Opinion Forum

Robert B. Simpson: Pace of change keeps changing

Benjamin Franklin, given to pithy sayings, is credited with proclaiming that in this life only two things are certain, death and taxes. I'm puzzled as to how a man so brainy missed the third certainty, change. Since his death, the world has moved from flintlock muskets to computer-directed missiles and from horse and buggy to the serious contemplation of driverless automobiles. And all indications are that change will continue at an increasing pace.

While I have often been accused of being more than normally resistant to change, even I can appreciate the benefits of progressing from washing clothes with a tub and scrub board to washing them in a modern washer. Typing this column on a computer keyboard is certainly preferable to writing it with a quill pen on foolscap.

Because technology seems to breed technology, and because social change seems often to breed more social change, the rapidity of change in general steadily increases. Where whole generations centuries ago might expect to live their lives in much the same way as their ancestors had, now there are dramatic changes within generations, both in technology and in the response to technology. It is this increasing speed that makes me think we need to be alert and prepared for society to make unexpected and unsettling turns with little warning.

When I was a child, a road trip of any length at all was an exciting opportunity to see new things. Now it tends to be either the opportunity to see endless, identical miles of boring interstate landscape or to concentrate by the hour on the small screen of a hand-held device. Which is not to say interstate highways and hand-held devices are not valuable improvements, but they have changed our lives in more than one way.

When I was growing up, and even as an adult, there were some words that were often used, but not in mixed company. Youth deferred, perhaps grudgingly, to age, and certain social structures like the political system and law enforcement, were more often than not accorded a degree of respect. The Vietnam War is credited by many with having changed a lot of this. Breaking of bonds and strictures in one area tends to lead to breakage in other areas. Youth pushed age aside and strove to shove the country leftward, grab the reins, and conduct a revolution of sorts, earnestly naïve in their methods, breaking convention in language, dress, general deportment, and any other way that reflected a break with the past. Among the results were a coarsening of language, a breaking of unspoken contracts that would not likely ever be repaired, and an angry reaction that took the country back to the right politically, which was the last thing most of the protesting young desired.

My point is not that change is bad, but that it is often accompanied by unforeseen outcomes that change our lives in ways most of us never contemplated. How many foresaw that the birth of the Internet would lead to serious reduction in U.S. Postal Service income? Or to dramatic shifts in purchasing from brick and mortar stores to buying from online merchants?

Some changes are wrought by the impact of events seemingly unavoidable and so vast that much of the world goes in a new direction. The Great Depression, followed by World War II, left a large slice of the world so different that someone waking in 1948 from a 10-year sleep would not have recognized it. The attack on Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attack left Americans with a new normal that was not entirely desirable.

Note that I have not been so arrogant as to suppose I have a solution to unexpected outcomes from ever-increasing change.

I do suggest that we need to be on the lookout for unfortunate side effects. We might even, if we ever learn again to work together, manage to moderate some of them.

As for those driverless cars, I'm already adjusting. On any given day, just in the local area, I'm likely to see, and take action to avoid, several that appear to be driverless.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."