I've written before about Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation. One lesson that jumps out on re-reading it is that as England made the transformation to industrial capitalism, nobody understood what was going on. One important consequence of the transformation that people in the U.S. don't appreciate is that it reduced the common people of the countryside to penury -- indeed, near starvation. (We came from a different starting place in the U.S. so this was not as dramatic or obvious.) It is well-known that everywhere, as people moved to cities and took industrial jobs, their life expectancies fell and they were immiserated.
Now we're going through another transformation, that we might not come out of on the other end with our civilization intact. This interview with two of the authors of a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is well worth your attention. If you want to read the original paper, it's here, but fair warning it's a bit wonky.
This new Great Transformation is not in the means of production, as the neolithic and industrial revolutions were: it's in the information ecology. Language is the unique property of humans. It is from the communicative interaction of individuals that society and collective behavior emerge. From the 1700s until recently, we enjoyed a regime of communicative action that produced a consensual reality that enabled the progress of science and the solution of collective problems. Of course it also produced world wars and genocides, but we were able to develop a broadly consensual understanding of these events, except for a minority of deniers, and norms of national and international conduct evolved in response. We were able to diagnose and solve the public health catastrophes caused by the Industrial Revolution. As a species, compared to times past at least, we've had a pretty decent run.
But the new information ecology is changing that in ways we can only dimly see. Consensual reality seems to be breaking apart, and the doctrines that produced the horrors of the 1940s are having a rebirth. No-one is curating the information ecology effectively, and as we face global crises that will require informed, rational and difficult collective action that bodes ill indeed. I hope Mark Zuckerberg will read this.