The design of meaning

Contribution to the European Cultural Parliament
First version

Looking back in history we can now see that about a hundred
generations ago almost all known civilisations revitalize themselves. Today we
wonder whether Confucius, Lao Tze, Boeddha, Jain, the Jewish Prophets or the
Greek philosophers know they are all shaping a new paradigm by which humanity
molds and shapes itself for almost 2000 years. Or whether they know that their
philosophies are equal in that in each the individual is more active and
responsible for his own destiny than before.

Of course there are other such moments: eighty generations
ago Christianity grows out of Judaism and fifty five generations ago Mohammed
creates Islam. Then 52 generations ago, within two lifetimes Abd-ar-rahman in
Cordoba brings Islam, Judaism and Christianity together with such cultural
intensity that much of Western European culture can still be traced to that
period. It takes more than 10 generations for that impulse to subside.

Amazingly, those cultural codes, that hold us together for
almost 2000 years, unravel during the last four generations. All of a sudden it
seems like ‘all that is solid melts into air’ as Marx writes. looking at the
population growth during that time is one thing that makes that development

Cultural impulses always originated in one location and then
travelled from there to others. Generation after generation people would take up
new ideas, shape and reshape them and use them to structure their lives and
societies. Ideas became fashions and fashions became the daily stock of society,
in their turn leading to new ideas.

In Western Europe (and America) mankind has shown to be very
predictable in its adoption of new cultural content. In their book ‘the fourth
turning’, Strauss and Howe show the last 35 generations in England and America
show a clear repeating pattern os each four consecutive generations. Their
research sees the cultural development of western society go through seven
socalled saeculi:

 -  Late Medieval
 -  Reformation
 -  New World
 -  Revolutionary
 -  Civil War
 -  Great Power
 -  Millennial   (1946-2026?

Each generation is accompanied by a turning, and as they
phrase it on the book’s website: the first turning is a high, the second turning
is an awakening, the third turning is an unravelling and the fourth turning is a

In this picture, any answer to the question on the possible
value of culture will be determined by the time it is asked. What cultural
‘time’ is it? According to Strauss and Howe, we’re on the verge of a fourth
turning – a crisis – and their book partly is a guide to dealing with that fact
for the different generations currently active. A time that is characterized by
major upheaval, and a basic reshaping of all our systems: economic, technical or

High   (1946-1964)
Consciousness Revolution
Culture Wars   (1984-2005?)
Crisis?   (2005?-2026?)

Following the pattern of generations they predicted (10
years ago!) that American society about now would experience a cataclysmic event
that would start a mood of crisis. The question for us is whether these cycles
cover all of our European histories or that they even cover all cultures.

And then we have to add another linear development to the
cyclical: although we may go through the same cyclical moves, the game is
getting more complex.

In the beginning of a century and living in a simpler world,
we call our future ‘modernism’ and create modern cities, modern buildings and
modern furniture. When these plans don’t hold up we relieve ourselves by calling
a newfound complexity ‘post modern’ and busy ourselves building a postmodern
world. Now that seems to get out of hand we’re into ‘post post modernism’ or
just generally at a loss.

To survive we have to reinvent ourselves and we cannot do it
the same way. Adding reflection to reflection cannot be done in the same way two
times over.

To survive we have to create new meaning. That is why our
systems suddenly appear meaningless to us: educators don’t know why they
educate, hospitals are not full of care and governments seem to loose their

We have to create new meaning. And since, during the last
four generations, we avidly build up experience in continuous reflection we will
understand our predicament and design meaning. Meaning will not grow on us, it
will not emerge, we will design meaning. That is why, in essence, the
information society is no longer what is says it is, but is turning into a
meaning society and culture will be at the heart of it as long as it contributes
to that process. The information revolution turns into a cultural revolution.

The dynamics of that process are two fold: diffusing
existing cultural forms into other domains of society, and growing new cultural
contributions to answer new needs. Both of which we see happen.  That is
one of the reasons we see artists working in schools, in neighborhoods, in
businesses. They create a new sense of meaning. Culture as entertainment is
one  example of the first, the task before us will be our contribution to
the second.

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