06 August 2008


Via Patrick Nielsen Hayden, I learn that Clay Shirkey has a fascinating reflection.
I was recently reminded of some reading I did in college, way back in the last century, by a British historian arguing that the critical technology, for the early phase of the industrial revolution, was gin.

The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing— there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.

And it wasn't until society woke up from that collective bender that we actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today. Things like public libraries and museums, increasingly broad education for children, elected leaders—a lot of things we like—didn't happen until having all of those people together stopped seeming like a crisis ...

Mr Shirkey believes that we're coming up on another shift where we stop using an anæsthetic technology to deal with a major social change and start to seize that change's benefits.

What is the 20th century equivalent of gin? I bet you can guess.

What are the benefits of this change? Read what Mr Shirky has to say, or better yet, check out the video of him talking through it. He has some truly astonishing back-of-the-envelope calculations.

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