Summary: For the next chapter of this series about good news, let’s look at the new industrial revolution. Our experience with the last industrial revolution shows us the potential and peril that lies ahead. It will be exciting. Let’s work to make it fun, not painful.
“For the world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air.”
— Treebeard in Tolkien’s The Return of the King, end of the The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
We so easily lose track of the fantastic progress humanity has made during the past two centuries — driven by the progress of science. But this progress slowed down after WWII. This history is the a key aspect of our time, yet it is unseen by most people.
To better understand our situation, look at Dodge City in 1877. Bat Masterson is sheriff, one of those maintaining some semblance of law in the Wild West. Life in Dodge is materially only slightly better than that in an English village of a century earlier. But social and technological evolution has accelerated to a dizzying pace, and Bat cannot imagine what lies ahead.
- The transatlantic telegraph line and transcontinental railroad unite America, beginning the end of the regional identities had divided America.
- The theory of evolution remains controversial, 17 years after the famous debate between Bishop Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley (“Is it on your grandfather’s or your grandmother’s side that you claim descent from a monkey, Mr. Huxley?”).
- Medicine and public health remain primitive. A bedside manner and diagnostic skill are doctors’ most reliable tools. In 3 years Pasteur will discover the first artificially generated vaccine (for chicken cholera).
- One year ago Alexander Graham Bell had patented the telephone (1866)
- Next year Paul Haenlein will fly the first aircraft powered by an internal combustion engine.
- In two years (1879) Karl Benz will patent the first practical automobile engine, Edison will design the first practical electric light, and David Edward Hughes sent a wireless signal across London.
- We are two-thirds through the Long Peace between the Napoleonic Wars and WWI.
- The deterministic certainties of Newton still rule in science, but the era of great discoveries bad begun with advances in thermodynamics and electromagnetism.
Bat Masterson was born on a primitive farm in 1853. He died in 1921 while working as a sportswriter for the Morning Telegraph — living in a New York City driven by telephones, automobiles, and electric power.
Rapid change continued. By 1947 the world had assumed roughly the shape we see today. Then the progress of science slowed, so that June Cleaver could step from her 1957 home (in the first episode of “Leave it to Beaver”) into her 2017 equivalent and easily adapt. Her only surprise at the technology would be the lack of progress over the past 60 years (much slower than during the previous 60 years, 1897 to 1957).
- The medical industry in 1957 looked much as it does today. Doctors can both prevent and treat most illnesses, but viral and degenerative diseases remain beyond their reach.
- After WWII Mao brought the theory and practice of 4GW to maturity. Since then no foreign occupier has been able to defeat a strongly based local insurgency (except as supporting the local military, or promising it independence).
- Rockets, nukes, computers, cellular telephones, and basic electronic devices had all been invented. We have seen just incremental progress since then.
The next industrial revolution has begun
These things begin slowly. Drones, robots, solar power, gigabyte broadband, smart machines, 3-D printing, re-usable spaceships — these and a host of other new technologies are re-shaping our world. The pace of progress appears to be accelerating towards the breakthrough technologies.
That is great news for our descendants, as we move to the wonderful world predicted by Lord Keynes in 1930. But rapid growth creates its own problems. Look at 1880’s London (a slightly altered quotation from William Manchester’s biography The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory):
“The city itself is overwhelmed, engulfed by changes with which it has not learned to cope, and which are scarcely understood. Some were inherent in the trebling of the population, some consequences of industrialization. Particles of grime from the factory smokestacks produce impenetrable smog which reduces visibility to a few feet.
“…Much of the city stinks. The city’s sewage system is at best inadequate and in the poorer of neighborhoods nonexistent. Buildings elsewhere are often constructed over cesspools which, however, have grown so vast that they form ponds, surrounding homes with moats of effluvia.
“…And the narrow, twisted streets are neither sealed nor asphalted. People lock their windows, even in summer, but they have a lot to keep out: odors, dust. …”
We cannot see how the new industrial revolution will affect us, but its early effects might be as ugly as that of the previous one. Another effect we already see: rising inequality.
The bottom line
Somewhere during the past few years historians will draw an arbitrary line and say “Here the new industrial revolution began.” The benefits will blow our minds, but they will be purchased at great cost — as we adapt our society and economy to the needs of our new technology. The late 19th century was a horror show of violence against unions and Black Americans, plus frequent depressions. The early 20th century had two world wars and a Great Depression.
Let’s do better with the new industrial revolution.
For More Information
- Preparing for the future: should we be precautionary or proactionary?
- Looking at technological singularities in our past & future.
- Watch other nations build infrastructure for 21st C prosperity. We can, too.
- The coming Great Extinction – of jobs.