The Future in System – Theoretical Aspect

The dominance of mass man and the suppression of the individual by an ever extending social machinery; the breakdown of the traditional system of values and its replacement by pseudoreligions, ranging from nationalism to the cult of status symbols, to astrology, psychoanalysis and Californian sectarianism; the decay of creativity in art, music and poetry; the willing submission of the mass to authoritarianism, be it a dictator or an impersonal élite; the colossal fights between a decreasing number of super-states: these are some of the symptoms recurring in our days. “We note the psychological change in those classes of society which had been up till then the creators of culture. Their creative power and creative energy dry up; men grow weary and lose interest in creation and cease to value it; they are disenchanted; their effort is no longer an effort toward a creative ideal for the benefit of humanity, their minds are occupied either with material interests, or with ideals unconnected with life on earth and realized elsewhere.” This is not an editorial of yesterday’s newspaper, but a description of the decay of the Roman Empire by its well-known historian, Rostovtzeff.

However, against these and other symptoms catalogued by the prophets of doom, there are two factors in which our civilization obviously is unique in comparison to those that have perished in the past. One is the technological development which permits a control of nature never before achieved and would open a way to alleviate the hunger, disease, overpopulation, etc. to which humanity was previously exposed. The other factor is the global nature of our civilization. Previous ones were limited by geographical boundaries, and comprised only limited groups of human beings. Our civilization comprises the whole planet and even reaches beyond in the conquest of space. Our technological civilization is not the privilege of comparatively small groups such as the citizens of Athens or of the Roman Empire, of Germans or French, or of white Europeans. Rather it is open to all human beings of whatever color, race or creed.

These are indeed singularities which explode the cyclic scheme of history and seem to place our civilization at a different level from previous ones. Let us try an admittedly tentative synthesis.

I believe the “decline of the west” is not a hypothesis or a prophesy—it is an accomplished fact. That splendid cultural development which started in the European countries around the year 1000 and produced Gothic cathedrals, Renaissance art, Shakespeare and Goethe, the precise architecture of Newtonian physics and all the glory of European culture—this enormous cycle of history is accomplished and cannot be revivified by artificial means.

We have to reckon with the stark reality of a mass civilization, technological, international, encompassing the earth and all of mankind, in which cultural values and creativity of old are replaced by novel devices. The present power struggles may, in their present explosive phase, lead to universal atomic devastation. If not, the differences between West and East probably will, one way or the other, become insignificant because the similarity of material culture in the long run will prove stronger than ideological differences.

Source: Bertalanffy Ludwig Von (1969), General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, George Braziller Inc.; Revised edition.

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