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The Culture of Today’s Changing World

From Hezbollah in Beirut to a power fund in Beijing, we’re living in an age of unthinkable change and surprise.

To begin with, it’s worth noting that all the insanity around us notwithstanding, there will be a moment when this age will start to make sense. That brave new world will look very different than it does now. And—though this may be the hardest thing to imagine, what with the economy in shambles and creeping anxiety about ideas we hold dear—in some ways it will look better. But it is also true that there is no book of answers we can take off the shelf, peruse quickly as if looking up a forgotten recipe, and then snap shut with a nod and the acknowledgment, Now, I understand this age. No, in an era in which the improbable has somehow become the inevitable—when the world’s most solid-looking financial system tumbles into chaos in less than a year, when countries we thought pleasant turn dangerous, when our own lives seem constantly assailed by fresh risks—the old rules are frankly of very little use. Optimism and an innovative spirit matter a great deal now. Yet there will be many dark days ahead when it will be hard to get too far from that old and unnerving aphorism of Mao Zedong’s: A revolution isn’t a dinner party.

But is this a revolution we’re in the middle of? Or is it just one of those small tectonic adjustments that occur from time to time? Is this 1987 or 1939? As we look around us, the evidence certainly suggests that something rather significant is going on. We have more players on the global stage than at any other time in history. They have more choices available to them, and they are more interconnected than ever before. It’s as if we’ve moved from playing an already complex game of chess to some sort of endlessly changing puzzle (think ten-dimensional Sudoku). Answers that our experts insist are the best choices, answers that make sense one day—attack terrorists or bail out banks—not only fail, but appear to backfire. If you sit in the cafés in south Beirut and watch Hezbollah build new neighborhoods and become stronger even under siege, if you order coffee in the lobby of the Poly Plaza building in Beijing where China’s newly powerful investment fund is based, if you feel the stiff tension in Mexico City’s trendy Zona Rosa district, you certainly get a sense of new forces starting to shift and collide.

In a world of constant newness in science, technology, and media, there’s no reason to think politics and economics should be immune to change any more than the way we search for information is. If we truly want to develop a sense of the unstable geography at this moment and master the suddenly essential language of surprise and hope and danger, our only chance is to get out of the house (or the bunker) and start looking for signs of the new. Travel, tourism, and culture instantly become more than hobbies or distractions; they are transformed into our best hope of understanding. Because while we are now indisputably living in the age of the unthinkable, it doesn’t mean we’re living in the age of the unexplainable.

So here are two pieces of (relatively) good news to keep in mind: The first is that while revolutions can destroy an awful lot of the old order, they also create. Revolutions produce monumental art and leave behind symphonies and operas and novels. They breed new fortunes. They elevate figures from great obscurity—caves in Pakistan, the Illinois State Senate—to positions of historic import. Great revolutionary moments bring nations together just as often as they tear them apart (think France in 1789 or the United States during the world wars). Revolutions are at least as much about hope as they are about fear. They create new vocabularies of partnership and cooperation and, eventually, growth and creativity.

Which suggests the second piece of good news: We can see this new growth happening if we simply look for it. And this is where culture becomes our indispensable guide. Music and painting and literature have always managed to anticipate and then chronicle the nature of an age. It’s the way in which the songs of the Doors or a George Gershwin tune even now set us vibrating to the energy of very particular American moments. How Gustav Klimt’s lurid portraits from turn-of-the-century Vienna tell us as much about everything cooking in that city then—the ideas of Wittgenstein, the theories of Freud, and the first seeds of awful European fascism—as they do about the women he painted. Mark out a couple of weeks to visit Montmartre and you’ll hear bands like Wax Tailor or Hocus Pocus, which knit together vinyl records, electronic sounds, and live rhythms to make music that is as powerfully engaging as any symphony, but also completely of this moment. The lesson in Hocus Pocus’s collage of Iraq war U.S.-chopper conversations, seventies disco beats, and French rap? Our world now is defined by surprising mixtures. Pick up a copy of Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s gentle film Last Life in the Universe, which combines Japanese and Thai actors in a story that shows us how distinction and difference between cultures are sources of richness and innovation, not only guarantees of conflict, as some “clash of civilization” politicians and scholars insist. Or spend an early-summer night in Barcelona at Sónar, the annual three-day arts festival that has a history of pulling together the newest ideas in music and film and anticipating by years the direction pop culture will move. In all these places, you’ll emerge with a sense of the logic of our age: how a modern genius for unusual combinations is forcing us to recalculate what is possible. Sometimes this produces the dangerous mix of, say, jet planes and fundamentalism or home mortgages and hedge funds. But just as often it produces miracles, like computers and DNA finding medical breakthroughs.

While we may be living in an age of unthinkable disruption, we’re not condemned to be mere victims. Each of us can play in this game of mixing and matching ideas. Individuals have never had more power. And this means we are in a sort of race, because though it is true that 90 percent of nongovernmental organizations were created in the last ten years, it is also true that 90 percent of suicide bombings occurred in that same span. What lies ahead of us now is this sprint between forces of good and forces of bad. It is a race we are all part of, like it or not. The new global risks, from financial panic to computer viruses, hit everyone evenly. There’s no hiding. But if the world’s current instability is written out in your latest bank statement, it is also spelled out in the ambition of your kids to make new and faster Internet sites, of your friends to lend a hand to one another, and maybe even in your own instinct that we’ve arrived at a moment when you can pursue work that combines your passion for the world with something that has been aching in your soul. This urge to shape and create explains why what often seem like our greatest moments of peril sometimes turn into historic moments of reinvention. Think of how some setback in your own life simply laid a foundation for still greater success.

Mao was right. Revolution isn’t a dinner party. It is the chance for something better. It is the chance to cook up something out of our dreams, to develop new recipes that fit appetites that somehow are different than they were a year ago, to be decent on a scale we might not have imagined possible. And it’s this that makes this an age of unthinkable possibility, a moment when we can ceaselessly surprise ourselves for the better. We’re not being served anymore at the table of history. We’re cooking for ourselves and enjoying, again, the full and dangerous and unnerving pleasure of creation.

Joshua Cooper Ramo is the author of The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It (Little, Brown).