The human race is on a roll. Our numbers are up, dramatically. So is our rate of resource use per capita. And change is in the air. The pace of innovation is picking up. Social change is accelerating.
Tame words! For example, “innovation” could mean nothing more than building a better mousetrap. But trust me, today if you do that, the world will no longer beat a path to your door. Trying to get buzz today? You might offer genetic modification of mice so that they prefer to live outdoors – and no longer needed trapping. “Social change”? The term could describe something as simple as America’s Prohibition (and its repeal). But today’s social change is wholesale, pervasive. No area of life, no country in the world, no individual is unaffected.
What we have today is societal Metamorphosis: A profound change in form from one stage to the next in the life of an organism…the societal caterpillar becomes a social butterfly.
Take a closer look.
Mechanical invention. Hard to put a precise date on the invention of the wheel, but let’s say that occurred about 10,000 years ago. So, depending when you think the human race got cranked up and going, it took quite a while to invent the wheel. Call it some 200,000 years. But, after the wheel was invented, our ancestors needed only 10,000 years more to invent the car – and, at about the same time – the airplane. Building on the Wright brothers’ accomplishment, we needed less than 70 years to build rockets and spacecraft that took us to the Moon. So things are speeding up, and by quite a bit.
Medicine. Sometime about 150 AD, the great physician Galen announced that the function of the heart was to heat the body. He thought of it as a furnace. His logic? (guessing here) The heart stops beating, our temperature drops from 98.60 Fahrenheit to room temperature. We cool off. Remember, it took 200,000 years to get the science to this point. You and I can’t remember a day when we didn’t feel our heart beating, but how long did it take before someone came out and said that the heart functions as a pump? That idea had to wait another 1400 years, for William Harvey, in the 16th century AD. But fifty years ago, more or less, Watson and Crick announced that the molecular structure of DNA is a double helix. And today, only half a century later, people are cloning sheep, making pets that glow in the dark, genetically modifying food, doing DNA testing in high school classes, using DNA to predict our susceptibility to disease, etc. Things are accelerating.
Computation. Again, it essentially took 200,000 years to invent the counting board or abacus. We didn’t start seeing examples of these until a few hundred years before the time of Christ. Some 2000 years, later, around 1950 or so, we built the first computers able to perform complicated calculations, such as global numerical weather prediction. These used some 10,000-20,000 vacuum tubes, and filled up large rooms. In the last half-century, however, we’ve progressed to mainframes, to PC’s, to Iphones and Ipads. Looking about you today, where can you find the computing power equivalent to those 1950’s vintage computers? No, not your cellphone, though that’s the answer you’ll get if you ask someone, nine times out of ten (try it!). The cellphone is many, many times more powerful. Look to the chip you find in one of those musical greeting cards. The most powerful computers of fifty years ago are today’s throwaways!
[Your own personal favorite example here] It’s easy to construct these examples. Give it a go. Think of your own work specialty, and the milestones that mark it. You’ll come to the same conclusion. The point? Innovation is like popping corn. Seems to take forever for the first kernel to blow. The second one doesn’t take so long. And soon, the noise is deafening. That’s the real world. The world we live in.
It’s not just the physical, or chemical, or biological sciences. Let’s turn to social change. We used to be rural, and we used to farm. When this country was founded, farmers made up more than 90% of the work force. Today that statistic is more than reversed. Farmers are less than 3% of the population. It took virtually all of our 200,000 years to invent the elevator – the innovation needed to make the high-rise building practicable, and current urban population densities livable. Today, one hundred years or so later, more than half the world lives in cities. It used to be that most of the city-dwellers worked in manufacturing. Today’s societies are shifting to service-based industries. People used to entertain themselves by doing something (whittling wood, sewing or needlework, group activities centered around a family or a small community). Today entertainment, travel, tourism, recreation are a huge percentage of the economy. In the past, social activity had to be physical; today much social activity is virtual – accomplished at a distance, electronically. Societies used to be populated by the young. Families were large, and many people died in childhood, or in childbirth for that matter. Most of the increase in life span has been accomplished by reducing death in childhood. But with the improving outlook for childhood, with birth control and education for women, has come a sharp drop in family size. That has contributed to a demographic shift. Societies are now older on average, and due to grow older still. Businesses used to be local. Today they’re national and global. Businesses used to maintain large inventories; today they use just-in-time manufacturing methods.
Social change? One paragraph doesn’t even scratch the surface. But this is enough for now.
To sum up: in a short period of time, the human race has greatly grown in total numbers; has radically increased its per capita use of resources of every type; and has accelerated the rate of social change and scientific and technological advance.
A short period of time? Short compared with what? It turns out the answer to that question also gives us a glimpse into our likely future. The next posts will unpack five dimensions of that future.
 For an interesting read on all this, try Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist.