Chapter 2 introduced the industrial revolution and the Enlightenment. These movements signaled the end of stasis and the beginning of a modern era characterized by change. Changes begot changes, and they only seemed to keep accelerating. Those of us alive today, then, are seeing the world transformed more quickly than ever before. Even within the span of our lifetime, a few events and trends have created a whole new world at the turn of this millennium.
Some of the changes are long overdue. The world’s last empire collapsed in the early 1990s. Since then, the nations of Earth have welcomed dozens of new republics. 1 Now, for the first time ever, the average human being enjoys a middle-class life free from starvation and disease. We’ve gotten a handle on runaway population growth. At the same time, we face new challenges such as AIDS, an aging population, and early signs that we’ll have to change the course of our fossil-fueled industries.
With innovations led by the world wide web, the computer age has realized its full potential as one of the most important revolutions in human history. The light-speed flow of information has made business, technology, government, education, communication, and entertainment all much more efficient than ever before. Ordinary people play an increasing role in shaping society, trends, and business. For this reason, “You” were named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2006.
Sociology has completed a long and ironic cycle. Our ancestors’ social skills and morals evolved in small bands, which grew slowly into villages and tribes, then impersonal nations and empires with foreign empires on the horizon. Industrial transportation and telecommunications started to shrink the world, and by today we all interact in the same virtual village. We must rethink relationships between individuals and society now that privacy is precious and mystery is history. As it becomes harder to keep secrets, the “soul” that was once weighed by gods is now a web presence available for all to judge.
E-commerce affects international relations too. With an increasing amount of world control in the hands of the private sector, cultures and economies are blending irrevocably, a course of globalization that no state can contain. Today’s economic growth is concentrated in China, where over a billion people’s lives are being transformed by industrialization. Although economies are still growing everywhere, the changes wrought by automation and Sinification are not easy for everyone. Many working-class people in the mature economies find themselves struggling to figure out the new gig / service economy. Frustration, especially in the aftermath of the last financial crisis, has fueled a populist backlash in the 2010s.
Several hold-over tyrants remain, and this is the primary factor inflaming radical Islamism. The superpowers have gotten entangled with militant organizations like al Qaeda and ISIS. Unable to compete militarily, these groups must resort to terrorism and lone-wolf attacks. This has necessarily directed state espionage inward. Governments cannot monitor telecommunications for criminals and terrorists without gathering data on their own citizens. The balance of privacy vs. security has never been such a salient and difficult issue.
As a takeaway, it is important to appreciate what we have. Conflict and suffering are disheartening, and they are still with us. However, today more people live in comfort and peace than at any other moment in history, and that trend appears to be improving. I often hear people sigh and ask, “What’s wrong with the world today?!” Now that you have this book in your hands, you can compare the present to all stages of the past. Early humans evolved quickly exactly because life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” 2 If you had been born centuries or millennia ago, your odds of suffering tyranny, slavery, disease, poverty, or war would have been much higher than today. 3
Just as importantly, this is the golden age of discovery. The human mind has always had a drive for enlightenment, but a true understanding of world history was nowhere near the grasp of pre-scientific people. With mature science and cutting-edge technology, scientists have finished reconstructing the journey presented in this book just in the last few decades. You and I are among the first people to see “the whole story” from beginning to end.
The world will never be perfect, but I can’t imagine living in any other era. I hope that this book has helped make you, too, happy to be alive in this most amazing of times.
Finish the book with TEOH Conclusion And Other Back Matter
Stay up to date with Chapter 1 Margin Notes: Ongoing News about Events of the Last Few Decades
- Monty G. Marshall et al., “Polity IV Project: Political Regime Characteristics and Transitions, 1800-2013”, Systemic Peace (6/06/2014), http://www.systemicpeace.org/polity/polity4.htm (accessed 4/06/19). Data visualized by Max Roser, “Democracy”, Our World in Data (2019), https://ourworldindata.org/democracy (accessed and saved 4/06/19). ↩
- In case you don’t recognize this famous quote, it is from Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651) Ch. 12. ↩
- Not everyone agrees that life is, on balance, more peaceful now than ever before. One who does make the case is Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, Penguin Books (2011). ↩
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