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A timeline of revolutions past and present

10 April 2019 6:26 PM
Digital technology

Some significant changes can come from small shifts in society. Here are some that affected us in the past and may be at work now.

Revolutions in hindsight seem obvious with clear signs of the growing shifts, but for those caught up in them, it may appear that they came out of nowhere.

This is a simplified listing of the major ones in our past, and a look at some of the modern ones you may not realise are affecting you and your business.

The cognitive revolution

The first is rarely mentioned. The Cognitive Revolution took place about 50 000 years ago. It set in motion our divergence from the rest of the animal kingdom. It was not recognised as a revolution by those living through it and considering how long ago it occurred was not defined as such until the last 100 years.

This is the nature of some revolutions; the impact may only be felt long after the intervention has taken place.

Some quite minor changes can result in notable developments with time. Prof Hans Rosling was a public health educator and would ask his new students which innovation they could not live without. Many pondered giving up their phones or cars. When he asked who would give up a washing machine, they all agreed it would be a step too far. Rosling argues that the humble washing machine allowed women predominantly to save many hours in the day doing laundry manually. This time saving allowed them to spend it more productively. His own story was that after getting a washing machine, his own mother was able to read to him more often which set him on a path of life long learning. Few would put a washing machine at the top of a list of society transforming implements, but clearly, it has had a significant impact. And in countries that still have most washing done by hand, it holds the potential for considerable improvement in freeing people from that chore.

More recognised revolutions typically allowed us to make strides in agriculture, industry and society. It must be noted that while these were global, the initial impact was in Europe and the Middle East. In other parts of the world, similar revolutions may have been triggered by other events and factors.

The Agricultural Revolution

There are three Agricultural Revolutions that have been defined. The first about 12 000 years ago when humans began shifting from hunter/gatherer societies to settled ones. The next two saw significant advances either by adding more crops and animals to our farming range or big increases in productivity and scale. The most recent lasted from the 1930s to the 1960s.

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolutions tend to get more coverage but required the innovations in agriculture to free enough people from food production to begin focussing on expanding industrial output.

The first capitalised on both access to an abundant fuel source - coal - and a means to use it - steam - to shift production away from human and animal power. Countries without coal were forced to import it to keep up. It was driven by, and amplified urbanisation which in turn lead to improvements in public transport, manufacturing, chemical production and public schooling.

Education was typically reserved for the wealthy with most children learning the basics of the "three Rs" to be able to read for religious reasons. By age 12 most were expected to become an apprentice or do manual labour. The need for workers who could manage more sophisticated machines and those that could do the clerical work stemming from the increased production helped push the growing call for an end to child labour. The idea of a 12-year-old working in a mine or factory seems crazy now. Unfortunately, that does not mean it still does not happen. As the industry has become more complex and specialised so too has the pressure to keep children in education for longer. The idea that every child needs a university qualification does not seem so strange now despite it still being a rare achievement. If I were to suggest that no-one should enter the workforce fulltime until their 30s; you would again think it crazy. Time will tell.

The second Industrial Revolution about a century later switched to a new source of fuel - oil - and rather than stream, electricity became the dominant power source. Not that factories changed en masse once electricity became available. It was a slow process and for many who had grown up with stream did not believe the erratic and often dangerous electricity would ever replace steam. Despite the slow start, it did more than replace steam. Just 50 years later it had led to another revolution based on how we could use electricity.

Computing is a term taken from the profession of people who were tasked with doing a lot of calculations. They were referred to as computers and initially used manual calculations which later became assisted by adding machines and finally the programmable predecessor of the modern computer. The machines now did the calculations, and so they too were called computers. An excellent illustration of this change can be seen in the movie "Hidden Figures" about the women tasked with the calculations and later the programs to allow us to get to the moon.

Aligned with the revolutions of agriculture and industry are many that took place in society. Civil and global wars are sometimes the sad outcome and are often amplified by the developments from the other two.

Here are some smaller revolutions that, like the relatively minor introduction of the washing machine or seemingly natural shift to more comprehensive public education, can have impacts beyond what was initially hoped.

We are said to be on the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in large part due to the advocacy and research of the World Economic Foundation and its founder Claus Schwabe who wants society to face it with their eyes open.

It is too soon to tell if the approach will spare us the upheaval of the past.

The mobile phone is the new fuel source and data is a new power.

The current revolutions

Our economy is shifting from one based on consumption of goods to consumption of services - attention and trust are the new currencies.

The nature of change is similar to the adoption model used by marketers where pioneers will be the first to try a new thing. They are a small group though and if successful their feedback will expand to a larger group known as early adopters. At this stage, it is still a minority but depending on what happens next will determine if the shift succeeds or meets resistance.

For products like the mobile phone, the shift has been absolute, and the next two groups of late adopters and laggards are compelled to join the majority.

In social shifts, the last part could lead to significant tension. It is possible that there is a minority that is correct while the majority resists, even if the majority is correct the resistance from the minority even a small one could be significant. The reverse is also true where the majority is wrong, and only a small minority are left to advocate for their cause.

Social media facilitated the Arab Spring and demonstrated how the scale of platforms like Facebook could allow people to organise themselves online to come together in protest on the streets. Unfortunately, the efforts to overthrow a regime were not matched with how best to replace it. This remains a significant shortcoming of social media in that it is effective at tapping into our fight or flight response which can move us to action but less successful building cooperation to achieve the same effect.

