After the Digital Revolution

Will the next technological revolution look anything like previous ones?  What if we're already living inside it and don't realize we feel exactly like the people did during previous revolutions?

Let's start by working backward from the Industrial Revolution, before we try working forward.  We'll look at some of the changes a technological revolution can bring about.  Specifically, I want to focus on how these events impacted the way we live as humans.  What would people before the revolution think about the typical lifestyle after the revolution?

The Industrial Revolution


The Industrial Revolution - from roughly the 1790's to the 1840's - brought about massive changes in multiple job markets at once.  Many of these jobs didn't exists prior to the revolution, and they needed to be filled.  Fortunately, this revolution also marked a major change in how we conduct agriculture, requiring far fewer people while increasing production.  Many people who had worked on farms all their lives suddenly found that farming didn't pay as much as it once had and they couldn't make a living in the countryside.

This produced a mass movement from the countryside, where suddenly there were no jobs, to cities, where all the jobs suddenly appeared.  But city life is much different from country life.  They had a lot more access to services like electricity, and eventually radio and TV, but they didn't have the wide open spaces they enjoyed back on the farm.  A nostalgia built up around the idyllic farm life, but most people continue to recognize to this day that farming is a lot of tough manual labor.  We prefer our set hours and weekends with no work.

It wasn't always like this.  In addition to the industrial revolution - after it, mostly - we also needed a labor revolution.  It's easy to look at current labor regulations, unions, and the like and think the past was mostly like this, but it wasn't.  Remember that not much more than a hundred years ago most people in the USA were independent farmers.  That's like saying most people were small-business owners who had no bosses and never had to apply for jobs.  Their coworkers were all family, whom they ate dinner with.

Now imagine you're a farmer, before the labor revolution and the changes it brought, looking at this mass migration away from farming.  You might come to a few alarming conclusions if you project out from the future you see:
  • Everyone will soon leave farming behind, except perhaps a few for whom the profession is going to change completely
  • City life is full of refuse, disease, and pollution
  • City life is crowded.  Most people won't ever be alone
  • Cities are removed from nature.  Most people will have no relationship with the land
  • City work is menial and meaningless.  Without farming the land, people will lose connection with the meaning of Work and how fulfilling it is to live off the food you produce
  • Backyard gardens and city parks are fake approximations of real farming and set up impossible expectations if this city thing fails and people have to return to the farm
Your conclusion?  The move from the farm to cities will change life as we know it for the worse.  We're watching dystopia unfold before our very eyes.  Some people chose to sit out the industrial revolution, or were very judicious about what they allowed in - rejecting most innovations.  But most moved from the traditional family farm and entered modernity, despite the many naysayers warning of the consequences.  Over time, many of those consequences were fully realized.  But others we dealt with in ways our ancestors might see as partial fixes, at best.

The Agricultural Revolution

Less is known about the first agricultural revolution, since mostly it happened prior to the development of written language, but I imagine many of the same types of concerns were voiced by the old guard hunter-gatherers when they compared their nomadic lives to those of farmers.

  • Farming makes you weak, since you stay in the same place all the time
  • People will lose their hunting skills, no longer having to work together in highly coordinated attacks.  The camaraderie of the hunt will be lost forever.
  • Farming allows the creation of cities, since people don't have to be nomadic, and those cities spread disease
  • Farming societies are larger and result in wars where people fight over land
  • Farmers aren't free to move from place to place, as many become serfs, peasants, etc. beholden to some lord
  • Farmers only eat a small variety of foods, instead of the larger variety of what you can hunt and gather
  • 'Going hunting' in the forest because you want deer meat instead of the always-available livestock is a fake approximation of the real thing.  It sets up impossible expectations for when people really have to live off the land
As with the Industrial Revolution, most people settled on farms and abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.  A few accepted only elements of farming, but preferred to stick to their traditional nomadic lifestyle.  Over time, many of the consequences were fully realized, but others were dealt with in ways the hunter-gatherers might see as only partial fixes.

