Characteristics of Revolution
To determine whether or not we are in a revolution at present requires understanding of what a revolution is. The most recent bases for revolutions that we have are the Industrial Revolution and the Agricultural Revolution, though arguably there was also a Transportation Revolution as well that was more transformative than either of these. The underlying principle of a societal revolution is that after a period of technological stagnation, a period of time arises that is characterized by a rapid succession of advancements. Cumulatively, these advancements transform the entire way that the base task is performed, which in turns leads to transformations in many other elements of society. Within that context, it appears that we are in the midst of another revolution, and on the other side of that revolution the way of life for humanity will be significantly different than it is now. This revolution could be called the Information Revolution, and we are just at the beginning of it.
The first modern revolution is generally considered to be the Agricultural Revolution. For centuries prior to this, agriculture changed little.. Advancements were few and far between, and they were generally incremental in nature. During the pre-revolutionary period, the structure of human society changed little, and most people were engaged in agricultural production. A series of innovations during the 18th and 19th centuries — seed drills, harvesters, plows — resulted in dramatic improvements in agricultural yield (Bellis, 2015). As a consequence of these advancements, fewer people were needed to produce the same amount of food.. This allowed more people to move out of the countryside and live in cities. The changing pattern of living thus allowed for an economic shift, and more labor was deployed in other trades. One of the most significant of these was exploration, as this period coincided with an intensification of colonial activity. Moreover, increased agricultural efficiency allowed North America, South America, Africa and Australia to be colonized more fully by small, family-based homesteaders.
The Industrial Revolution soon followed. The migration of people from the countryside into towns provided labor for increased specialization, and furthermore a market for consumer goods. Advances in industrial production became rapid during the 19th century, in part relating to the innovation of engines that performed substantial amounts of labor, and on a scale that was difficult to achieve with human labor on its own. This revolution increased overall productivity. A greater variety of consumer goods could be produced, and at a lower cost. This increased the standard of living for many people. More people were able to specialize their labor. Eventually, the Industrial Revolution would lead to social changes as the urban working class fought for increased rights, eventually reshaping the political landscape in the more developed countries. World War One was an outcome of this political restructuring process that basically began with the French Revolution and ended with the Russian Revolution. Industrial practices had also reshaped warfare by WWI, leading to entirely different geopolitical dynamics, and clearly delineated nation states created to reflect the growing power of the factory owners, the ambitions of a burgeoning middle class and the weakening of authoritarian leaders around the developed world.
Industrial practices would eventually lead to a transportation revolution, and a medical one. The latter may be thought of as an outcome of increased labor specialization and greater access to education for the working class. The medical revolution would wipe out many of the dread diseases that plagued humanity, and increase life expectancies, bringing about further social changes to most societies. The transportation revolution was perhaps even more profound. The development of the automobile was derived from the Industrial Revolution but was a substantial change. For centuries, transportation had not evolved, until the train arrived, but even then this was not personal transportation. The automobile was a means by which individuals could exert a degree of personal freedom never before experienced. Our increasingly urban societies spread out — cities have been growing rapidly ever since the car was invented, and our lives have been designed around this mode of transport. So much of our world, from the structure of our neighborhoods to our global supply chains, is rooted in the internal combustion engine. So, too, is climate change, a high cost of this particular revolution (Mead & Clairmont, 2015). Some would argue that the transportation revolution is ongoing, and about to take its next phase, into a post fossil-fuel world.
The New Revolution
Prior revolutions all have similar characteristics. They start from a relatively static condition, where innovations have been slow for a prolonged period. Then there is a flurry of activity, and in rapid succession numerous innovations appear. These innovations collectively transform not only the subject of the revolution but the entire structure of human society. Today, that revolution is in information.
Prior to the advent of the Internet, information was relatively static. It was recorded on paper, and in the minds of practitioners. Thus, there were high transaction costs to knowledge transfer and storage. Gathering information was an even more time-consuming process. Advances such as the Internet, digital storage, digital transmission and computing power (i.e. information processing) have dramatically lowered the cost of acquiring and processing information. This has facilitated the creation of massive database of information, the scale of which would have been unimaginable just two decades ago (Pearlstein, 2013).
Business calls this “Big Data,” and business lies at the front lines of the information revolution. This is similar to how all of the other revolutions arrived. Improved agricultural efficiency, increased productive capacity of factories and shortened transportation times all caught on because they were valuable to commerce; their utility to individuals and governments only becoming apparent later on.
