The Journey: An Historical Perspective

My previous post launched a series that will tell the full story of my reimagined future. Described as a journey through the looking glass, the story began with a description of the series title and a look backward in time. This second post in the series will add to that historical perspective. Each subsequent post will feature a piece of our journey.  

I have explored the two biggest tipping points in human history from my perspective. True tipping points change what it means to be human. In his book The Fourth Age, Byron Reese states that for us to rightly say we have launched into a new age, something must come along that changes us and how we live in a profound and permanent way. Something that alters our trajectory as a species. With this as context, the starting point for this discussion is the hunter-gatherer period, which covers most of human history. Humans in this age saw little improvement in quality of life, and existed by fishing, hunting, and gathering plants and animals. The fundamental driver of this age was survival. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors worked just enough to feed themselves, shared freely with each other, had no desire for material possession, and formed the world’s most egalitarian economic model.

As time passed, language and fire started us on a path to the first tipping point. Fire was the original multi-function technology. It provided light, safety (because animals feared it), and the ability to cook (its greatest benefit). Cooked food enabled us to increase our caloric intake – the effect of which allowed us to grow our brains. These more powerful brains led to the creation of a new technology called language – the great leap that historian Will Durant says, made us human. The advancements that followed drove the first tip, specifically the invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. The world transitioned from the hunter-gatherer age to the age of agriculture.

When the climate warmed and stabilized about 12,000 years ago, agriculture became viable. The economy of an agricultural society was based on producing and maintaining crops and farmland. Its emergence brought about additional advances; the first was the city. Whereas hunter-gatherers had to go to the sources of food, agriculture required humans to settle down in one place. The second advance was the division of labor, marking a major milestone in the history of humanity. Dividing labor allowed individuals to specialize in narrower tasks, instead of those things necessary for survival. By doing so, tremendous economic growth was achieved through the efficiencies realized.

Soon, humanity had the means to create wealth, to oppress by withholding food, to own land, and to create a ruling class. For the first time in human history, inequality was a part of society. The lack of property made ancient hunter-gatherers more egalitarian than any subsequent society. As property multiplied, inequality grew. As we gained ownership of land, animals, plants, and tools, rigid hierarchical societies emerged, and small elites monopolized most wealth and power for generations. Along the way, money, the wheel, and writing were invented.

The invention of writing was followed by what some have called the most influential invention in human history: the printing press in the 15th century. By ushering in the age of mass communication and enabling a scientific revolution, the structure of society was permanently altered once again. The age of Enlightenment followed, driving an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated Europe during the 18th century and threatened the power of political and religious authorities. During the century, the steam engine was invented, delivering what an MIT study found to be the most Impactful Innovation in human history. A steam-powered printing press soon revolutionized the print industry and improved the literacy rate throughout the western hemisphere. As a result, the world tipped for the second time – this time to the Industrial Age.

That second tipping point beginning about 1760 ushered in three revolutions. The First Industrial Revolution saw the rise of iron and textile industries and the mechanization of production using water and the steam engine. It also saw a reduction in physical labor and a shift in where new forms of labor were required. The Second Industrial Revolution started in 1870, riding advances such as electricity, telephone, and the internal combustion engine to drive rapid industrialization and globalization. A massive disruption followed, as established sectors were eliminated, and new ones emerged. Some have called this period from 1870 to 1970 a very Special Century. The inventions of this period established the modern era and set the current standard of living in the western world. Electricity, running water, sanitation, antibiotics, refrigeration, advances in the social contract, and many more innovations were at the heart of this special time in history.

Each tipping point was driven by human invention. Economist Jeremy Rifkin argues that revolutions are fueled by general-purpose technology platforms (GPTPs). In his book The Zero Marginal Cost Society, he describes the economic paradigm shifts of the past, and points to three elements that converge to create a general-purpose technology platform that drives them: new forms of communication, new forms of energy, and new mechanisms for transport and logistics. The two Industrial Revolutions referenced were driven by this GPTP phenomenon. In the first Industrial Revolution, it was the steam engine, the printing press, and the railroad. In the second, it was electricity, the telephone, and the car. Rifkin believes a powerful new platform is emerging to drive another economic paradigm shift. The three components of this emerging GPTP in his estimation are the Internet (communication), renewable energy (Energy), autonomous vehicles and the Internet of Things (Logistics and Transport).

In the context of tipping points and human history, we could very well be entering the third tipping point: from an industrial society to one that alters the human species more profoundly than any time in history. A think tank called RethinkX has labelled this new age the age of freedom. Tony Seba and James Arbib describe this new possibility as being driven by convergence across five foundational sectors: energy, transport, information, food, and materials. This convergence enables reimagination in areas like feeding and powering society. In this emerging age of creation, global design converges with local production and is unconstrained by industrial age limitations. In similar fashion, Rifkin sees the platform that supported the second tipping point (communications, energy, and transport), changing dramatically for the first time since the second revolution. We’ve already seen the profound impact the Internet had on our communication paradigm: and more is coming as mixed reality, brain communications, and broad shifts in our interaction paradigm (talking, gesturing, looking, etc.) change the game again. But this time, the energy and transport paradigms will change with it, leveraging the Internet of Things to create the next general-purpose technology platform.

This tip however could be more profound. As Byron Reese described, for a new age to emerge, something must come along that changes us and how we live in a profound and permanent way. Something that alters our trajectory as a species. It’s the potential to alter the human species that may have this tipping point stand out from the two that came before.

The common denominator driving these tips were invention and knowledge. We will explore the growth of knowledge in the next post.

First Post in the series: A Journey through the Looking Glass

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