The Digital Revolution

Much the same story can be told of the digital revolution, where technology has been taking over jobs that used to be performed by people in factories.  People have had to move out of factories and into many different types of computer-related jobs that didn't exist not too long ago.  These complaints lists practically write themselves.
  • People aren't meant to sit in chairs all day, staring at computer screens; we're plagued by a sedentary lifestyle
  • Working from home, people lack the kind of socialization that a job in a factory - or even an office - once provided
  • In their little silos in their houses, people are losing a sense of community, which leads to epidemics of despair and depression
  • With everything online all the time, there's no longer any sense of privacy or forgetting past mistakes
  • Nobody ever unplugs and enjoys where they are at the moment
  • 'Digital communities' are fake approximations of the real thing and set up impossible expectations for when people return to real communities
We know how we feel about the current revolution, looking at it from our side of history.  And we know how we look at previous revolutions, viewing them in hindsight.  Let's take these two perspectives and merge them into some speculations about how our grandchildren will view us in a few decades.

There will likely be a few holdouts, people who reject most of the new changes but make concessions on a few points.  In the end, most people will migrate whole-hog.  Many of the consequences will be fully realized, but others will be dealt with in ways we digital non-natives might see as only partial fixes, at best.

Just as the Industrial Revolution had to be followed by a labor revolution, and the Agricultural Revolution required a political revolution to emancipate the serfs, the Digital Revolution may require some kind of employment-based revolution of its own.  "Earning a living" may look a lot different than it does to those of us who grew up on the other side of the revolution.  It may not be something we're comfortable with, but our grandchildren will think it's normal.

Most importantly, after the revolution has changed the lives of more than 95% of the population, people will probably look at the 'primitive' conditions we lived in back in the 1900's and honestly conclude that the changes were all just the march of progress.  The battles we wage against the change technology brings may well be lost to all but historians, even if their small but meaningful impacts remain.

This post was inspired by a post I recently read about the more subtle impacts of AI that we're already feeling today.  I'm not claiming that all our concerns are going to be solved along the way.  That's not what happened during the previous revolutions.  We just found ways to deal with those concerns that were acceptable.  The problems we identify today, about the current technological revolution, may not actually go away but they will fade into the background and be accepted as just a normal part of life.  At that point, all those changes won't just be irreversible, nobody will even want to go back.

Comments

  1. Comparing the various revolutions is never going to be an apples to apples comparison. If nothing else the digital revolution is occurring over a lot shorter time horizon than the industrial revolution. And certainly orders of magnitude faster than the agricultural revolution.

    Beyond that there are more subjective differences, which nevertheless might have huge impacts. One very large worry concerns the role of humans period. In the previous revolutions old roles were eliminated but there was always a new role for humans to step into. On the other hand, with the digital revolution, job automation, AI, etc. hold forth the possibility that there may be no role for humans to assume. If so it makes this revolution very different than the revolutions which preceded it. Though I hasten to add, not necessarily worse, but in a way that could nevertheless defy easy comparisons.

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    1. True, and given that the Industrial Revolution was faster than the first Agricultural Revolution, we might observe the trend tends toward acceleration. (Though three data points do not a trend make.)

      I wouldn't say that the next revolution matches the trends begun in the previous one. I would instead say that they tend to 'rhyme', for lack of a better term. Humanity forgets where it came from within a few generations, and the concerns of yesteryear melt away. The focus is on maintaining or improving the status quo, more so than on reclaiming the ideal past. Some people still pine for those past days, but their notions tend to assume anachronistic conditions, not the harsh realities of hunter-gatherers, serfs, sweatshop workers, etc.

      The choice isn't between the real past of 1909 versus 2039. The choice is the norms we set around each technology as it presents itself. These precedents layer on top of each other until we get a 'workable' society. But tomorrow's social order is likely to be less recognizable than we might think.

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