The Internet which allowed for the World Wide Web created a single layer that everyone could access. The equality in access does not mean power could be shared the same way. We may remove power as a group, but it is harder to invest it the same way. We may all agree a leader must go, but it is unlikely we all decide who should replace them.

When a new research vessel for the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council needed a name, they opted to put it to a public poll. A radio presenter suggested Boaty McBoatface as a non-serious option, but the name caught on and finished as the most popular name. The Council decided to name the ship after David Attenborough, another popular choice and a submersible on the ship as Boaty McBoatface in acknowledgement.

There can be wisdom in crowds, but it should not be assumed.

Giving everyone access sounds like a good thing, but it makes regulating those that post false, harmful and criminal content very difficult.

The current challenges to the likes of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter is that they are based on people posting lots of content and allowing the most engaging content to be shared widely, often the most engaging is also the most problematic.

Social media also amplifies the adoption or resistance to other revolutions.

There is a shift in large part thanks to how successful social media has become to shift our preference to connecting online, rather than in person. If you prefer to send messages, even voice messages, rather than call or meet in person, you have already felt the effect. You can connect with so many more online so the time and effort to spend on a one-on-one situation with a person seems wasteful. Even in groups we still feel okay checking what our larger online groups are up to.

Two other technology led revolutions are underway in voice and photography. Voice applications have improved to the point where you could give up your keyboard. You can also get a lot done using a home voice assistant like the ones created by Google and Amazon. Besides the ability to talk to devices, the improvements in text-to-speech are seeing more demand for having printed content provided as audio. Advances in machine learnt speech can not just sound more human-like, it can copy actual humans.

We are yet to deal with all the implications of text-based scams, but before long you may be at risk of being scammed by voices you thought you knew.

Every change comes with an intended reward, in most cases, it does lead to improvement. But new solutions don't only deal with old problems they typically also create new ones.

Camera technology has advanced in mobile phones making it easier to capture our best moments. It is not just capturing them now, it is improving them, especially the ones of ourselves. In some respects, we have created a Dorian Grey scenario where our online appearance is better than our real-life appearance. In the story of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde, Grey has a magical painting that ages and reflects the bad things Grey does while Grey remains perfect. How will our perfect looking selves online allow us to behave in reality? In one respect the idea that if there were no pictures, it did not happen is forcing us to spend more time capturing life than just living it.

Some revolutions are long overdue. The pressure to address sexism and provide the same opportunities to women as men have been an active effort by some for over a century. While there appears to be a tipping point to accept women as equals, there is still a long way to go to see it implemented. The #MeToo movement created a focus for one aspect of that issue and has seen how even powerful men could be sidelined once women who were abused came forward.

The social support to allow them to speak up would be more difficult were it not for such broad access for anyone to publish their stories even though the most significant changes still required the added power of the media to amplify the voices of those speaking out. Despite the advances, those that resist the speed or nature of the change can use the same access to mount a counter-attack claiming men are being marginalised or having their reputations ruined simply by claims.

The extreme version relates to a group that identifies as incels. Originally these involuntary celibates (in-cel) came together for support and the encouragement to improve their skills at meeting partners. In time though some of the group shifted the focus away from what they could do to feel more at ease with building relationships to blaming those who rejected them for their predicament. A mass shooting targeting women by a member of such a group highlighted how causes and people can be corrupted by the kinds of information they are exposed to.

The rise of nationalist and even conspiratorial groups have grown out of these sometimes large minorities seeking to explain why they have not had the success in life they expected, Politicians picking up on this can gather a strong following by pointing out the supposed group that is to blame for their misery.

Some though are focused on changing the scenario that has put them in harm's way not merely by looking to the cause and those responsible but being proactive in changing their behaviour and attempting to convince others to do the same. The environment movement which has many subgroups are unified in agreeing that climate change is real and that avoiding a disaster requires them to change their own behaviour as well as compel others like business and government to do the same.

A business that aligns with such an ideal can look forward to robust support from such a group. Those that choose to ignore or refute it may find they are targeting in ways that could do real harm to their continued operation.

This also illustrates the challenge with such an approach as a freedom fighter to one group is a terrorist to another. Unless we are able to find more consensus on what the real issues are that need to be tackled we can expect to see political partisanship and conspiracies provide the fuel needed to sustain the beliefs in false causes.

A challenge to the status quo that is likely to continue to gather support relates to how humans see our role in the world. In the past, we saw ourselves as subjects to the will of our gods and the power of nature. But increasingly as we are finding ways to tame nature, we are beginning to consider ourselves as master of our own destiny. One positive from this is a more confident consumer mindset with business having to do more than pay lip service to the line that the customer is always right. We can expect to see once powerful and popular businesses lose that position rapidly should they be found wanting.

The next revolution

The extreme version which is indeed only at the pioneer stage relates to those who are questioning our own mortality. Rather than merely extended and more healthy lives, this group is working towards immortality which is overcoming the ageing process, the idea that death could be delayed indefinitely if no serious injury or infection were to occur. Whales which should be very prone to cancers given their incredible size are surprisingly not. Other species like some birds and crustaceans effectively hardly age once adults thanks to the programming of their genes which differs from human genes which are programmed to stop reproducing after some time and increase the risks of failure as we age.

Might we be on a path to reverse a genetic code that allowed us as mammals to reproduce fast with large families while removing the older members to become the dominant species on the planet to now switch to scaling back on how many offspring we have to sustain our dominance by becoming immortal?

This last element is from Yuval Noah Harari's Homo Deus - A brief history of tomorrow

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10 April 2019 6:26 PM
Digital technology


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