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The Recent Past  

When it comes to written history it is the winners version that becomes the dominant story; we do well to remember that it only looks inevitable with hindsight. What seems to have happened is this;

  • After bumbling along for centuries eventually there is a critical mass of knowledge and we start to accelerate, this is about knowledge and inventions but it is not just that 
  • Our new found, transmitted knowledge, includes public health and medicine, that allowed a bigger population to survive and the number of brains on the subject accelerated knowledge discovery 
  • We are confronted by an explosion of people and possibilities with little chance to understand what is happening or how to control it in the normal way. (Note; Transmitting Knowledge the Normal Way)
  • It is quite possible that we could be overwhelmed; fault is beside the point up to a point. The point when the warnings are clear and we chose not to learn and act then there is fault. (Davos and Giridharadas)

Once written history begins, a feedback is established, knowledge is not just passed on orally, it can skip generations and be rediscovered. Writing followed by printing and then by modern communications and data storage all act as accelerators to the transmission of both knowledge and the affirmative stories we use (which don't have to be true). It appears that geography and chance are also major contributors; when these coincide with human invention the knowledge becomes recorded and can be passed on. In many cases it fails. Printing itself is an example. Printing was invented 4 centuries before it succeeded in Europe and its invention was lost, it was then invented again independently. (Printing)

The present is dominated by a snowballing effect of both the use of, and the accumulation of knowledge. So much so that we are ignorant of much of what is being learned and how much progress is actually being made – fixing this is necessary for a realistic appreciation of what can be improved upon. Two sources are especially useful for this (Rosling) and  (Pinker, Enlightenment)  We keep being surprised by unintended consequences – because of our sheer numbers, the accelerating rate of technology adoption and speed of communication -  these have all been ramping up through industrialisation - on or around doubling curves in the 20th century and as a result we have been subject to shocks. (Future shock?)

The way I see it is that our population growth has enabled progress; more people, less needed to grow food for survival, more brains on problems, eventually this snowballed. Technology makes massive leaps but our cultural habits of thought are slow to keep up and at some point these come into sharp (violent) collision (the red stars on the diagram). 

 

I see the following examples of these collisions (my hypothesis) of a repeating pattern;

  • The impressionist and others represent an explosion of artistic creativity between c. 1860-1920 CE largely in response to the camera.
  • The musical explosion of the 60-70’s is surely the musical equivalent of what impressionism was for art, the new technology added electronics to the mix. My young hairdresser regards Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd as classic bands. Impressionist art can look, and 70’s music can sound as fresh today as it did then, or it can become the new normal.

In both of these next two examples cultural thinking was lagging behind reality;

  • The mass slaughter of World War 1 came from a culture accepting war as normal, even desirable under some conditions combined with a process of industrialisation that made Interstate Industrial War both total and deadly (Smith op.cit, p29-105) and (Note; Speed of change). When flesh and blood collided with the new technology of killing (artillery and machine guns) the offensive proved obsolete under the prevailing conditions on the western front. There had been some earlier signs but the old ways of war were culturally embedded and the speed of change was accelerating. 
  • The Twitter storm is, perhaps, the collision of the ever-present danger of the mob amplified and given new form by technology. Anonymous abusive and threatening social media posts are a the technologically boosted equivalent of the hidden faces of the Inquisition or KKK usually without the attendant butchery but frightening enough nevertheless.

In the first case soldiers were told to walk to preserve order, in the second bullying tweets and comments masquerade in the stolen clothes of free speech. Despite the explosion of knowledge that has accompanied technological progress the battle against superstition and wrongheadedness is far from over. 

Our success is also our greatest danger – our numbers have exploded and in conjunction with our inventiveness we have in the last 100 years been subject to a number of shocks, which we urgently need to understand and respond to. By taking an overall systems view of history we are able to see emergent patterns, which enable us to gains some perspective.

The picture above shows a line going straight up, this is unlikely to continue, see Part 2 Assess, Timeline, Possible Futures - Using the projection of trends