From Boston to bitcoin: How change catches us off-guard

  • Article by: DAVID BANKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 18, 2013 - 8:16 PM

We know it’s coming, but it has a way of always sneaking up on us.

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Photo: Rick Nease, MCT/Detroit Free Press

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Where you sit, you’re being spun at roughly 800 miles an hour on a planetary axis and slung at 67,000 miles an hour around an ongoing series of thermonuclear reactions. You’re also hurtling at half a million by this measure of velocity through mostly empty space. Oh, and you’re riding a lake of fire on a crust riven with tense fractures that forcefully shift several million times a year.

All this, and at the moment, you don’t feel a thing.

But there are times when you do. Times when the water’s surface ceases to be still. Times when all sense of stability is shattered.

Some of these moments are physically brutal to their victims and felt collectively by survivors, like Boston or Newtown or — god, how the list goes on. Others are wickedly emotional but essentially private, like the death of a loved one by any cause, or the end of a cherished relationship.

It doesn’t matter which, or what. The point is you had things the way you wanted them, or at least you knew things the way you had them, and now everything has changed.

In the case of public safety, the consequence of recurring acts of mass violence (call it terrorism whether it’s geopolitically motivated or not) is that we are compelled toward a social environment in which our movements are monitored and restricted. Or in the case of the public purse — since human suffering presents in many forms, of which bodily harm is merely the most appalling — it’s that because of past decisions, the social safety net cannot be preserved, and that progress will be reversed out of necessity, not just a poverty of generosity.

We’ll adapt, because we’re wise enough to know, when we’re honest, that change is the only constant. What we don’t necessarily pay heed to is the manner in which it frequently occurs: the deceptive stillness of incubation followed by abrupt actualization. From acts of violence to financial failings and beyond, we’re forever wondering why no one connected the dots, although we may be blissfully unaware when someone has.

This week, the implications of change came before the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices attempted to connect some mind-boggling dots during oral arguments over whether human genes can be patented, and thus controlled by corporations. Although the justices had agreed to take on the case and presumably knew what they were getting into, even they seemed struck by its complexity, needing to break down the discussion into analogies like cookie recipes or baseball bats. We trust that they’ll be technical experts by the time they rule, yet it feels shocking — does it not? — to have arrived at a moment when our very makings may be mined like gold.

And speaking of that: This week, the bottom fell out of gold, which had its biggest two-day decline in value since 1980. The price had been driven up in recent years by fears that central banks could not or would not respond to the aforementioned economic failings without debasing the value of currencies that citizens hold. That distrust doesn’t seem to have faded, so why is gold, conceivably the ideal store of value amid such turmoil, suddenly so unpopular? Perhaps in part because of the rather rapid emergence of an alternative that is an even purer expression of distrust: the bitcoin, a virtual currency designed to be untraceable and unmanipulable by governments.

So far, not really so good: The value of the bitcoin quintupled in less than a month, sparked by events in Cyprus, then dropped by 70 percent in a week. Just a bit volatile. For now it remains a fringe idea, but the fringe is where change begins.

So perhaps one day you’ll wake to find that there’s a new order. It would not be unheard of. In many ways, the prevailing order has come about during our lifetimes.

Or maybe one day natural forces will again move heaven and earth.

Or one day yet another individual will grow disenchanted or disturbed, and some number of days after that …

Those several million earthquakes that the U.S. Geographical Survey now estimates occur around the globe annually? Most are undetected, even by instruments. But they’re building, always building, toward something we can’t contain.

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David Banks is the Star Tribune's assistant commentary editor.

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