Products seem perfectly natural to us, we cannot imagine being without them. But before the Industrial Revolution they did not exist.
Many of the same things existed – medieval clothing, for example, was more elaborate than our own. And their castles and churches are marvels to us even today. But their lives were entirely different – so much so that to an outside observer might conclude that they were a different species.
People today dismiss this difference, and refuse to consider its significance – just as they refuse to consider the significance of their own world.
I am listening to A Distant Mirror, a history of the 14th Century – the century immediately proceeding the beginning of the Modern world. The author, Barbara Tuchman, is doing a very thorough job of explaining it, and I will be listening to her explanation for some time.
But I can see, looking over a summary of her work – that she, like everyone else, does not understand our obsession with products and productivity. Perhaps this is where I come in.
First of all, and I cannot stress this enough, what we are dealing with here is a complex – a situation where many interacting forces are at work. This idea would not have seemed strange to a Medieval man, who lived in a complex world himself.
But Modern man became used to simpler ways of explaining things – as chains of cause-and-effect (where only two variables at time were involved – such as mass and distance in the theory of gravitation). Post-modern man (which is what we are) is baffled by his world and cannot understand much of anything at all.
I now return to the subject of products and productivity. The main effect of the Industrial Revolution was to change men – and focus them on what we now call business (or Capitalism) and products. And to produce people completely unaware of this – mass man.
Once again, we are describing a complex, where a key component of this complex is the people involved themselves.
Are you still with me? If so, congratulations! You are one of the minority in any age that is different, and sees things differently. Allow me return to my historical summary.
The first emphasis (or obsession) in the Modern world was on trade. But trade using a new technology (or product) – the Sailing ship. Which produced the world’s first technical boom. Immediately, an Industry was born – building, maintaining, and staffing these ships. And in organizing their usage – ways of financing them, for example, became very ingenious – and made immense fortunes.
But even more importantly, something that escaped notice altogether – the population boom that produced mass man. I repeat: this was not noticed at all by the people who should have noticed it – the thinkers of the age. Emerson, it is true, said Things are in the saddle, and ride man. And everyone agreed with him. But no one thought to examine the changes to men themselves – which were too shocking to be believed.
Mass men was taking over – simply because there were so many of them. They were making a few at the top very rich – and they had no desire to change the way things were.
But the process was just beginning. Wind power was replaced by Steam power – and the consumption of fossil fuels. Manufacturing was born – ordinary people became nothing but poorly-paid attendants to manufacturing machines. And automatically became like machines themselves.
But the process continued, at an ever-faster pace. Electricity when combined with Photography (sometimes called the Second Industrial Revolution) produced new products – and more importantly, new fascinations – the Cinema, and then Television. And made mass control possible. People were relegated to the role of consumers.
The produce-consume cycle was born, and took over the economy. People demanded eternal growth to accommodate this – something that was clearly impossible.
But the process continued with yet another revolution, which has not yet been recognized as one – the computer/software/internet. We are now in the process of serving it – and have forgotten completely that our technologies are supposed to serve us.
This should complete my analysis, but I want to note one more thing – the young. who are clearly different. They are not interested in being productive – or even, it seems to me – in being. What they are I have no idea, and I suspect no one else does either.