by Julius WiedemannSep 14, 2021
Our relationship with nature will always be measured by our relationship with technology. It is not that they always need to walk on completely different paths, because certainly one can help the other in so many instances, but it is so because as we prosper and develop new technologies, these will always offer a new frontier that was not meant to happen naturally. The connection between nature and sciences has created enormous prosperity, but for a large part of the population, not equipped with a deeper understanding of these fields, also an enormous vacuum in understanding the interdependencies of humans and their surroundings.
The first revolution was the agricultural one, which started about 12,000 years ago, and has technically endured until the beginning of the 20th century. We bowed ourselves to new technologies and processes, including devices, even if we consider it rudimentary today, increasing the production of food, and therefore creating empires that were based on the capacity to feed their armies and populations. It changed completely the productivity of lands, allowing for better distribution of food, and consequently better nutrition of populations. Mortality rates started to change, and knowledge about where we live underwent incredible transformation. Eventually, productivity has become the laboratory of playing with genetics of all sorts of foods, which allowed for the explosion of the world’s population. In these almost 12,000 years, until 1700, it is estimated that the world’s population went from a couple of million to about 600 million. It took only 300 years for the population to grow over tenfold, reaching over seven billion people on the planet today.
The second revolution was the industrial one. It changed dramatically our relationship with technology and nature, because man was now dominated by machines, initially mechanical ones, which then became increasingly sophisticated and started to produce things that were unimaginable before. From the textile industry to consumer products, from soap bars to blenders, from cars and airplanes to forks and knives. Nearly everything that could be created could be produced for the masses. Nature became a subsidiary for human and material development. Accessibility was the keyword to a whole new world of possibilities. It was the era of democratising comfort and tools for a better living standard. The evidence is overwhelming.
The era we are living through right now, the Information Age, is about much more disruptive, and a much faster transformation of the world. Since the 19th century we have accumulated knowledge to exchange and to manipulate information like never before. With the population explosion in the world, methods for producing, controlling and distributing information have become vital for both economic and social development. It is kind of the new food. With that we introduced mass media to all corners of the world, with information and knowledge reaching out to people in real time, anywhere. The video conference scenes at the Jetsons cartoons have now become ubiquitous, or even banal. Our mobile phones are the salvation and the curse. And we are still learning how to deal with social media and the side effects of so much information. The changes that were clear and coming fast, accelerated in the last 50 years. Technology companies dominate stock market listings, and their founders are today the richest people in the world.
Next big revolution might be the bioengineering one. It is a question of when, and not if, that we will be able to program ourselves to become people that were randomly built by nature over millions of years. We will be able to choose how we want to be. Random mutation and non-random natural selection, as described by Charles Darwin, will not be the norm anymore. It will become a mere option. The cloning of humans, after Dolly’s cloning, has only been stopped (thankfully) due to ethical concerns.
Some authors like Yuval Noah Harari and Sam Harris would say that this time we do not have much room for mistakes. Disruption is not any more a possible consequence of technological development. It is the backbone that governs innovation. Whereas in the first revolution we mostly succeeded, and then the second one we struggled to cope with weapons of mass instruction, the holocaust, communism, and other things, we managed to overcome the securities to sustain a peaceful living together. We are still learning the lessons of the information revolution, but what is going to be presented to us after this is much more radical and we have no idea what the outcomes might be.
We evolve genetically, socially, and technologically. The speed and the transformational aspects of technological developments are incomparable with the first two. However, technologies have been disrupting social constructs in a manner most of us hadn’t anticipated. When our very nature, the Homo Sapiens nature, starts to be a point of discussion, we put ourselves in a position to decide how the future will be shaped around us if we are not in control anymore. And nature doesn’t care. In the legendary campaign from Conservation International (CI), the voice of famous Hollywood actors served to voice the concerns about this dilemma, that nature is evolving regardless of how we look at it, and how we treat it. Nature as a whole.
The next revolution might also be the revolution of reconciliation of our internal nature with our surroundings, looking at the advances that we have made through technology that can enhance the lives of the people on the planet whilst proposing a much deeper understanding of how much we still depend on the natural environments.
Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.