The Third of the Grand Revolutions

There’s a lot of talk about the Digital Revolution and the effects it had, has, might have. Let’s take a step back to put things into perspective: Could it be that this revolution is a lot larger than we usually think? Are we currently experiencing the beginnings of a major transformation not only of our technological base, but of the very foundations of our economy and our society? I’ll argue that’s precisely the case, and that the Digital Revolution will have far-reaching consequences, on par with only two other major events in the history of humanity: the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.

These are what I’d call the three capital-‘R’ or Grand Revolutions. They epitomise the mutual adaptation, the co-evolution of society and technology: to reap the benefit of a technological breakthrough, society itself adjusts; and by the same token, society influences the further trajectory of that technology. All three Grand Revolutions were / are driven by a novel technological achievement. And the Agricultural and the Industrial Revolution both already saw through the transformation of the previous social order, including the prevailing economic traditions. Regarding the full impact of the Digital Revolution, you might say that it’s too early to tell. Still, I do believe that it will reach as far and deep as the other Grand Revolutions did. Here’s a little food for thought.

The Agricultural Revolution

Let’s begin at that time when our distant ancestors left the hunter-gatherer way of life behind. Rather than following a nomadic itinerary driven by the seasons and the migration routes of their preferred food sources, they gradually learned how to domesticate plants and animals. Of course that revolution in food production yielded a major improvement in the security of food supply. But the end of foraging meant so much more:

  • The new residential lifestyle created permanent settlements, which by themselves supported a slow but steady increase in the complexity of social interactions; that’s the very early beginning of the later rise of cities.
  • The new predictability of food supply allowed for a little surplus, which could either be stored or exchanged; that’s the very initial concept of trade, and even a first faint idea of investing into a longer-term benefit.
  • Finally, humanity saw the emergence of specialisation: larger social units allowed individuals to become specialists of a certain craft, and a food surplus could be exchanged for crafted goods.

In these interconnected ways, Agricultural Revolution created the conditions for new social norms and economic interactions. By today’s standards, that transformation progressed rather slowly, taking several centuries rather than only generations. But still, the world before had very little in common with the world after the Agricultural Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution

What types of images come to our minds when we hear those two words? We usually think of the advent of factories and the proliferation of smoking chimneys. But those were only the widely visible signs of the new era. At its core, it was an energy revolution. Driven by the access to coal, and by the technologies to harness coal energy for human purposes, society restructured itself to handle the impact of that tremendous increase in available energy:

  • Coal was the cheap and reliable energy source the powered the mechanisation of production of food and crafted goods alike; that was the beginning of mass production as we know it today.
  • The development of all the new technology relied essentially on a newly evolving entrepreneurial mindset: a combination of technical insight and skill with an understanding for business and finance. The result was a new class of self-made businessmen that soon rivaled the societal position and political influence of the landowners.
  • Global trade networks expanded and deepened as more goods were available and could be traded faster and further, given the growing production and the improved means of transportation.
  • With the vast increase in energy per worker, the overall productivity took off to a new galaxy. That was the first time that productivity increased faster than population could grow, which allowed humanity to escape from the Malthusian Trap. The resulting rapid population growth caused fundamental changes in almost every aspect of society. Cities attracted masses of farm hands in search for work and a better life; urbanization gained momentum. But for most people, prosperity increased only slowly, while their living and working conditions remained rather miserable. As tension rose between the haves and the have-nots, workers began to organize to make their voices heard. Unions striving for higher wages and better working conditions soon became vital political actors. The growing demand for broad political participation accelerated the demise of feudalism and led to the advent of democratic rule.

To get a more concrete impression of how deeply the Industrial Revolution transformed society, just think about life in Western Europe before and after. If you were to pick a few words to describe and compare the situation, the result could look this: before – rural, subsistence, traditional, feudal; after – urban, consumerist, individualized, democratic.  Once again, the world before was not the same as after the Industrial Revolution.

What makes a revolution ‘Grand’?

These accounts of the Agricultural and Industrial Revolution are necessarily abbreviated and superficial, but they summarise the breadth of effects that these Grand Revolutions had on society. Each of them, empowered by technological breakthrough, resulted in fundamental transformations in every aspect of daily life:

  • Society – Who is part of my peer group, who isn’t? Can I change peer groups, to leave one and enter another? Can I be part of several at the same time?
  • Values – What is valued, what is a valuable contribution to society? Who contributes what? Who deserves which part of the gain?
  • Ownership – What is commonly owned? What is individual?
  • Economy – How is production organised? How the trading of goods and services between individuals and societies? Are there transfer payments and subsidies within a society?
  • Rule – Who has authority and why? How is governance executed? How do politics and policies work?

