The Digital Revolution spear-headed by the internet is changing the world in ways that are far more radical than is sometimes acknowledged. And there are reasons why it’s hard to notice the paradigm shift taking place. The Industrial Revolution and the Agrarian Revolution are the only events that are comparable to what is happening now, and a quick comparison shows the dramatic speed and low visibility of this current revolution.
DIGITAL THOUGHTS BY SPHERE POINT
So we all know that the internet is changing the world. We are all aware of the incredible speed at which information is transferred and the huge improvement in communication capabilities. But is this all there is to it? And just how big is the change?
Some people have used the comparison with the printing press as an example of the importance and impact of the internet. I find this comparison woefully inadequate. This is symptomatic of how many people are missing the point and viewing the internet from a 20th century perspective. The printing press is a single invention with a single function that opened a world of information to the general public. The internet has indeed taken the same function of the printing press and made it many orders of magnitudes better, but that’s not what the internet is all about by any means.
The Digital Revolution is in its first steps towards a complete change in paradigm. Such a massive change cannot be compared to any single historic invention, it can only be compared to two of the most dramatic and revolutionary epochs in the story of civilization; the Agrarian Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.
These were the momentous events that changed everything for the human race, left nothing untouched by their effects and took humanity from one phase in its evolution to a whole new world. You cannot overstate the drastic change from a hunter gatherer nomadic lifestyle to a settled agrarian society and from a feudal agrarian world to an industrialized society. And this is the only adequate way to look at the Digital Revolution. A whole new era that will leave nothing unchanged.
Yet there are two aspects that distinguish the Digital Revolution from the other two and make spotting the enormous impact its having on our world particularly hard. These are; the speed and the visibility. The speed at which the change is happening is unprecedented while the visibility of the change is very low and this is what is contributing to a lack of awareness of the magnitude of change.
Let’s examine those two elements closely and see how they compare to the other two revolutions.
The evolution of the agrarian society can be measured in thousands of years. It took thousands of years for farming and domesticating techniques to develop and then spread to other parts of the globe, it took centuries for small settlements to turn into the first cities and civilizations. The Industrial Revolution on the other hand took only a few hundred years to take hold, from the European Enlightenment to the steam engine and railroads then to atom bombs and televisions.
The Digital Revolution so far cannot be even measured in decades. Regardless of where the start of the digital era is placed technically, we can safely say that the mid 90s is when for the first time it really started to reach a worldwide influence and started to really take off. We are talking about hardly more than 15 years since people used their PCs to connect to the World Wide Web for the first time. A bewilderingly brief span of time separates the days before the internet to today where with a smart phone you can do things that would have seemed like wizardry a couple of decades ago.
The other day, a bunch of my 7 year-old students saw my non-smart phone. It wouldn’t have surprised me if they’d found it old school. What I didn’t expect was to be asked: “What’s this?” it wasn’t that they thought it was old even though it’s no more than 3 or 4 years old, it’s that they didn’t even know what it was. This is how fast things are changing. And it is these Digital Natives for whom the Digital Revolution is just the norm who will really set the internet free from the shackles of the analogue world once and for all, imagining possibilities that we can’t comprehend now.
Visibility on the other hand is the trickier one to take notice of. I refer to the visual impact of the change, the stuff that we can see. The Agrarian Revolution was very visible. You could hardly miss the sight of farmed land, domesticated animals and cities. We can easily imagine the huge impression that a hunter gatherer laying eyes for the first time on a farming settlement would be left with; the landscape and everything on it would be totally different to what they would have been used to. The visibility of the Industrial Revolution was even more striking; factories spewing smoke, railways and trains criss-crossing the land, roads, cars, dams, planes, and giant metropolises among other things. Visually, the effects of industrialization on the landscape and the physical world are enormous.
But how much has the physical world around us changed since the Digital Revolution started? Well, the Digital Revolution is largely invisible. After all, the only thing that has changed in the physical world is the sudden appearance of a computer in the office, and then at home, people using small devices in the palm of their hands and the occasional citing of someone using a laptop or a tablet in some public space. That is very little visual change when you compare it with the earlier two revolutions. The true revolution is taking place behind the scenes, away from the physical world. If you don’t look through a device connected to the Web, you’d probably have noticed little change apart from the spread of these strange little devices.
In 2011 the world saw the birth of the first outright convulsions between the old world and the new. From Wikileaks and Anonymous to the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions to the 15M movement in Spain and the Occupy Movement in the US and their global repercussions we witnessed the first steps in the break with the old and the declaration of a new world, a new way. These movements are to the Digital Revolution what the French Revolution was for the industrial age, the declaration by the people that the ancient systems that have held before, are no longer relevant, not for an ideological reason but for a practical and utilitarian reason.
True paradigm shifts in the history of humanity do not happen because of ideologies, philosophies or theories. They take place because of the hundreds of millions of people taking individual steps propelled by a change of perception of the world caused by changing technology and society which when viewed from a distance amount to a dramatic change. Our grandparents didn’t respond to an ideological or theoretical call to participate in the industrial revolution when they started leaving the countryside en mass and moving in to cities, they did so because individually each was responding to the change in the world around them while simultaneously creating the change itself. It’s a bit like a traffic jam, no one creates a traffic jam or plans one, each individual through the action of driving their car participates in the creation of traffic.
What the future of this Digital Revolution is going to be like cannot be predicted by anyone. But one thing we can be sure of: We are taking our first steps into a whole new era.
Enrich this article with your comments, reflections , debates and thoughts. And especially share with us your personal stories of how these changes are or aren’t affecting you.
~ Sphere Point
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