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The Evolution of Revolution... What a difference a century makes

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June 12, 2015
Technology Musings
Michael Schubach - Michaelschubach@me.com

Do you ever imagine yourself standing at the threshold of a dramatically new world, a whole new big bang theory in a previously unimagined existence? Or does your life just seem like the same old stuff, different day?

You could answer “yes” to both questions and revel in duality because both constructs are true. I’ll support my claim by starting at a slightly earlier era – circa 1760. If you were alive then, you probably didn’t realize you were at the beginning of the First Industrial Revolution. For those of you who aren’t Industrial Revolution buffs – and I know there must be at least one or two of you out there – the First Industrial Revolution was the one that got all that machine stuff running. It was the age when wood and bio fuel (no, not ethanol – peat bog slices, yak chips or bodily what-have-you roasting on an open fire) were abandoned in favor of the new “hot” favorite – coal. Coal fires could be harnessed to produce steam, steam could be harnessed to drive engines and power tools, and the idea that major mobile machines could be driven by forces other than man and beast was born. 

Skip ahead about 90 years and you’re at the beginning of the Second Industrial Revolution. This is the one that provided the real payoff of the first revolution. Folks figured out how to produce high-quality steel in quantity. That minor miracle, hand-in-hand with getting that electricity thing figured out, opened the floodgates of mass production. Stir gently for another 50 or 60 years and you arrive at the 20th Century. Picture Judy Garland in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” and you have a paradigm of the era. It was a nostalgically happier and simpler time. People made their own ketchup. Grandpa had a room in the attic; he didn’t know anything about all this new-fangled modernity but he had a heart of gold and was wise in the ways of life and love. The younger generation passed time on the trolley – chug, chug, chug went the motor – or by taking long-distance phone calls from the box on the dining room wall. But suddenly there are storm clouds on the horizon: Father has a job offer in New York City. The family is in crisis as they contemplate uprooting themselves to follow a work opportunity in an unfamiliar urban setting. It was the dawn of the 20th Century and the world featured assembly lines, factories and the (then) modern worker. It was the Second Industrial Revolution that brought on the social impact of a century of technical advancement. The changes were good, neutral or bad but the world was forever changed: the general population grew, the average wage climbed, and the worker left the farm and headed off to the office or factory. It was a brave new world, but don’t forget to say hello to Robber Baron owners, plentiful and dangerous child labor, worker exploitation, urban tenements and a dizzying array of work-related injury and illnesses. 

Skip ahead 50 or 60 years, and you find the world at the opening moments of the Information Age, or Digital Revolution. Information has replaced manufacturing as the world’s commodity, just as modern manufacturing replaced industrialization, which in turn had replaced farming in the prior revolutions. Information has proliferated in much the same manner that a snowball transforms into an avalanche. As this age matures, it’s no longer just people using data – it’s also a network of machines informing other machines. The pace continues to increase geometrically and even the tiniest detail is just too important to discard – just ask the NSA. The first work-related illness in this braver, newer world is an odd ringing in your ears, which is the sound of George Orwell laughing at you.

Data has been supersized into Big Data. We can now spot a needle in a haystack from 10,000 miles away, and we immediately engulf it in an unending chain of highly personalized email offers:  “Hello, Mr. or Ms. Needle! Because you expressed an interest in, or accidentally touched the enter key while viewing our product, we’ll be corresponding regularly now! Other needles like you who made this very same blunder were also goaded into purchasing the following items...”

The Robber Barons are alive and better than just well – they’re well off. Not since the Second Industrial Revolution (or the Middle Ages) has so much wealth been the birthright of so few. If we were truly students of history and inclined to believe that patterns and actions emerge from collected data, we’d be preparing for the next revolution, which is shaping up to be far more Russian than industrial in nature. 

Information is flowing 24/7/365 across unlimited channels. By one estimate, the world's capacity to receive information through one-way broadcast networks in the year 2007 was at a rate equivalent to 174 newspapers per person per day. Interestingly, that statistic comes out of the ether courtesy of Wikipedia. Is it accurate? Let’s take a quick, multiple-choice quiz to find out. Is, in fact, that astounding statistic even vaguely accurate? 

A.  There’s always that possibility; it could happen.
B.  Probably not, but it makes a point and sounds good so I’m using it.
C.  How the hell would I know? I’m not sure what I had for breakfast.
D.  Look, it was on the Internet wasn’t it? 

Correct answer: All of the above.  Ready or not, you now have a new and now-quotable fact.

As was true in the Industrial Revolution, many new kinds of jobs have been created but just as many evaporated. Even if the result is that society is better off as a whole, social change isn’t a victimless crime. People who can’t cope in a new world are obsoleted, careers are decimated, and families are torn asunder. It’s easy to regard improving society as an ennobling practice unless you’re one of the ones who are selected to take the hit for the team.

How is it possible to be in the midst of the greatest technical and social changes the world has known, and still feel like your life is just not all that different? Not only is it possible, it’s downright predictable. Our perspective is way too up close. Forget about the trees – we can’t see the forest for the microcosm of cell patterns in a single leaf. Consider that we have no capacity for first-person perspective in real time. We only see and feel the continuity in our lives; it takes someone else who hasn’t seen us for a decade to see the changes clearly. Second, consider that we live our lives as individuals, and not necessarily as emblems of our age.  It’s possible that you could be a shining example of social changes, but it’s also possible that you could be the exception to every rule, the late adopter, or the Luddite. Finally, consider that any human being who survives a revolution does so in slow motion. It’s only when you’re boring your children or younger work associates with stories of how it was in the olden days, that you realize that the world is changed... and you are along with it.
I’ll conclude with a second now-quotable fact, taken from a book, which gives it far more credibility than a fact from the Internet, and it speaks to our current rate of change: “Your grandparents had more in common with the ancient Egyptians than you have in common with your grandparents.” Is this astounding fact even vaguely accurate? Who knows. It certainly seems reasonable and I believe that the ancient Egyptians made their own ketchup. Do I have any sage advice or coping skills to offer for a life well lived amidst social and technical revolution? Rest assured that I d take two aspirin and call me in a century. 

Michael Schubach is a regular contributor to Hospitality Upgrade and can be reached at Michaelschubach@me.com.
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