New tools to recapture our past

7th January 2000 at 00:00
IT'S hard to escape the wash of sentiment that has swept the Western world during the past fortnight. Combined as it is for me with a birthday (happens every time, oddly) this becomes a regular moment for deep reflection and unlimited viewing of old movies starring Charlton Heston - all spent with family and friends.

I don't think of myself as remotely sentimental. But even I could not prevent a little smile playing around my lips this year as the umpteenth couple gazed happily into each other's adoring eyes. The New Year does that to you, I think. Or maybe there's something else going on.

Since my teens in the Sixties, the family has become a battleground for political theorists in the West. The Right warns that its collapse will lead to the end of civilisation; some on the Left decry its oppressive character. The statistics tell us that the traditional nuclear clump is on its way to extinction.

All of this seems faintly bemusing to those of us not from European traditions. My own clan is huge, multi-layered and complex, with odd, unexpected branches periodically springing out; each year, I discover a new set of cousins and nephews. Now Europe is rediscovering the attractions of family life: its security, its predictability and its capacity to rescue.

The one big surprise of last week's celebration was the extent to which most of us chose to spend the start of the new millennium with our families, rather than strangers. Even those who were lucky enough to get to the Dome went with their nearest and dearest. The hospitality industry guessed we'd want to be away from home and hearth in expensive hotels, and at lavish millennium balls, and it guessed wrong. I have a hunch that we are marching into the new century looking backwards to a kinder, gentler past.

This new millennium starts as a conservative one, which uses newtools we have to reproduce the past. Who could have foreseen that the turn of the century would see David Bowie, in his umpteenth rock reincarnation, being one of the first to use the Internet to distribute his new (old) music? Or that a small, somewhat ridiculous TV space opera, which was cancelled after three years, would still be in orbit, boldly going where no entertainment series had gone before? And that given the capacity to produce Internet viruses and the like, the terrorist's chosen tactic would still be a hi-jacking?

Continuity is hardly the thing you'd expect to have emerged from the 20th century. The years since the Second World War have seen the pace of innovation in science and technology click into a new, microchip-driven gear. It is estimated that more new scientific discoveries have been made in this period than in all previous human history. Much that seemed like science-fiction just after the war has come true Most of humanity has become richer, safer and healthier. Men and women have been liberated to spend more time on leisure pursuits. And how do we choose to spend our new-found flexibility? In conserving the things that have always given us comfort and security.

Parents give mobile phones to their teenagers so they can keep in touch. The elderly use the Internet to send e-mail to their grandchildren. And satellite TV gives us endless reruns of Dad's Army and The Good Life.

Of course, this is not the end of history.Something new will come up to disrupt our lives, as it always has done. It has usually been war, but this time it could be alien invasion, or the 21st century equivalent of radio and television. But so far, we humans have tended to use the new to keep the relationships we recognise in roughly the same shape. We haven't changed much where it matters - in ourselves. Welcome to the past.

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