The aftermath of the Second World War resulted in dramatic technological breakthroughs whose effects are still being felt around the world. But the last 20 years has seen a second technological revolution, one that has been characterized not only by the dizzying array of scientific breakthroughs, but by the profound affects those breakthroughs have had on human habits and behavior.
It is probably nearly impossible for us to understand how we are being affected by these seismic changes as their evolution seems almost constant. Much like the train timetables AJP Taylor believed to be the instigators of the first war—"once they start you can't stop them"—it seems momentum now defines man rather than the other way around.
That said, unless some attempt is made to try and gauge the affects of these elemental shifts upon us, we may miss the chance to understand what is actually going on.
The impact of the Internet and the home computer and the speed with which information now flows into our homes cannot be underestimated. Where once we made decisions, now it seems we merely react to information. It seems as if that most precious commodity of all—time—is being burned up faster than the Alaskan oil supplies or the Amazonian rain forest. Do we have any idea what we are doing or are we just pressing a button and hoping for an answer?
This is not to say that many of these changes have not been incredibly positive, too. In medicine, advances are made at lightning speed. A hospital today is almost unrecognizable from the place I visited as a child. Doctors and nurses communicate at an entirely higher level, benefiting from the endless array of modern technologies now available to diagnose and care for patients. Advances in research too have seen millions of lives saved. While at home and in the garden there seem to be gadgets and machines for everything, their principal purpose is efficiency. In other words, they are designed to save us all time—that precious commodity that might be better frittered away elsewhere.
But it is in the home also where the most worrying aspects of this "second Industrial Revolution" are to be found. You need only observe the young generation for a few minutes to understand how radically different they are.
Look in the man-made fantasy worlds of videogames or in endless Internet conversations, where children seem at risk at times of losing connection with the real world, and perhaps even their own imaginations.
These new habits, along with that of watching television, once considered the greatest of all post-war technological breakthroughs, have no doubt changed and dare I say damaged the minds of the young.
Most don't read or read less, and if they do it's more likely to be from a screen than from the pages of a book. It's still too early to assess the long-term effects of growing up living through and learning from these screens.
Even in schools, teaching methods have advanced so incredibly that they are barely recognizable from 25 years ago. Many of these changes are for the better, but it is hard not to think that somewhere along the way the personal touch has been lost in the classroom too, as well as the home.
At least these children's parents have some knowledge of "the old way." There is something to compare it to. But what of our children's children? How will the generation after this one be affected? It is this question that is perhaps the most worrying of all and the one that requires the most consideration. And one which I hope to provoke some debate on.
I believe we must now be thinking about these things if we are to consider how we can help our young properly understand our ethics and values when they are now subject to so many questionable forces beyond our control. Should we simply throw our hands in the air and give up all hope? Or, if we refuse, then how to we manage?
In short, where do we go from here?
It may be that there is still time to consider these things and work out the right course of action. It is no longer enough for us merely to react. Perhaps this is the time to take a breath and step back from all the madness and try and properly think things through.
Had we done this, it might have been possible to avoid all the turmoil and trouble in the world that has been brought on by the financial debacle. The behavioral problems discussed above have not just affected children but adults, too. Thoughtless decisions based on momentary circumstances have been made that have had huge ramifications for all of us.
Unless some attempt is made to try and gauge the affects of these elemental shifts upon us, we may miss the chance to understand what is actually going on.
Many were motivated by the instantaneous needs of their own pocket, without a thought to the ethics of what was being done or an understanding of what it took to make those pockets full in the first place.
Most of us know, when we take that ever-important moment to think, that truthful, proper, and ethical standings make for a better and more prosperous life for all. I believe that's who we truly are.
The question is, are we willing to sacrifice these most important things simply for the sake of progress?
Sir Evelyn de Rothschild is chairman of E.L. Rothschild Ltd, a private investment company, and chairman of the Eranda Foundation, founded in 1967 to support charities in medical research, health and welfare, education, and the arts. He serves as a governor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.