History Isn't Boring

Author's note: this is some deep post necromancy here. I originally wrote this back in 2014, when I held a low-level position at a long-defunct nonprofit called the World Future Society, which billed itself as the premiere professional organization for "futurists", the 21st Century English term for "soothsayers". Unfortunately, the images are long lost to link rot, so you'll have to imagine them from the descriptions I include, which are of course based on my unreliable memories. That said, I do want to repost this, because it was worth writing at the time, and it's even more worth saying now; if anything has changed since 2014, it is that History has grown ever more insistent that it's not finished with us, while our well-credentialed experts have become ever more determined to publicly dismiss it.

The Second Machine Age, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, is a popular and well-regarded book right now. It explains many complex technological developments in easy terms, generally without oversimplifying things. The authors do a good job projecting the impact of future technology and offering helpful advice, but avoid drawing overly broad conclusions or editorializing. Unfortunately, toward the beginning of the book, there are several statements which are not only wrong, but actively harmful.

On page 4 of the hardcover edition, we find a somewhat bombastic section heading: The History of Humanity in One Graph.

This was, I swear, a graph that plotted "Population" on the Y-Axis, vs. "Time" on the X-Axis. "Population" was a clear power curve which started bending upwards around 1750. The heading on the graph was something like "Most of history is boring".

Hopefully, at least a few of you just shouted angrily at your screen. Less hopefully, this ridiculous claim stayed in the book—a book which has been thoroughly edited for mass consumption—because no one in the writing or editing process expected anyone to take issue with it. Since the book is well on its way to bestseller status, and since no one else has taken issue with it yet, the writers and publishers seem to have been right.

Any serious scholar of the future ought to have an understanding of history—after all, history is a future that has already happened. By flippantly dismissing millenia of human struggle and progress, Brynjolfsson and McAfee are encouraging ignorance and uninformed speculation. In their rejection of the flat part of this graph, they are disregarding mathematics. They are actively harming a serious understanding of the future by encouraging such attitudes.

History isn't boring, and understanding the past is essential to understanding the present. Without an understanding of the present, how can we ever hope to understand the future?

For Brynjolfsson and McAfee, the interesting part of human history starts around the industrial revolution, which is, for them, the point where technology starts to affect people's lives. Apparently, before someone finally came along and invented the steam engine, life was just one unbroken continuum of mud, disease, and superstition.

This was a graph I'd dug up from Wikipedia or something which plotted major technological advances of the last few thousand years against a a linear time scale -- for example agriculture, writing, iron smelting, the printing press, etc.

The narcissism of the present might tell us that there wasn't much of a difference between hunting/gathering and agriculture. Of course, to a farmer whose recent ancestors had been hunter-gatherers, an iPad wouldn't seem that different from a TV.

The truth is that, compared to some of the revolutions the human race has been through before, our current one doesn't look all that exceptional. To suggest that the interesting part of history starts at the invention of the steam engine is also to dismiss everything that led up to the Industrial Revolution—breakthroughs like writing, math, science, and commerce, each of which had profound effects on the course of human civilization.

But we're living in the steep part of the graph, right? There must be something special about the present day—after all, nothing much is happening to the population in the flat bit. Right?

Absolutely wrong. If you paid attention in high school math, you know from the shape that this graph is an exponential curve. When you see an exponential curve, you plot it on a logarithmic scale, thereby finding the truly interesting bits.

If you didn't pay attention in high school math, don't worry. If you make it to Chapter 3 of this book, the authors themselves do a decent job explaining the principles of exponential growth, using "Tribbles"—fuzzy Star Trek creatures which reproduce every day.

This was in fact a graphical explanation of how exponential growth works, using a Star Trek-based analogy for some reason.

It turns out that when you see a graph shaped like this one, you're probably seeing exponential growth. Populations grow exponentially when they increase by a certain percentage in a fixed unit of time—like your bank account which earns 2% per year, or a bacterial colony that doubles in size every 24 hours.

Plotting this growth on a linear chart—one where the vertical scale is directly proportional to the size of the population—gives you a graph which is true, but not informative. Instead, you plot it on a logarithmic scale. Like the Richter scale used for earthquakes, where a magnitude 6 is 10 times bigger than a magnitude 5, a logarithmic scale makes each successive mark on the vertical scale 10 times bigger than the last.

This was a graph of human population plotted on a logarithmic scale, in which the last couple hundred years look much less exceptional.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee actually give a very good explanation of why it's important to plot exponential growth on a logarithmic scale—basically, since the rate of growth remains approximately the same, making the graph into a straight line makes it far easier for humans to pick out the important parts. Plotting the same curve on a linear chart will always make it look like the interesting part is the end, although with exponential growth, the last part of the curve will inevitably be the steepest.

Fine, history may be more interesting than the authors think. But so what? This is a throwaway graph, tossed into page 5. Nobody's going to take it seriously.

That is exactly the problem. Those who don't understand the past are doomed to repeat it. The public at large has, at best, a shallow and almost superstitious conception of history. The futurist community should know better than to encourage this sort of thinking. A truly competent futurist ought to have a deep and thorough grasp of history—after all, the present is a lot less unique than we think. Past revolutions, like the Agricultural and the Industrial, offer a wealth of clues about how our current revolution will end up. If we let ourselves get caught up in the narcissism of the present, we'll only hurt ourselves.

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