Ever since our ancient ancestors started to smash rocks together to make tools, technology has been deeply entwined in our societies and constantly evolved through cultural transmission. Technology revolutions from writing, art, print steam and so on, have upended entire sociocultural systems. If you’re thinking that right now it seems like an overwhelming, hyper fast period of technological change, well, you’d be right. Why is it so different this time around?
I’d argue that currently, human societies are experiencing a degree of technological revolutions that we’ve never before known in the history of our species. Other philosophers and thinkers have also posited this idea. This hyper change is primarily being driven by digital technologies. So what does this mean? Why does it matter so much more now than ever before? Let’s explore and look at how we will likely enter into one of the most profound golden ages.
I’ve written before about how cultures adopt technologies here, and how we used to have some time and space between technology revolutions here. Various economists and sociologists have described in theories now fairly well accepted, the cycles of change from revolutionary technologies. From Keynes and Schumpeter to Durkheim and the seminal work by economist Carlota Perez.
But while revolutionary technologies have impacted humanity in both relatively short (20–50 years) cycles and longer waves (100 or so years), we are now facing a time of multiple revolutionary technologies coming into our societies at speeds never before seen and simultaneously.
To put this into perspective, we should understand why digital technologies are so different from many others like steam, print or electricity. Without all the prior technology revolutions, it is unlikely we’d get to digital ones. And digital ones are those which can work through software where information can be broken down into zeroes and ones and all of these technologies rely on software. Digital technologies are about information and it is information that makes up our existence. Another key element in digital technologies is that they can almost all be made to work together in various combinations. Combining technologies leads to compounding advancements. Your smartphone is a prime example of this combining of digital technologies; GPS, camera, phone, modem etc.
When technology revolutions occur, they lead to a sequence of events that fundamentally changes societies and cultures and economics. What we would term sociocultural and socioeconomic systems. Economist Carlota Perez lays out the sequences as follows; technological revolution (the big bang of when it arrives on scene), financial bubble, collapse (markets primarily, sometimes societies as well), golden age then political unrest.
When the steam engine begat the train, railroads were really only built to move coal out of mines in the UK to get it to hubs. Then it a distributed by horse and cart. Some clever people realised that if networks of railroads were built, livestock and products could be moved at higher volumes, faster and cheaper. Lots of horses lost their jobs and people too. The early trains that moved people were often converted cattle carts. They had no roofs or seats. Going from London to Liverpool might be ok on a fine summer day, but that is rare in Britain. So most times you ended up rather cold, wet and forlorn. It was and is still called “cattle class” for a reason.
As railroads and trains spread around the world, entire industries were shaken up, new management systems were designed, capital moved in new ways, entirely new forms of wealth were created. People were able to move around unlike ever before. Entire sociocultural and socioeconomic changes occurred. This included riots and social unrest as systems were upended. Until eventually a new norm was found and things went rather swimmingly for a few decades (the golden age sequence). Until the next technological revolution. Rinse, repeat.
While all revolutionary technologies begat other, adjacent and supportive technologies, they tended to clump around that primary technology. Economic, societal, cultural systems underwent change based around a primary technology. The steam engine, telegraph, printing press etc. Some technology revolutions overlapped, but they were fairly limited in number.
With the rise of digital technologies however, we are facing an entirely new set of revolutions all happening at the same time, impacting so many sectors in industry and society at the same time. When revolutionary technologies come into being there is always a clash between existing systems, traditions and such as the new technology edges in.
Because so many technologies are revolutionary today, all at the same time, we are struggling as a species to adopt and adapt to them. So many systems are interconnected today. We live in an increasingly hyper-connected world. So much so that we are starting to bring together mental models unlike before in order to comprehend and manage it. Design thinking meets complex systems thinking meets sociocultural systems.
Below is a diagram that illustrates the digital technologies that are coming at us at pretty much the same time, putting pressures on human sociocultural and socioeconomic systems all at the same time, unlike ever before.
So When Do We Get to the Next Golden Age?
If anyone could set a date, they’d instantly be a billionaire. Based on history, we know these cycles in the modern age since the start of the Industrial Revolution and the advent of capitalism usually go in cycles of about 50–60 years. In this decades of transition are recession, social unrest and then a period of golden ages where things are reordered and go nice and smooth.
While this cycle may happen in the same way, I think it may be shorter and more brutal or it may take longer. Eventually however, we will come through it and the resulting golden age may end up being much longer, as in centuries. Perhaps. The underlying caveat to all of this is of course, climate change. But it is also likely that it is our amazing ability to adapt as a species using technology that will eventually save us.
Our challenge as a species however, is to figure out how to use culture to get us through the period of immense turmoil we are entering, then a time of transition and through to the golden age that many futurists predict. We will also need more futurists to help us get there, working hand in hand with anthropologists, sociologists, psychiatrists, engineers, computer scientists and other scientists. Crucially, we need to now, more than ever, I believe, bring together the hard and soft sciences. For only working collaboratively, will we solve the complex problems of today.
I explore this in great detail in my forthcoming book, Digital Sapiens. For now however, we are living through a time of immense change, complexity and revolutions. There will be more social unrest. More protests on multiple issues from race to wars to economics. Markets will not behave as before and economists will struggle to make forecasts. It is after all, the dismal science. It will be rather dismal for a time too. My apologies to any economists reading this.
Humanity has been through big kerfuffles before and we’ve come through. We most likely will again (or not) and what comes next is exciting.