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American Society in Motion – The Ever-Changing Present

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Brescia
July 21, 2017

The rate of change in American society continues to accelerate. Every new wrinkle of an existing social truism becomes a tear in the social fabric — and these small separations can become large ones in short order. Instead of sealing the rip, we allow these tears to emerge and form new structures. These are rather tenuous linkages between the past and the present and that’s the point of my present writing: flexible and morphable linkages have taken the place of yesterday’s hard social structures. Hard structures of the past, such as police, schools, hospitals, governments, courts and other civic functions have now become the “sandcastles” of today’s society — easier to substantially change in form and function. The relationship between the past and the present has also dramatically changed. We tend to conceptualize our lives and today’s society as more of an ever-changing present. I like historical sociologist Will Durant’s oft-cited phrase, “The present is the past, all ready for action; the past is the present, all unfurled for analysis.”

If you’ve read up to this point, do you suspect I might have spoken heresy about the past and the present? Shouldn’t we just try to recapture some of that good old hard structure which gave us comfort and surety?

Consider these changes in just three of society’s time-honored social structures and functions:

  • Health Care

This basic and necessary societal function has changed dramatically and will continue to do so at least for the next decade. There are far fewer generalists, family doctors and almost no house calls. The positioning of health care services is different — we now have emergency clinics sprouting up everywhere, generally taking on such names as “Neighborhood Emergency Clinic”, or “NextCare.” There are approximately 7,000 such clinics in the United States today. They charge the same or more than hospital emergency room rates, relying on your frustration of not being seen in time at a regular hospital. Electronic Health Records (EHR) are bringing huge changes and will affect the doctor-patient relationship because many more people will have access to patient records.

  • Knowledge Acquisition and Distribution

Libraries were go-to places for knowledge acquisition. They still exist but are supplemented by the new social process of gaining internet-based knowledge from wherever you are. This has led to incredible smartening of the general population and incredible dumbing–down at the same time. Indeed, the notion of what passes for knowledge has drastically changed. Today’s knowledge is not presented in structured buckets sporting labels of “peer-reviewed”, classic” or “pop culture”— it’s just there. The burden of assigning values to different types of knowledge rests with the acquirer. Unfortunately, therein lies the downside. Members of society seem to have a problem distinguishing between absolute and relative truth, historical fact, news, opinion and other categories of “knowledge.” The so-called “fake news” phenomenon that has been popularized by the current administration is a calling-out of the confusion that is prevalent in media reporting.

  • Language

The third example of changing social structure is language. Without going into structural linguistic theory, Ferdinand de Saussure and all the greats, suffice it to say that the English language has taken considerable hits since the last century. The way we pronounce many words in our language has changed significantly. Words have disappeared over time and new words have entered the language. Currently, there are almost 172,000 words in the English language along with nearly 48,000 obsolete words. Our language-trained brains cringe when we hear variations and misuses of the language simply because of that — we’ve been trained to expect a certain word and a certain pronunciation of that word. The relatively new “Phoneglish” is now providing a fast, code-based way to communicate using two thumbs and a phone. We supplement our communications with “emoji” to convey the feelings that are absent in digital communications and we are now using them in addition to the word in couplets — word plus image together.

Social changes can create a new patchwork of the social fabric. Consider the following diagram:

process

When legislators contemplate social change initiatives that affect Americans on a broad scale, however, they must also template those changes against the time-honored principles that keep us from a national unraveling: The U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the rule of law.

  • Summary

Yes, we are changing and changing fast as a society. No one person or group of persons will be able to stop this trend nor reverse it. You cannot go back — only forward. Our ever-changing present has absolutely nothing to do with the political liberal versus conservative arguments of the day. It has everything to do with the grand nature of human existence. Nevertheless, we do need reliability. When we can no longer trust our social institutions to deliver reliability and expected results, we risk movement to doubt, fear, and chaotic behavior. Trust that creation was and is magnificent and that no amount of human tinkering will change that. Live on the breaking edge of the future as it emerges every day — in the present.


Author: Bob Brescia serves as the Executive Director of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute, Odessa, TX. His latest book is Destination Greatness – Creating a New Americanism. Bob has a doctoral degree with distinction in Executive Leadership from The George Washington University. He also serves as Chairman of the Board at Basin PBS – West Texas public television. Please contact him at [email protected] or Twitter: @Robert_Brescia.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

3 Responses to American Society in Motion – The Ever-Changing Present

  1. Chuck Selinger Reply

    July 29, 2017 at 2:29 pm

    This meets your usual high standards (may even surpass those standards on some of your excellent points!!

    JBS Public Institute Must be very proud to have your leadership. I certainly am.proud to consider you as a very good friend.

  2. Chris Stanley Reply

    July 26, 2017 at 1:34 pm

    Well done with this article!
    My suggestions are simple.
    Let’s get people back to the basics.
    Focus your actions on servant leadership…Go plant a garden! Go feed the needy!
    There are thousands of at-risk youth out there that need mentors…

  3. Cynthia Ward Reply

    July 26, 2017 at 12:41 pm

    Another poignant and well-written article from Bob Brescia.

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