Excerpted from Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance by Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna. Copyright © by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.
If Michelangelo were reborn today, amidst all the turmoil that marks our present age, would he flounder, or flourish again?
Every year, millions of people file into the Sistine Chapel to stare up in wonder at Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Creation of Adam. Millions more pay homage to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Through five centuries, we have carefully preserved such Renaissance masterpieces, and cherished them, as objects of beauty and inspiration.
But they also challenge us.
The artists who crafted these feats of genius five hundred years ago did not inhabit some magical age of universal beauty, but rather a tumultuous moment—marked by historic milestones and discoveries, yes, but also wrenching upheaval. Their world was tangling together in a way it had never done before, thanks to Gutenberg’s recent invention of the printing press (1450s), Columbus’s discovery of the New World (1492) and Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a sea route to Asia’s riches (1497). And humanity’s fortunes were changing, in some ways radically. The Black Death had tapered off, Europe’s population was recovering, and public health, wealth and education were all rising.
Genius flourished under these conditions, as evidenced by artistic achievements (especially from the 1490s to the 1520s), by Copernicus’s revolutionary theories of a sun-centered cosmos (1510s), and by similar advances in a wide range of fields, from biology to engineering to navigation to medicine. Basic, common-sense “truths” that had stood un- questioned for centuries, even millennia, were eroding away. The Earth did not stand still. The sun did not revolve around it. The “known” world wasn’t even half of the whole. The human heart wasn’t the soul; it was a pump. In mere decades, printing boosted the production of books from hundreds to millions per year, and these weird facts and new ideas traveled farther, faster than had ever been possible.
But risk flourished, too. Terrifying new diseases spread like wildfire on both sides of the now-connected Atlantic. The Ottoman Turks—backed by a “new” weapon, gunpowder—conquered the eastern Mediterranean for Islam in a stunning series of land and naval victories that cast a threatening gloom over all of Europe. Martin Luther (1483–1546) leveraged the new power of print to broadcast blistering condemnations of the Catholic Church, igniting religious violence continent-wide. The church, which had endured every challenge to its authority for over a thousand years to become the most important and pervasive authority in European life, split permanently under the strain.
Such was the age in which, on September 8, 1504, in Florence, Italy, Michelangelo unveiled his statue of David in the city’s main square. Standing over five meters tall, weighing in at over six tons of fine Carrara marble, David was an instant monument to the city’s wealth and to the sculptor’s skill.
David and Goliath was a familiar Old Testament story, about a brave young warrior who, in true underdog fashion, improbably defeated a giant foe in single combat. But with hammer and chisel, Michelangelo fixed into stone a moment that no one had seen before. It must have caused some confusion for those present at the unveiling. David’s face and neck were tensed. His brow was furrowed and his eyes focused determinedly upon some distant point. He stood, not triumphant atop the corpse of his enemy (the standard portrayal), but ready, with the implacable resolve of one who knows his next step but not its outcome. And then they saw the artist’s meaning clearly: Michelangelo carved David in that fateful moment between decision and action, between realizing what he must do and summoning the courage to do it.
They knew that moment. They were in it.
We are in it, too.
The present age is a contest: between the good and bad consequences of global entanglement and human development; between forces of inclusion and exclusion; between flourishing genius and flourishing risks. Whether we each flourish or flounder, and whether the twenty-first century goes down in the history books as one of humanity’s best or worst, depends on what we all do to promote the possibilities and dampen the dangers that this contest brings.
The stakes could not be higher. We each have the perilous fortune to have been born into a historic moment—a decisive moment—when events and choices in our own lifetime will dictate the circumstances of many, many lifetimes to come.
Yes, it is the conceit of each generation to think so, but this time it’s true. The long-term facts speak more loudly than our egos ever could. Humanity’s shift into cities, begun some 10,000 years ago by our Neo- lithic ancestors, crossed the halfway mark in our own lifetimes.1 We are the first generations of the urban epoch. Carbon pollution has pushed atmospheric greenhouse gases today to concentrations not seen since those Neolithic days; 14 of the 15 hottest years in our climate record have all come in the twenty-first century.2 For the first time ever, the number of poor people in the world has plummeted (by over 1 billion people since 1990) and the overall population has swelled (by some 2 billion) at the same time. Scientists alive today outnumber all scientists who ever lived up to 1980 and— in part thanks to them—average life expectancy has risen more in the past 50 years than in the previous 1,000.
In the short term, too, history is being made. The Internet, effectively non-existent 20 years ago, linked 1 billion people by 2005, 2 billion people by 2010 and 3 billion people by 2015. Now, over half of humanity is online.3 China has erupted from autarky to become the world’s biggest exporter and economy. India is close behind. The Berlin Wall is gone, and the clash of economic ideologies that defined the second half of the twentieth century is gone with it. All this feels like old news when set against the head- lines since the turn of the new millennium: 9/11; devastating tsunamis and hurricanes; a global financial crisis that struck dumb the world’s highest- paid brains; a nuclear meltdown in hyper-safe Japan; suicide bombings in the heart of Paris, City of Love; riots over inequality—and happier events like the explosion of mobile and social media, cracking the human genome, the advent of 3D printing, the breaking of long-standing taboos such as gay marriage, the detection of gravitational waves and the discovery of Earth- like planets orbiting nearby stars.
It seems every day we wake up to a new shock. And shock itself is the most compelling evidence that this age is very different, because it’s data that comes from within. Shock is our own personal proof of historic change—a psychic collision of reality and expectations—and it has been the relentless theme of all our lives. It agitates and animates us. It will continue to do so.