Saturday, January 27, 2007

The New Revolution

In a recent issue of Scientific American, well, namely the December '06 issue, there was an opinion article by Rodger Doyle. In it, he opined that the new "digital revolution" does not count as a genuine, new, industrial revolution. He relies on the distribution of the US workforce as a metric to determine the importance of the technological advancements. I feel that the very fact that I can write here as proof that he is wrong.

He lists all the great advancements made during the first and second industrial revolutions (the steam engine, germ theory, etc.), and says that nothing of the late 20th century rivals the changes effected by those advancements. This is an obvious opinion and one that I think betrays a shallow understanding of the digital revolution.

He uses a chain of causation from the lessening of importance for fertility in an agricultural society, since machines instead of children can now care for the farm, to the fading of social taboos such as homosexuality, divorce, pre-marital sex, contraception, and women holding jobs. For starters, I don't think this is the case at all. The social changes were interconnected with technological advancements but were far from reliant on them. The social mores that repressed women and behavior not conducive to child rearing had nothing to do with our agrarian nature. If it did, that means it would have to apply to other cultures, as well, and that's not the case. There have been numerous civilizations that relied on agriculture and didn't have the moral hang-ups that permeated our country for so long.

Social changes would happened with our without the industrial revolution. Indeed, it could probably be argued that social changes fomented advancements within the industrial revolution. I say that the internet and computers have given us grand advancements that have altered civilization. Most of the great technological advancements of today; modern cars, satellites, and massive medical leaps, happened purely because of the massive amounts of processing power given to us by computers. To say that 95% survival rates on cancer, new drugs every week, and the ability to repair physical damage that would have once been permanent hasn't had a profound effect on society is absurd.

Alright, I admit, these advances have been long in the making and maybe don't qualify as late-20th century. If that's the case, let's only take advancements from 1980 and up. That includes the home computer, the internet, and, um... cell phones. I'll go with the internet, for 400!

The internet is one of the great inventions. It's right up there with the automobile and electricity. It has had a profound effect on society and to say that it hasn't is I think both wrong currently and will be very wrong in the future. The internet has been around for a decade, essentially, and trying to gauge its effects now is, I think, pointless. We have no idea what its real effects are, but we can already plainly see that they are immense.

Doyle argues that the second industrial revolution created two new social classes, the industrial entrepreneur (e.g. Ford, Rockefeller), and the blue collar laborer. I think this is correct, but he then says the 20th century's inventions have only added to previous classes and not created new ones, displaying its inferior status as a revolution. The classes may be similar, but they have been fundamentally changed. Anyone, now, ANYONE can open a store. We no long have a merchant class because everyone is a merchant. Idea-men can now become billionaires overnight. They can do it without work or skill. The internet has created a new entrepreneur, one who sometimes doesn't know he's one until the money starts coming in.

Doyle's use of population distribution as the primary measure of the importance of a revolution is also seriousl flawed. I think a more accurate measure would be how people spend their day. Do they spend it working to survive, or working for money? Do they spend it in leisure, or chores? Do they move around? Do they sit still? Who are they and how do they live?

I think I'm getting off track. I guess this is what happens in the intellectual free association that blog entries frequently are. The main point I feel that's missed is that the internet and the personal computer have changed things in the sense that physical stuff is no longer what's most important. It's now data. Information. And the data is moving so much faster and is so easily available that one of the major barriers between classes, the accessibility of information, is gone.

It is also violently, and most visibly, changing the ways the economy works. Borders no longer matter. A store in Tokyo is now real competition to a store in Kennebunkport, Maine. The absurd thrashing that states and countries are doing trying to either open up or lock down the internet proves that the changes the internet will have are only beginning. Look at the law recently passed making it illegal for financial institutions to authorize payments to overseas gambling sites. We are witnessing the death of the old economy.

I think social change is more arguable. While the speed and availability of information changes things, it's not a change in the way things work that would, conceivably, alter life. Still, the massive economic and political changes caused by the internet more than raise the last 25 years up to the level of "possible revolution." Now, of course, do I think is a revolution? Not at all. But I at least think it for better reasons than Rodger Doyle.

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