among players we know. It’s not that there is no innovation, but it’s more stately. One whole family of triggers” to this transition is “shocks to the system. Things like war. Might be ecological change.”

A former president of the Institute for the Future, Roy Amara, memorably pointed out that the impact of revolutionary change is overestimated in the short run and underestimated in the long run.

Right now, at an apparent hinge, the temptation is toward overestimation.

Which is why history is a human story to be listened to.

It may be as Albert Camus put it generations ago:

“To be born to create, to love, to win at games, is to be born to live in times of peace. But war teaches us to lose everything and become what we were not. It all becomes a question of style.”