Medieval Technology and Social Change

Category: Historical
Author: Lynn White
This Month Hacker News 1


by JacobDotVI   2019-05-19
The author's point about dissemination of information is spot-on.

A couple of years ago, I read Medieval Technology and Social Change, by Lynn White ( as recommended by PG. Technically a textbook, it was a dry and drab look at the history of various innovations during Midlevel times - the stirrup, the windmill, etc. The 30,000ft view is that when innovations are introduced it takes a long time both for them to spread and for someone to finally exploit them to their greatest contributive state. While the steam engine was not invented until 1712, all of the components had been available since Roman times. It took quite a long time to find one of the greatest uses of those innovations. At least, it used to take a long time -

Now, information and innovation spread much faster. Society moves much faster. The innovation of the stirrup took a thousands years to propagate. The innovation of the internet took less than 50 years; Smartphones took 5. The pace of global change is increasing exponentially. A modern entrepreneur must have line of sight to the latest innovations in order to anticipate their impact on his or her society, industry, business, and personal well being. No one wanted to be the new Nokia, Borders Books, or Woolworths.

But, let's take a step back from specific innovations, and look at global mega-shifts in society. From the agricultural revolution, to the various metal ages, through the industrial revolution we are now being lapped by the waves of the Information Age.

As humans we quickly absorb each individual change brought forth in the information age - email, cellular connections, the world wide web, the smart phone, etc. Can you imagine running your business without your iPhone? We very quickly adapt to the here and now and forget the way it was (Thank you evolution!). However, what we are not good at perceiving is the systematic, second-order changes that the Information Age will bring. The Agricultural Age brought these changes over thousands of years. The Industrial Age brought them over generations. The Information Age will bring them with alarming speed that we may not be prepared for:

* Retailer's monopoly on local distribution was destroyed by + UPS

* Newspapers have been shattered by the internet's ability to breakdown their stranglehold on the distribution of information.

* The telecom world was turned upside down by the introduction of the cell phones, the internet, and the disruption of their monopoly on land-lines (Note that AT&T is a mere brand name, which was purchased on the cheap by SBC).

* The traditional media world felt this shock earlier this year when a man with a twitter account was able to upend their distribution monopoly on the news and they were left reacting and pandering instead of dictating.

But these are a number of examples in the commercial world. What about society itself? What about the global financial systems? What about governments?

Note: this was part of a letter I sent out with a Christmas gift a few years ago. Full letter here: