We are on a path that began long before any written memory. Tens of thousands of years of imperceptible then incremental change, accelerating suddenly, and creating revolution after revolution in the last few hundred years.
Social organization changed radically in the process.
Before the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago, humans lived in small migratory bands of hunters and gatherers. Urban settlements subsequently emerged as agriculture became established, and new technologies and practices were invented for farming, animal husbandry, and transportation. New forms of political organization and specialized division of labor changed the social structure of communities.
From these origins regional civilizations emerged, supported by professional militaries and managed by centralized governments. By the start of the 16th century, new technologies for navigation, ocean travel, and warfare enabled geographic expansion and the creation of global empires. Cities now became centres of power and international trade.
The stage was set for a much more radical transformation during the Industrial Revolution.
“In its capacity to reorganize human societies, this new revolution can only be compared with the Agricultural Revolution some 10,000 years earlier. Like the latter, it was to affect every society, increasing the power of those that achieved industrialization to previously unimaginable heights, and subjecting those that did not to ever more insidious and imperious forms of domination. It was to remodel internally every society, whether industrialized directly or modernized indirectly; to alter social stratification and along with it the power structure; and profoundly to change the world view and system of values.” [Darcy Ribeiro. The Civilizational Process. 1968.]
Driven by a tidal wave of new technologies, this new revolution would quickly change everything.
An Explosion of Ingenuity
The 1800s were a time of unprecedented innovation. While long, the following list is only suggestive:
- tools and devices – the mechanical calculator, cash register, sewing machine, key lock, zipper, safety pin, paper clip, can opener, escalator, seismograph, cathode ray tube;
- appliances – the electric iron, vacuum cleaner, dishwasher;
- materials – steel, petroleum products, plastic, rubber vulcanization, rayon, Portland cement, synthetic dye, dynamite;
- energy – the kerosene lamp, battery, safety match, electric dynamo, electromagnetic motor, light bulb, steam turbine, internal combustion engine, fuel cell;
- agriculture – barbed wire, the steel plow, reaper, corn planter, combine harvester;
- manufacturing – the Jacquard loom, assembly lines;
- warfare – the revolver, machine gun;
- transportation – the locomotive, steamship, bicycle, automobile, motorcycle, manned glider;
- communication – the typewriter, telegraph, wireless telegraphy, telephone, trans-Atlantic cable;
- entertainment – the phonograph, phonograph record, player piano, photographic film, motion-picture camera and projector;
- medicine – antiseptics, Pasteurization, aspirin, the x-ray, stethoscope, contact lenses, hearing aid.
New Connective Networks
In parallel with this revolution in technology, we also began to connect the world.
Railway building revolutionized transportation. France’s rail network grew from 10 miles of track in 1828 to 2,400 miles by 1855. By 1860, the United States had more than 30,000 miles of rail. By 1869, a transcontinental railway connected the west and east coasts in the United States. [A History of Technology and Invention. Progress Through the Ages. Volume III – The Expansion of Mechanization 1725-1860. 1979.]
By 1900 almost 200,000 miles of rail line were in operation. At the end of the 19th century, historian Alfred D. Chandler said, American railways were the world’s largest business enterprises. [The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. 1977.]
Continents were physically linked for the first time. In the second half of the 19th century, Britain laid undersea cables that circled the globe. [Armand Mattelart. Networking the World, 1794-2000. 2000.]
“The first undersea cable was inaugurated in 1851. It connected Calais to Dover and Paris to the City of London. Fifteen years later, after three unsuccessful attempts, the first transatlantic cable was laid. Then a line was laid between Malta and Alexandria, which enabled London to communicate directly with India. In the 1870s the British network spread toward Southeast Asia, Australia, and China, and also toward the West Indies and South America. Africa received cable a little later, in the late 1880s and early 1890s. The last link in the British global network, the transpacific, was completed in 1902.”
Scientific and Social Revolutions
A revolution in science was changing our understanding of the world. Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859. James Clerk-Maxwell published equations describing electricity and magnetism. Louis Pasteur discovered that diseases were caused by germs. Gregor Mendel identified how genetic traits are transmitted.
The old social order was also breaking down. Violent revolutions in the decades leading up to the beginning of 19th century created a democratic government in America and put an end to the feudal system in France. In Britain, the Industrial Revolution mechanized the production of goods and rapidly transformed the way life was lived. People migrated from the countryside to rapidly expanding cities.
Industrialization created a world where people worked for wages, and for the first time work was a commodity sold in the marketplace. Economic specialization replaced cottage industry. Craftsmen became factory hands. Workers were paid menial wages, and child labor and long hours were common.
As people moved from rural areas to towns, death rates rose due to disease. The life expectancy for men was 44 years in rural Surrey, 35 in London, and 24 in Manchester. [Paul Hohenberg and Lynn Hollen Lees. The Making of Urban Europe 1000-1950. 1985.]
Industrialization spread quickly to the rest of Western Europe and North America. Revolution, democratization, citizenship and mass education led to the rise of nation-states. [Mathew Horsman and Andrew Marshall. After the Nation-State: Citizens, Tribalism and the New World Disorder. 1940.]
The 20th century rocketed off this 19th century launching pad. There were breakthroughs in every field of science and technology, accompanied by radical changes in politics, economics, society and culture.
While the 19th century saw remarkable growth in material standards of living, the 20th century was unique in all of human history. American economist Bradford DeLong graphed the relative pace of growth in productivity levels and living standards for leading economies in Europe and North America, over a span of ten centuries, illustrating the surge in material wealth.
Bradford DeLong. “The Economic History of the
Twentieth Century: Slouching Towards Utopia?”
The human population increased by 50% in the 18th century, and 80% in the 19th century. It tripled in the 20th Century. Through early human history, the average lifespan was less than 50 years. This increased in the 1800s, reaching 49 in the United States in 1900. It soared to 75-80 in most industrialized countries by the end of the 20th century. [David Leonhardt. “Life Expectancy Data” in the New York Times, September 27, 2006]
During the last two decades of the 19th century, 20 disease-causing bacteria were identified. Between 1881 — when Louis Pasteur developed a vaccine for anthrax — and 2000, vaccines had been developed for 20 diseases [James C. Riley. Rising Life Expectancy: A Global History. 2001.] New understanding of the role of germs in disease, and a revolution in sanitation, reduced mortality and increased life expectancy.
Human knowledge grew exponentially. In 1973, French economist Georges Anderla described the growth trajectory for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). He estimated that knowledge had doubled between 1 AD and 1500, again by 1750, again by 1900, and again by 1950, only 50 years later. The doubling time was then reduced to 10 years, then to seven, and finally to six years, leading up to the year he completed his study.
Buckminster Fuller referenced Anderla’s data in The Critical Path (1982), calling it the “Knowledge Doubling Curve.” At the end of the 20th century, information was doubling every 18 months.
Knowledge in the 1700s was unsystematic and informal. In the 1800s, it was organized into specialized disciplines, including the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. Communities of specialists were created to share methods and expertise, and focus on particular domains. Sub-disciplines emerged to further codify and organize our understanding of the world. Social and academic systems were created to support this structure. Britain alone had more than one thousand associations for technical and scientific knowledge in the middle of the 19th century, with approximately 200,000 members. [Joel Mokyr. The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy. 2004.]
Thomas S. Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962, showing that rather than advancing incrementally over time, knowledge progresses through periodic revolutions that overturn existing paradigms and replace them with new ones. In the 20th century many of the 19th century models of the world were overthrown. With improved understanding of the laws of nature, humans gained new powers to bend the world to their needs.
Atomic physics, astrophysics, astronomy, cosmology, archeology, anthropology, ecology, medicine, molecular biology, genetics, pharmacology, psychology and other disciplines expanded human knowledge exponentially. Science and technology became ever more intertwined.
New Technological Innovations
In the 20th century, new technological innovations touched virtually every aspect of human life. Airplanes, agricultural implements, rockets, ballistic missiles, satellites, spacecraft, submarines, nuclear reactors, atomic weapons, radio, television, refrigeration, radar, lasers, fiber optics, new scientific instruments, chemical engineering, synthetic materials, health technologies, pharmaceuticals, oral contraceptives, in vitro fertilization, cloning, genetic engineering, biotechnology, electronics, fax machines, computers, software, semiconductors, integrated chips and multiprocessors were only a few of the new fruits of human ingenuity.
The 19th and 20th centuries set the stage for a tsunami of change in the 21st century that will be unprecedented in all of human history. Futurist Ray Kurzweil writes that we should expect no less than “exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth.” Instead of a hundred years of progress, he says, “it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).”