The Acceleration of Everything

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We often talk these days about accelerating change, but it is extraordinary to look back on all that has happened in the last two hundred years. This is a brief overview of that incredible journey.

The Nineteenth Century

Human ingenuity soared in unprecedented ways in the 1800s, creating new technologies that changed virtually every aspect of human life:

  • tools and devices (mechanical calculator, cash register, sewing machine, key lock, zipper, safety pin, paper clip, can opener, escalator, seismograph, cathode ray tube)
  • appliances (electric iron, vacuum cleaner, dishwasher)
  • materials (steel, petroleum products, plastic, rubber vulcanization, rayon, Portland cement, synthetic dye, dynamite)
  • energy (kerosene lamp, battery, safety match, electric dynamo, electromagnetic motor, light bulb, steam turbine, internal combustion engine, fuel cell)
  • agriculture (barbed wire, steel plow, reaper, corn planter, combine harvester)
  • manufacturing (Jacquard loom, assembly lines)
  • warfare (revolver, machine gun)
  • transportation (locomotive, steamship, bicycle, automobile, motorcycle, manned glider)
  • communication (typewriter, telegraph, wireless telegraphy, telephone, trans-Atlantic cable)
  • entertainment (phonograph, phonograph record, player piano, photographic film, motion-picture camera and projector)
  • medicine (antiseptics, Pasteurization, aspirin, the x-ray, stethoscope, contact lenses, hearing aid)

Railways revolutionized transportation, connecting places over vast distances and increasing the speed of travel. The rail network in France grew from 10 miles of track in 1828 to 2,400 miles by 1855. By 1860, the United States had more than 30,000 miles of rail. A transcontinental railway connecting the west and east coasts of the U.S. was inaugurated in 1869, when 2,000 miles of new track finally linked San Francisco Bay with the existing Eastern U.S. rail network. By 1900 almost 200,000 miles of rail line were in operation. (Maurice Dumas. A History of Technology and Invention: Progress through the Ages.)

Continents were also being connected. Britain laid a vast web of undersea cables in the second half of the 19th century that circled the globe. Just after the turn of the 20th century this system constituted two-thirds of the world’s long-distance undersea communication network.

Accompanying this burst of enterprise and ingenuity, a scientific revolution was fundamentally changing our understanding of the world. Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859. James Clerk-Maxwell published A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field, with equations describing electricity and magnetism, in 1865. Louis Pasteur discovered that diseases were caused by germs. Gregor Mendel identified how genetic traits are transmitted in the same year.

The old social order was breaking down. Violent revolutions in the decades leading up to the beginning of 19th century created a democratic government in America and put an end to the feudal system in France. In Britain, the Industrial Revolution — from 1750 to the end of the 19th century – mechanized the production of goods and rapidly transformed life from medieval to modern. People migrated from the countryside to rapidly expanding cities. The population of London doubled between 1801 and 1851.

For the first time, work was a commodity sold in the marketplace. Economic specialization replaced cottage industry. Craftsmen became factory hands. Workers were paid menial wages. Child labor and long hours were common. As people moved from rural areas to towns, death rates rose due to disease. In 1841 in England men born in rural Surrey lived to an average age of forty-four, men born in London to thirty-five, and men born in Manchester only to the age of twenty-four. (Paul Hohenberg and Lynn Hollen Lees. The Making of Urban Europe 1000-1950.)

Industrialization spread quickly from Britain to the rest of Western Europe and North America. Revolution, democratization, citizenship and mass education replaced monarchies and led to the rise of nation-states.

The Twentieth Century

The 20th century rocketed off of this 19th century launching pad. There were breakthroughs in every field of science and technology, accompanied by radical changes in politics, economics, society and culture. While the 19th century saw remarkable growth in material standards of living, the 20th century was unique in all of human history. Bradford DeLong graphed growth in productivity and living standards over a span of ten centuries for the leading economies of Europe and North America, illustrating the sudden surge in material wealth. (Bradford DeLong. Slouching Towards Utopia: The Economic History of the Twentieth Century.)

The human population increased by 50% in the 18th Century; then by 80% in the 19th Century. It tripled in the 20th Century. The average lifespan through early human history was less than 50 years. This reached 49 years in the United States in 1900. It soared to 75-80 in most industrialized countries by the end of the 20th Century. (David Leonhardt. “Life Expectancy Data,” New York Times. September 27, 2006.)

During the last two decades of the 19th century, twenty disease-causing bacteria were identified. Between 1881 (when Louis Pasteur developed a vaccine for anthrax) and 2000, vaccines had been developed for twenty diseases. New understanding of the role of germs in causing disease and a revolution in sanitation reduced mortality and increased lifespans. (James C. Riley. Rising Life Expectancy: A Global History.)

Human knowledge grew exponentially. In 1973, French economist Georges Anderla described the growth trajectory for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). He estimated that knowledge doubled between 1 AD and 1500, doubling again by 1750, again by 1900, and again by 1950, only 50 years later. The doubling time was then reduced to 10 years, then to seven, and finally to six years, leading up to the year he completed his study. R. Buckminster Fuller referenced this data in his book The Critical Path (1982), calling it the “Knowledge Doubling Curve.” By the end of the 20th century, information was doubling every 18 months.

Knowledge was organized into specialized disciplines in the 1800s. Communities of specialists were created to share methods and expertise and focus on particular problem domains. Sub-disciplines emerged to further codify and organize our understanding of the world. Social and academic systems were created to support this structure. Britain alone had more than one thousand associations for technical and scientific knowledge in the middle of the 19th century, with approximately 200,000 members. (Joel Mokyr. The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy.)

In the 20th century many of the 19th century models of the world were overthrown. With a new understanding of the fundamental forces of nature, humans gained new powers to bend the world to their needs. Atomic physics, astrophysics, astronomy, cosmology, archaeology, anthropology, ecology, medicine, molecular biology, genetics, pharmacology, psychology and other disciplines expanded human knowledge exponentially. Science and technology became more and more intertwined.

New technological innovations touched virtually every aspect of human life. Airplanes, agricultural implements, rockets, ballistic missiles, satellites, spacecraft, submarines, nuclear reactors, atomic weapons, radio, television, refrigeration, radar, lasers, fiber optics, new scientific instruments, chemical engineering, synthetic materials, health technologies, pharmaceuticals, oral contraceptives, in vitro fertilization, cloning, genetic engineering, biotechnology, electronics, fax machines, computers, software, semiconductors, integrated chips and multiprocessors were only a few of the new fruits of human ingenuity. We were launched on a new trajectory, and the world was forever changed.

This article is an excerpt from a book in progress on collaboration and transformative change. It was first posted on January 23, 2018, on LinkedIn.

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David Forrest

David is the founder of the Integral Strategy Network. He is a writer, futurist, strategist, and facilitator of systemic change.

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