How we got to where we are

Thinking of the distant past, the numbers are staggering. In order to grasp the relative pace of the long-term developments, it helps to condense the entire history since the Big Bang into one single year: imagine 13.8 billion years boiled down to 365 days. [1]

This dense year began on 1 January at midnight with the inanimate world. As the year unfolded, little noteworthy happened. Winter passed, spring came and went, and summer was nearly gone when the animate world came to life on 22 September, 10.5 minutes before noon. The dense year was almost over by the time the human world emerged on 31 December, only 11.4 minutes to New Year. To put our written history into perspective: a watershed event like the Industrial Revolution occurred a mere 0.7 seconds before New Year.

Recognising our relative insignificance on that cosmic scale, it is all the more astonishing how much global impact humankind acquired in almost no time. This is the long-term effect of accumulating change, further amplified by an acceleration that gained momentum through two threshold developments. First, the key feature of the animate world is agency, any living organism’s ability to engage actively with its surroundings; since then, change has a direction. Secondly, the human world is characterised by abstract thought and social learning; now change is planned and organised.

Still, we must concede that today’s technologies result from our mastery of physics and chemistry, our skill in exploiting the inanimate world. They are designed as ‘dumb tools’, expected to comply with our wishes, without agency of their own. We only started to devise autonomous systems; conceived as smart, but tools nonetheless.

Endowing future technologies with genuine, intended agency could give us more power than ever before – for good and for bad. All depends on the choices we make. Will we have the foresight and patience to apply our prowess wisely? That is our greatest challenge.

[1] In this dense year, one second corresponds to over 437 years of history;
one minute to a good 26.000 years;
one hour to 1.6 million years;
and one day to 37.8 million years.

This is the final post to complete a series of short posts on the origins of innovation.

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