A metric to measure the great tensions of our time

A metric to measure the great tensions of our time

Begin an argument on just about anything, it quickly converts to some version of debate on the “Great Underlying Tension of Our Times.” I’ll call it “GUTOT” for now and we can invent something more grandiose later.

In geo-politics, the unified theory to explain everything – or GUTOT – might be the tensions imbedded in the decline of the U.S. and the rise of China. Or the reverse if you prefer.

Or take the European Union, where strikes in Greece or a gas pipeline beneath the Baltic Sea can only be properly considered as the GUTOT of German plans for continental domination. Iran? That’s easy, the GUTOT is just the movement along the tectonic plates of the historic Sunni-Shiite divide.

Closer to home, we can engage in a similar game of GUTOT. All of Turkish politics can be seen as reflective of unresolved tensions between Turkish and Kurdish cultural identity; or the clash between the old urban elites and the new rural ones; or the rise and fall of military authority in Turkey’s civil affairs.

But what are we to do if the root of it all is something far more mundane? Which, I will immodestly propose to be the case. The GUTOT is the collapse of the “half-life of knowledge.”

This is a concept I thought was invented by a Russian. But a Wikipedia check informs me the idea is attributed to Austrian-American economist Fritz Machlup who coined the phrase in 1962. The “half-life” in this case is the amount of time that has to elapse before half of the knowledge in a particular area is superseded or shown to be untrue.

It’s not easy to measure, of course. But think of what you have had to learn and then discard in the last 10, or 20, or 30 years. An example of “long half-life knowledge” might be a language; once you have acquired one its durability is life-long. But suppose you had learned the programming language Fortran instead of Spanish or French? This was a damn-hard body of knowledge to master in the 1950s when it was useful. But try and find a job knowing just Fortran today. The knowledge is almost obsolete.

Much of the knowledge I acquired to operate my last laptop, a PC, is useless as I write this column on a new computer which is a Mac. Alas, I am prisoner to short half-life knowledge. But meanwhile, my knowledge of the QWERTY keyboard, which I picked up with a typewriter back in 1970, serves me to this day on Mac or PC. Long-half life.

These are examples from our personal lives. But if one analogizes to the larger realm of political life, the lessons hold. Knowing Turkey a decade ago is marginal preparation for the Turkey of today. Five years ago I wrote a chapter for a book on the European Union predicting it to be the global model for the future. Just a year ago, the world’s “Middle East experts” were caught flat-footed as change swept through the region.

Knowledge and expertise today is increasingly ephemeral, whether it be in politics, education, medicine or the art of war. We must forget what we knew to be “true” and learn new realities at an ever-quickening pace. The process exhausts our leaders, our institutions and ourselves.

This is the “Great Underlying Tension of Our Times.” And forget my abbreviation GUTOT. This acronym deserves a short half-life.