The One Big Story, and the Next One

What have been the biggest stories since human civilization began?

We domesticated animals, learned to farm, and founded cities. We suffered from plagues and climate changes. We explored other lands, bringing guns, germs, and steel along with new foods, customs, and genes. We established many new religions and political systems; some of these spread far and wide and stuck, other flared brightly then burned out. In our darker periods we waged horrible wars and committed genocide.

So which of these matter the most? Which have made the biggest difference in the human condition? This is, of course, an impossible question to answer definitively. But one way to get some insight on it is to draw a simple graph of human population over time. A development that changes the slope of this graph substantially could, I argue, be categorized as a big deal for the species.

So here’s that graph from 10,000 BCE to 2000 CE, drawn using data from Wikipedia:


According to this picture, there has been exactly one development that’s greatly changed the course of humanity — changed it just about 90 degrees. And it’s a technological development.

The graph of human population went from horizontal to vertical because of the industrial revolution, the invention of a set of technologies (starting with James Watt’s reciprocating steam engine) that let us get beyond the limitations of human and animal muscle power. As historian Ian Morris writes in his fascinating book Why The West Rules — For Now, “the industrial revolution… made mockery of all that had gone before.”

The Industrial Revolution led to the development of modern capitalism, which historian Joyce Appleby has called a ‘relentless revolution.’ Revolutions are often blood-soaked affairs, but this one hasn’t been. Instead, the forces unleashed by steam have led to not just more people, but also quality of life improvements that are as dramatic as the population growth shown above.

Here’s a graph of human ‘social development’ in both the West (essentially Europe and North America) and the East (China and Japan) since 10,000 BCE. Ian Morris came up with this numeric measure of social development; it consists of energy capture, urbanism (a proxy for organizational capacity), information processing, and warmaking capacity. It shows that social development lines up almost perfectly with population growth:

Source: Morris, Why the West Rules -- for Now. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)

And here’s a graph, created by economist Greg Clark, of the real wages of British construction workers from the Medieval period forward. It shows that it took a while for workers to share in the economic benefits of the industrial revolution, but they eventually did so; wage growth eventually went from flat to exponential, just like population growth and social development did:

Hardcore Luddites and Communists might argue that the industrial revolution and capitalism set humanity down a bad course, but their arguments line up with the facts about as well as Flat Earthers‘ do. The technologies that let us get past the limitations of muscle — first steam, then electricity and internal combustion —  have been some of the most important developments in human history. Looking at the data presented here, in fact, one could argue that they’re the most important ones.

Which leads me to a question: will overcoming the limitations of our brains be as big a deal? As I’ve written before, the computer revolution has multiplied our ability to calculate about as much as the industrial revolution multiplied our ability to lift, pull, push, and carry. We’re no longer held back by our ability to crunch numbers — to store, process, and transmit data.

This is a very recent phenomenon. Personal computers are 30 years old, the Web about half that. So it makes no sense to me to argue that the computer revolution is over, or even that we understand all its implications.

When we overcame the limitations of muscle capacity, it’s no overstatement to say that the world changed — no, improved – as never before. So what should our expectations be about overcoming the limitations of mental capacity?

I ask because I honestly don’t know the answer. It seems ridiculous to think that the humanity’s lot will be improved as much by digitization as it was by the Industrial Revolution. But it seems reasonable to believe that infinitely expanding mental capacity is as big a deal as infinitely expanding muscle capacity. And we saw what happened when we did the latter.

So I’m a bit lost, here in the middle of this transformation. I don’t believe in the Singularity —  I don’t think humans are going to merge with computers any more deeply than we’ve merged with jumbo jets or lawnmowers. But I do believe that big changes and improvements are ahead. Will they be of the same type, and the same magnitude, as those that followed the industrial revolution?

I don’t know (but wow, am I interested to learn). What do you think? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.