Introduction to my thoughts so far… (part 1)

This is part one of a four-part post. See also parts 2, 3 and 4.

What is History? Is it just an endless stream of loosely related names, dates and events? That is how history is usually presented in history books and classes in school. In my experience, this is also how most people view history. Because of this, learning history is often perceived as something akin to learning your multiplication tables, but with a narrative added to it. I believe this perception explains why so many people find history boring and irrelevant.

But is it possible that there is something bigger going on that connects all of these names, dates and event together? I believe so. By that, I do not mean that there might be a God or Gods behind history, but that there are some big trends and processes that enable us to understand history on a deeper level. If this were so, once one understands these trends and processes, then all the names, dates and events can be put into their proper context and become more understandable.

After a lifetime of studying history, I have come to believe that names, dates and events are far less important than trends. By focusing on trends, we can discern underlying processes that give us a framework for understanding history. This book is my attempt to explain that process.

For much of my life I have been interested in history. As a youngster I remember going to the school library to check out every book on World War II, my first topic of interest. Then as a college student, I spent a year abroad in London and travelled the European Continent. While I did so, I devoured every history book that I could find. I quickly fell in love with European history. And, yes, I even loved the endless parade of names, dates and events that have terrorized so many of us in school.

When I returned to my university in the United States, I decided to major in History. Over the years, the specific time period and geographical focus of my interest has changed, but my love of reading history books has always been a key part of my life. Over time, my knowledge of history deepened and broadened.

In the early and mid-1990s I went to graduate school and studied Political Science and Public Policy. There I found that my background in history served me well, allowing me to see a “bigger picture” than most professors and graduate students. I became particularly interested in which policies had the biggest impact on making people’s lives better. After earning my PhD, I worked as a Professor in Political Science and Public Policy, but I gradually became restless with academia. I grew tired of talking about what other people did. I wanted to become a doer, not a just a thinker.

In the late 90s, I decided to shift my career into the field of Information Technology, which was booming at the time (and still is). For a while I worked as a Technical Writer, and then I became a User Experience Designer. As a UX Designer, I was daily confronted with the tasks of making cutting-edge technology useful for human beings, either for individual users or for users within a larger organization.

All this work left me far less time for reading, but I began to take an interest in how companies organize themselves to innovate new technology. With innovation becoming a buzzword in the corporate world, I decided to focus my scant free-time reading on technology and innovation. I was particularly interested in determining which government policies and corporate business models could foster innovation.

At first, I focused narrowly on recent innovations – computers, the Internet, and mobile devices. I read many books about technology, innovation and business practices. Some were useful; many were little more than corporate fads. The more useful books, however, frequently referred to technological innovations of the past to better understand the technologies of today.

Gradually my interests began to shift to “older” technologies. I read books about railroads, factories, sailing ships, the printing press, the plow and even the bow-and-arrow. Reading about older technologies suddenly made all that I had learned about history earlier in my life relevant to my new interest. While I had hoped to discover key government policies that foster innovation, I came to understand the process of innovation as one that bubbles up from below rather than being guided from the top down by government. In my new view, there is relatively little that government can do to foster it, at least in the short-run. I also came to see that corporations are usually more focused on maximizing profits from existing technologies, rather than innovating new ones.

I gradually came to see technology as a key driving force for change in both recent history and more distant times. The importance of technological innovation may seem obvious today, but it is often ignored or downplayed in history books. And even for tech aficionados, it is not obvious that technology played as an important a role 10,000 years ago as it does today.

I also found that working within technology companies helped me make my thinking more concrete. Whenever I read books, I kept asking myself if a proposed theory applies in my workplace. Then I began asking myself whether the theory applied to 200 years ago and also 10,000 years ago.

I came to realize that many of the same struggles of past inventors, engineers and entrepreneurs are being relived in my current workplace: how to learn new skills; how to turn an idea into a working prototype and then a profitable product; how to adapt the technology to the needs of humans and specific organizations that can potentially use them; how to reengineer the product to take advantage of emerging technologies. And most importantly, how to work with other people to do all the above.

I came to see some key factors in driving change that are as important today as 50 years ago, 200 years ago, 10,000 and even 200,000 years ago. Each technological innovation forces creates a higher level of complexity that forces humans to learn new skills and cooperate with wider groups of people. Each technological innovation forces organizations to adapt new processes and business models. Then the humans push back, forcing engineers to change the technology to adapt to human needs.  This puts society in a constant state of change, a state fundamentally driven by technological innovation.

But from my study of history, I knew that many societies lagged others in their use of complex technology.  History has not been kind to egalitarians. Dramatic variations between societies in their level of technology has been the norm, not the exception.

Sub-Saharan Africa comes to mind today, but until recently almost the entire world was technologically far behind the Industrial West. And I also knew from my reading in history that a few societies have made over-sized contributions to technological innovation in the West: Venice, Netherlands, UK and the USA.

My interests changed to trying to understand what factors accounted for these differences. Over time, my readings focused on answering the following questions:

  • Why have human societies undergone such change, while other species appear to have changed very little over millions of years?
  • What are the factors that cause this change?
  • Why do some societies experience rapid change, while others do not?
  • Why does a society that has been almost unchanged for centuries suddenly experience rapid change?
  • How do these changes affect cities, nations, militaries, corporations and other social organizations?

In order to answer these questions, I gradually expanded my reading to include new topics: biology, paleontology, anthropology, sociology, economics, culture, geography, psychology, brain science, network theory, complexity theory, engineering, urban studies, and philosophy. I read books from authors who struggled to answer some of the same questions that I had. I was particularly struck by how often authors in different disciplines worked on the same questions, apparently without being aware of similar work by others in different disciplines.

Go to part 2.

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