Vaclav Havel: The Thin Veneer of Global Technological Civilization
Excerpts from
Vaclav Havel's Harvard Commencement Address
June 8, 1995

I had the good fortune to hear President Havel give this address in person.
Any user of the web should find this interesting.
Some of you will be inspired.

"One evening not long ago I was sitting in an outdoor restaurant by the water. My chair was almost identical to the chairs they have in restaurants by the Vltava River in Prague. They were playing the same rock music they play in Prague restaurants. I saw advertisements I'm familiar with back home.

"Above all, I was surrounded by young people who were similarly dressed, who drank familiar-looking drinks, and who behaved as casually as their contemporaries in Prague. Only their complexion and their facial features were different – for I was in Singapore.

"I sat there thinking about this and again – for the umpteenth time – I realized an almost banal truth: that we now live in a single global civilization.

"The identity of this civilization does not lie merely in similar forms of dress, or similar drinks, or in the constant buzz of the same commercial music all around the world, or even in international advertising.

"It lies in something deeper: thanks to the modern idea of constant progress, with its inherent expansionism, and to the rapid evolution of science that comes directly from it, our planet has, for the first time in the long history of the human race, been covered in the space of a very few decades by a single civilization – one that is essentially technological.

"The world is now enmeshed in webs of telecommunications networks consisting of millions tiny threads or capillaries that not only transmit information of all kinds at lightning speed, but also convey integrated models of social, political and economic behavior.

"They are conduits for legal norms, as well as for billions and billions of dollars crisscrossing the world while remaining invisible even to those who deal directly with them.

"The life of the human race is completely interconnected not only in the informational sense but in the causal sense as well.

"Anecdotally, I could illustrate this by reminding you – since I've already mentioned Singapore – that today all it takes is a single shady transaction initiated by a devious bank clerk in Singapore to bring down a bank on the other side of the world....

"More than that, the capillaries that have so radically integrated this civilization also convey information about certain modes of human co-existence that have proven their worth, like democracy, respect for human rights, the rule of law, the laws of the market-place.

"Such information flows around the world and, in varying degrees, takes root in different places....

"In theory, at least, [this global civilization] gives people not only the capacity for worldwide communication, but also a coordinated means of defending themselves against common dangers. It can also, in an unprecedented way, make our life on this earth easier and open up to us hitherto unexplored horizons in our knowledge of ourselves and the world we live in.

"And yet there is something not quite right about it....

"I want to focus today on the source of the dangers that threaten humanity despite this global civilization, and often directly because of it. Above all, I would like to speak about the ways in which these dangers can be confronted.

"Many of the great problems we face today, as far as I understand them, have their origin in the fact that this global civilization, though in evidence everywhere, is not more than a thin veneer over the sum total of human awareness, if I may put it that way.

"This civilization is immensely fresh, young, new, and fragile, and the human spirit has accepted it with dizzying alacrity, without itself changing in any essential way.

"Humanity has evolved over long millennia in all manner of civilizations and cultures that gradually, in very diverse ways, shaped our habits of mind, our relationship to the world, our models of behavior and the values we accept and recognize.

"In essence, the new, single epidermis of world civilization merely covers or conceals the immense variety of cultures, of peoples, of religious worlds, of historical traditions and historically formed attitudes, all of which in a sense lie 'beneath' it.

"At the same time, even as the veneer of world civilization expands, this 'underside' of humanity, this hidden dimension of it, demands more and more clearly to be heard and to be granted a right to life.

"And thus, while the world as a whole increasingly accepts the new habit of global civilization, another contradictory process is taking place: ancient traditions are reviving, different religions and cultures are awakening to new ways of being, seeking new room to exist, and struggling with growing fervor to realize what is unique to them and what makes them different from others. Ultimately they seek to give their individuality a political expression.

"What follows from all of this?

"It is my belief that this state of affairs contains a clear challenge not only to the Euro-American world but to our present-day civilization as a whole.

"It is a challenge to this civilization to start understanding itself as a multicultural and multipolar civilization, whose meaning lies not in undermining the individuality of different spheres of culture and civilization but in allowing them to be more completely themselves.

"This will only be possible, even conceivable, if we all accept a basic code of mutual co-existence, a kind of continuum we can all share, one that will enable us to go on living side by side.

"Yet such a code won't stand a chance if it is merely the product of the few who then proceed to force it on the rest.

"It must be an expression of the authentic will of everyone, growing out of the genuine spiritual roots hidden beneath the skin of our common, global civilization.

"If it is merely disseminated through the capillaries of this skin, the way Coca-cola ads are – as a commodity offered by some to others – such a code can hardly be expected to take hold in any profound or universal way.

"But is humanity capable of such an undertaking?

"Is it not hopelessly utopian idea?....

"I don't know.

"But I have not lost hope.

"I have not lost hope because I am persuaded again and again that lying dormant in the deepest roots of most, if not all, cultures there is an essential similarity, something that could be made – if the will to do so existed – a genuinely unifying starting point for that new code of human co-existence that would be firmly anchored in the great diversity of human traditions.

"Don't we find somewhere in the foundations of most religions and cultures, though they may take a thousand and one distinct forms, common elements such as a respect for what transcends us, whether we mean the mystery of Being, or a moral order that stands above us; certain imperatives that come to us from heaven, or from nature, or from our own hearts; a belief that our deeds will live past us; respect for our neighbors, for our families, for certain natural authorities; respect for human dignity and for nature; a sense of solidarity and benevolence toward guests who come with good intentions?

"Isn't the common, ancient origin or human roots of our diverse spiritualities, each of which is merely another kind of human understanding of the same reality, the thing that can genuinely bring people of different cultures together?....

"Naturally, I am not suggesting that modern people be compelled to worship ancient deities and accept rituals they have long since abandoned.

"I am suggesting something quite different: we must come to understand the deep mutual connection or kinship between the various forms of our spirituality. We must recollect our original spiritual and moral substance, which grew out of the same essential experience of humanity.

"I believe that this is the only way to achieve a genuine renewal of our sense of responsibility for ourselves and for the world. And at the same time, it is the only way to achieve a deeper understanding among cultures that will enable them to work together in a truly ecumenical way to create a new order for the world."

Would you like to look at our planet in the light of Havel's ideas?