The term “paradigm shift” was coined in 1962 by Thomas Kuhn in a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It means change so fundamental that it is impossible to go back to old ways of thinking. Kuhn meant it to apply only to science. For example, as Wikipedia puts it, “Once a paradigm shift is complete, a scientist cannot, for example, posit the possibility that miasma causes disease or that ether carries light.” I would add “that the human species began 6,000 years ago and is not descended from earlier primates.” In fact, those who still insist on such beliefs are not scientists. Physicist Stephen Hawking tells the wonderful story about the little old lady who speaks up at a lecture about the earth, which is now known to be a sphere revolving in space and rotating around the sun, rather than standing on the back of a giant turtle which is standing on the back of another giant turtle, etc. “You can’t fool me, young man,” she says (or words to that effect). “It’s turtles all the way down.”
I have written two short stories about the voyages of Columbus and am doing research for more. I’ve already learned that contrary to popular belief, most people in 1492 knew that the earth was round, not flat. Columbus based his quest for the Indies on his belief that the distance across the intervening “Ocean Sea” was not as great as everybody else believed. In 1633, Galileo was forced to recant his observation that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than being the still center of the universe around which all else revolves. His post-recantation mutter, perhaps apocryphal, “And still it moves,” is the antithesis of “turtles all the way down.” Sometimes paradigm shifts take a long, long time to become complete.
Nowadays, the concept of the “paradigm shift” is applied broadly to describe times in which everything changes. The Industrial Revolution was a paradigm shift. World War I was a socioeconomic paradigm shift that shook up class structure, human mobility, and a host of basic assumptions. So was World War II. Remember the guy in the movie The Graduate who says, “Plastics!” with such gravity he’s clearly attempting to convey the secret of the universe? Before the War, people used glass bottles and wooden picnic forks and metal buckets and...you get the idea.
We are going through a paradigm shift now. When did it start? It’s hard to say, but think about the technology in early episodes of Star Trek, or re-read some science fiction novels from the Eighties or even the Nineties. The World-Wide Web has something to do with it, and so does the miniaturization of electronic devices, which for some reason an awful lot of writers failed to imagine. Can anyone deny that everything is changing? I for one was profoundly surprised when vinyl records disappeared from record stores. Now these stores, as well as video stores, are themselves becoming obsolete as more and more people download music from the Internet and get their movies from Netflix. Now I take discussions of the possible demise of printed books in stride. A calligrapher friend tells me that in her circle, they have the same discussions about handwriting. I’m not surprised, because my son, now pushing 40, went straight from printing to the computer keyboard, leapfrogging over cursive. I’m beginning to get used to people blurting all their secrets on cell phones on crowded buses, because it isn’t going to go away. I wish I’d had my GPS twenty years ago. And I use the Internet constantly to network and promote my books, do therapy with clients all over the world, and keep my friendships strong and current. I don’t yet do texting or own a Kindle, but I’d be a fool not to consider the possibility that at some time within the next ten or twenty years, I may have to join the party unless I want to become not just a Luddite, but a hermit.