This rapid increase in information is already transforming some existing industries. Data has always driven industries such as advertising, but the leading advertising company today is Google, which is driven by superior data. It has more data points that any conventional adverting firm, processes them better, and therefore can deliver superior value to advertisers. The entire way that companies communicate with their audiences has changed. New industries are starting emerge based on our superior access to information. Biotechnology has made incredible leaps in recent years due to our higher level of information about the body and its processes (Drucker, 1999).
What is interesting to see is how information is extending the lifespans of both the industrial and transportation revolutions. Production efficiencies are increasing, thanks to more intelligent robotics. Logistics networks are driven by information now, instead of horsepower, and self-driving cars are set to revolutionize personal transportation in the near future. Cities can use information to design better transportation networks, and the medical profession will be revolutionized not only by advances in medical practice but in the dramatic reduction in information acquisition costs for patients, which should remove some of the information asymmetry that exists between health care providers and their patients (Robinson, 2012).
However, improving on existing things does not wholly fit the definition of a revolution, which is why the information revolution is clearly in its nascent stages. It will soon, however, evolve beyond the nascent stage and will bring about the wholesale societal changes that characterized the other major revolutions of our time. Right now, the Information Revolution has been most strong in the gathering information. We are developing new ways to learn about things that are already out there. But gathering and storing information, as valuable as it is, is nothing compared with what will happen when we make advances in how to use all of that information that we are gathering.
For this, the key will be the point when computers are able to process information independently, essentially a form of artificial intelligence. The theoretical threshold will be when powerful processors can determine their own actions. We are basically at that threshold now. For example, physicists in Australia used artificial intelligence to run a highly complex experiment, and the intelligence was able to make adjustments to run the experiment with a high degree of accuracy and consistency than the physicists were able to. It was able to learn how to run the experiment better than people in less than an hour (Australian National University, 2016).
The paradigm shift from this will be tremendous. Not only will artificial intelligences be able to perform calculations better than ever before, they will make decisions that reflect the totality of data available. Biases in decision-making will be reduced dramatically. Human standards of governance, presently often poor, will be replaced with better decision-making that reduces error and bias. Ultimately, the world could soon be a place where there are few roles that humans can provide that are better than a machine — an artificial intelligence can create machines that will perform many critical functions.
The science fiction version of this has humans as entirely redundant entities, but there will be some transformations. Our societies are still built on the idea that people need to work, but there were will fewer jobs than ever after the Information Revolution ramps up. Our societies will therefore need to accommodate for this reality. Some of the bad decisions that we have made will be reversed, and there will be transformations associated with that. The nation-state will be become increasingly irrelevant as intelligences and the people who control them will be more powerful than any government could hope to be.
Previous revolutions extended over the course of many decades, some lasting more than a century. We are at best twenty years into the Information Revolution. That, too, has significant implications for society. The biggest advances are yet to come; everything to this point has been a matter of laying down the foundation for the real quantum leaps in innovation that are going to occur over the coming decades. By the time we die, it is possible that the world will be entirely unrecognizable.
There is little doubt that the Information Revolution is the latest in a string of revolutions that began with the Agricultural Revolution. The most important factor in this revolution is that it promises to transform the role of humans in this world. If the Industrial Revolution facilitated human domination over the planet, the Information Revolution will take us in a different direction. The fact that we are just at the beginning of this revolution means that it might be difficult to foresee accurately where it will lead, but there is little doubt that it will be profound, meeting the criteria of a revolution with a string of innovations that promise to transform the way human society is organized, in particular the role of work, of nation-states and of humans in controlling our own affairs. While it remains to be seen what these transformations will look like, there is little doubt that they are coming, as this revolution supersedes the others, building on their advances but in some cases lending transformation to the roles that agriculture and industry play in our society.
Australian National University (2016). Artificial intelligence replaces physicists. Science Daily. Retrieved May 16, 2016 from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160516091544.htm
Bellis, M. (2015). The Agricultural Revolution. About.com. Retrieved May 16, 2016 from http://inventors.about.com/od/indrevolution/a/AgriculturalRev.htm
Drucker, P. (1999). Beyond the information revolution. The Atlantic. Retrieved May 16, 2016 from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1999/10/beyond-the-information-revolution/304658/
Mead, W. & Clairmont, N. (2015). The transportation revolution is coming. The American Interest. Retrieved May 16, 2016 from http://www.the-american-interest.com/2015/06/12/the-transportation-revolution-is-coming/
Pearlstein, J. (2013). Information revolution: Big data has arrived at an almost unimaginable scale. Wired. Retrieved May 16, 2016 from http://www.wired.com/2013/04/bigdata/
Robinson, R. (2012). How cities can exploit the information revolution. The Urban Technologist. Retrieved May 16, 2016 from https://theurbantechnologist.com/2012/06/09/how-cities-can-exploit-the-information-revolution/
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