What do you expect from the 2020s

How we imagine the passage of time : In 2020 there will be progress and regression at the same time

What shape does the way into the future have? Is it a line? And if so, an infinite one? Or does he lead in a circle? At the transition to the 1920s, there was disagreement in Germany about the shape of the course of time and the shape of the future - and accordingly also about the correct form of politics.

Humans lack a sense of time perception - but we have ideas about it

We smell, taste, hear, see - but humans lack their own sense of time perception. We make do with clocks, but even the fact that time is uniformly “measured” is a relatively new matter, an invention of the 19th century. When we don't look at the clock, we notice the passage of time over events and changes. We expect or bring about events, they happen, and then we remember them. We organize them into the past, the permanent and the future. And this is how most western people also tell the passage of time: as a linear sequence. The “timeline,” on which events are ordered, is probably the most common picture of the passage of time and the first that comes to mind.

However, the ideas of how history gets from one point to the next and how it should then continue into the future are actually very diverse. One could roughly differentiate between four ideas: progress, disruption, cycle thinking and apocalyptic thinking. All of these concepts are on the one hand descriptions, but they are also normative, so they contain an idea of ​​how the future should be brought about.

Progress, Disruption, Cycle or Apocalypse?

The way of thinking about progress is relatively new, it has existed since around the 18th century. Progress is the idea that the timeline is not just about events, but that they are accompanied by improvements and achievements, such as technical innovations, less violence or better health.

How it comes to progress (and should come), there are different ideas. On the one hand, there are phases of continuous improvement of what already exists, i.e. "incremental" developments. And phases of disruption (technical) or revolution (political): periods of time in which the world changes fundamentally in a relatively short period of time. The last political revolution in Germany was 30 years ago, but the digital revolution also had a major impact on change. Silicon Valley called it “disruption”, and disruption is also a normative vision of the future: with the help of technologies that are spreading rapidly, penetrating all areas of life - and thereby destroying what was. Finding the next disruptive thing, this is the idea that the digital industry has dedicated itself to.

Thinking about progress contrasts with “round forms” of history or cycle thinking, for example the idea that forms of rise and fall are repeated (which actually also occurs in business cycles). This idea also knows a normative variety, namely the requirement to restore the past in the future - or better: the idealized idea of ​​a certain past. When canons in the Middle Ages despaired of the decadence of the church and demanded “reforms”, they meant: A return to a pure, unspoiled original form, to an imagined ideal. Finally, the passage of time is also presented as finite; it then ends in apocalypse or redemption.

The different ideas about the passage of time determine how politics should be

Different ideas of how time goes and should pass have always competed with each other - but it seems that the cacophony of ideas about history and the future is particularly great at the beginning of the 2020s. On the one hand, right-wing populist movements strengthen cyclical historical thinking. Donald Trump wants to bring back industrial America from the China shock and the Brexiteers the "Empire". Viktor Orban wants to turn back the westernization of Hungary and Vladimir Putin is researching a past Ur-Russia. The “politics of infinity” is what the historian Timothy Snyder called this “rounded” conception of history and the future in 2018 in “The Road to Unfreedom”.

Snyder also castigated the “politics of inevitability”, a way of thinking that takes progress for granted and “inevitable” and, according to Snyder, is widespread among left progressives. In fact, the progress that Western societies have become accustomed to is not “inevitable”: the chances of the child generation's social advancement compared to their parents' generation have decreased. The growth paradigm is under ecological pressure to justify itself.

Climate change has brought back apocalyptic notions of time, populism cyclical

The phase of technological revolution is also over. Internet and iPhone were invented, cameras, screen quality and transfer speeds are now being continuously improved. It's not disruptive. However, Germany is far from finished with the consequences of the digital revolution. Legislation is still lagging behind - and so are people, feeling that they have been accelerated too much.

The longing for slowing down in everyday life is counteracted by the return of apocalyptic notions of time with the ecological movement. Climate change and the prognosis that global warming of less than two degrees could reach tipping points in the ecosystem set deadlines. The world would not be over - but changes would be brought about that cannot be reversed.

This is accompanied by an impatience with "incremental" politics, if not a blatant rejection. Many people, especially the younger ones, have the feeling that they cannot wait to see progress slowly developing. They despair, so to speak, of the linearity for which the late Merkel government stands.

Society is divided into three future groups

So at the beginning of the 2020s, different ideas about history and the future come into conflict with one another in a strange way. Standstill and acceleration happen at the same time, as do progress and regression. Society is divided into three groups: those who expect nothing less than a revolution from the future in order to avert the impending apocalypse, those who cling to the notion of inevitable, incremental progress and those who are exhausted by revolution and change and themselves set up in the longing for an idealized past.

The conflicts that loom in the 2020s are to a certain extent conflicts about the shape of the future.

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page