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see today how the Agricultural and the Industrial Revolution have progressively increased the complexity and diversity of human culture. Especially in the long run, they have generated previously inconceivable levels of quality of life. But in the short run, they disrupted the old norms and shattered former certainties. What does that imply for the evolving Digital Revolution?

The Digital Revolution — Grand?

At the dawn of digital age, we saw the advent of computers and later the internet. But the Digital Revolution is so much more than IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, or Twitter. If we stay too fixated on the gadgets and companies to embody the very essence of ‘digital‘ today, we’ll have difficulty to fully realize how ‘everything‘ changes not the future. So let’s zoom out to look not only at technology, but at questions about economy, law, constitution, and even ethics.

Technology – The Digital Revolution is driven by a breakthrough in information handling, so much is clear. That has already led to massive automation in many industry sectors. Today we are debating the potential effects that autonomous systems and Artificial Intelligence could have. Less visibly, but more importantly, we have created the digital commons, which is the first human-made domain. The idea of data as a resource, data as the raw material of the 21st century is an expression of an evolving new mindset, which so far focused in the use of large amounts of data, and less on their origin or ownership. At the same time, the discussion on net neutrality is only the beginning of considering appropriate traffic rules for the new domain.

Economy – There are of course many companies that are active in the IT business and have their shares traded on the stock exchange. But those very visible actors illustrate only a fraction of the impact of the Digital Revolution. Think about the sharing economy, or consider the makers movement, which could to change trade and production in a new direction that empowers millions of people: everybody can be a trader, and everybody can be a producer. Further, could something like Bitcoin become a viable alternative to state-issued currencies? And could there even be the end of labour and an unconditional basic income?

Law – Our legal system is confined by the idea of the nation-state and its territorial boundaries; extensions thereof require multinational arrangements. What does that mean for law in the –territorially unconstrained– digital space? For law enforcement? For ownership? Today, I own my data, but I’m not asked, let alone refunded for their use. Some might think that this is a new ‘natural’ order, others might see that as downright theft. The future of the rule of law in the digital space is yet undefined.

During the period of colonialisation, corporations (genuine innovations at their time) took the adventure and risk to extend their trade networks into previously uncharted territories. And only after they had established successful trade posts, their home nations actually hoisted the flag and protected them against other foreign powers: ‘The flag followed the trade‘. I would expect the same baseline model to apply in the digital age: business is the first to enter the new digital domain, and the flag will follow. With two differences, though. First – There’s no need to defend against another military power, hence military might is not the tool of choice. Rather, the focus will be on the appropriated extension of the legal framework into the digital domain. Second – The businesses that have entered the space are not national in the traditional sense. Many of them are multinational by design, and so are their customers. Hence the appropriate tools cannot be unilaterally defined and then imposed on everybody else. The world has become too complex for simplistic solutions.

Constitution – With such large-scale changes in the legal system, I would imagine challenges to our constitutional arrangements as well. Today we adhere to the concept of the Westphalian state, which is based on territory and homogenous populations. But the very idea of territory has been disrupted by us creating the digital domain. And our populations have already become increasingly diverse through the effects of the Industrial Revolution. So the preconditions for our concept of statehood are under pressure. And so are the foundations of today’s international institutions. We’ll have to rethink our ideas of authority and legitimacy in the digital age. Given the rise of cities not just as population centers, but as global hubs for trade, commerce, and innovation, I see merit in further investigating concepts like the global parliament of mayors.

Ethics – Next year will mark 500 years of Protestantism, and with the arrival of the Protestant work ethic: the idea that you earn your position in society by making a productive contribution. Our concepts of ‘being productive’ and ‘contributing’ would change if economy and society were to embrace, for example, an unconditional basic income. In that instance, ethical convictions that guided us through the last half millennium will come under discussion as well.

Obviously, all of this leads to lots of further discussion, because these different perspectives are of course interdependent. But the essence is this: The Digital Revolution is no unprecedented force of nature, as Ryan Avent eloquently argues in his recent The Wealth of Humans. It has much in common with the Industrial Revolution, and there’s a lot we can learn from that experience, especially regarding the depth and breadth of the upcoming transformation.


We are still in the very early stages of the Digital Revolution as it unfolds with unknown outcome in an undefined direction. It is only natural that we have difficulties today to grasp its full transformative power. We have begun to observe massive changes in technology and their initial impact on the economy. But neither the technological nor the economical transformations are complete. And we haven’t even started a serious discussion about law, constitution, or ethics. But those will inevitably knock on our doors.

It is too early to dare concrete predictions. But the signs for fundamental change are undeniable. It will likely take a few decades, even generations, before a new order will take shape, before all the effects of the third Grand Revolution will become tangible. In the meantime, we are well advised to keep our minds wide open for every aspect of the ongoing transformation. That way, we’ll keep our options open to actively shape the outcomes of the Digital Revolution in a constructive manner – less for our own intents and purposes, but more importantly for those of our children and grand-children.


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