The Great Acceleration
All around us are warnings about the consequences of generative AI for our jobs, our democracy, and our humanity. And all around us is excitement for the possibilities that generative AI will make us richer, more informed, safer, and better. For all the talk about the Internet Revolution, it was only a middle step in the bigger Information Revolution of which the printing press was the beginning and the advent of AI looks to be the conclusion. Such Revolutions in human culture, economy, and philosophy are rare. The Agricultural Revolution turned nomadic homo sapiens into settled humans with stable food supplies and led to the origin of writing, history, and human civilization, not to mention also governments, armies, and bureaucracies. The Industrial Revolution moved us from farms to cities, covered the land with mines and railroads, the skies with planes and satellites, and the waters with pipelines and plastic straws. It led to great riches and abject poverty and brought about mass education and mass entertainment.
We are now in the midst of the Information Revolution that is only gaining momentum with the sudden outbreak of artificial intelligence. Despite all the hype, it is likely that we are still underestimating the changes, benefits, and challenges that generative AI will bring. We worry about deep fakes, but are not yet thinking about virtual presidential candidates who will pop up in our phones and talk to us about our fears and our hopes. Or about virtual citizens who will cozy up to us in the bar, invented by campaigns or corporations, to come talk to us and convince us of the benefits of their candidates and their products. What will happen to friendship when we all have virtual friends at our fingertips 24/7. The transformation of human society will be intense, swift, and powerful. And we all need guides to help us through. Walter Russell Mead does an excellent job of sketching out the challenges we face, contextualizing it in history, and posing questions for the present. His essay attempts to put the transformation of the AI Revolution into perspective is well worth your reading time.
But over the last 700 years, the rate of human progress began perceptibly to pick up steam. Starting in Western Europe, the rate of technological and social change accelerated as a new kind of dynamism made itself felt. Windmills, double-entry bookkeeping, cannons, printing presses: World-changing inventions poured forth at an unprecedented rate.
This acceleration changed the way that history works. The Neolithic Revolution, associated with settled agriculture and the invention of writing, came thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution was only about two centuries old when the Information Revolution started to hit late in the 20th century. Increasingly, especially with advances in genetics and the science of the brain coming so quickly, it looks as if we are entering an age of permanent revolution in which radical technological and social changes cascade across the world largely nonstop. For people in our time, rapid and accelerating change is the norm; we hardly know anymore what stability feels like.
Much of the intellectual history of the last two centuries revolves around the efforts of great thinkers to wrap their heads around the Great Acceleration. The family of intellectual and political movements generally known as the Enlightenment grew out of the recognition of thinkers ranging from Voltaire to Goethe that something fundamental in the human condition had changed. Philosophers like Kant and Hegel were not just, like many of their predecessors, interested in unraveling the nature of existence. They found themselves drawn to the study of change. They were aware that the social and technological basis of European society was changing from decade to decade and even year to year. They wanted to understand what this meant, why it was happening, and what it portended for the future.
Progress in small, measured doses is an exhilarating and energizing thing. But can there be too much of it? Can an individual or a society overdose on progress? Can the rate of social, economic, cultural, and technological change drive a particular society into a political, psychological, and moral spiral of crisis and dysfunction?
Judging from the history of the Industrial Revolution, the answer is yes. The Russian Revolution and the Nazi rise to power are only two examples of societies overwhelmed by the social and political stresses that rapid modernization brought. The Industrial Revolution and the international conflicts that accompanied it shook the foundations of social order around the world and produced a uniquely stressful international situation. Tested to the breaking point by the combination of the domestic and international consequences of the Industrial Revolution, Germany fell into one kind of abyss, Russia into another.
They were not alone. The multiethnic, multicultural states that characterized much of 18th- and 19th-century Europe disappeared in orgies of bloodletting as the Hapsburg, Romanov, and Ottoman empires dissolved. The collapse of Iran into the dismal fanaticism of the Islamic Republic, the serial disasters of Maoist China, genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, and beyond: Each of these tragedies has its own distinct set of causes and consequences, but without the domestic and global upheavals associated with the Industrial Revolution and its numerous transformations of the human arena, it’s unlikely that any of these tragedies would have occurred.
The Anglo-American world was spared the worst of these upheavals, and after the horrors of World War II much of Western Europe and Japan seemed to have made their peace with the Industrial Revolution. During the long Cold War era, and with even more confidence after the fall of the Soviet Union, most people in these societies assumed that the political stability and social peace they had finally managed to build was a lasting and permanent achievement.
But is it? What if the Information Revolution, as seems likely, arrives faster, propagates more widely, hits harder, and digs deeper than the Industrial Revolution ever did?
A heightened awareness of human progress and its impact on events led to the integration of philosophy and politics. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point however is to change it.” Those words inscribed on Karl Marx’s tomb highlight the new sense of mission that impelled generations of thinkers to turn their understanding of the historical process into a concrete political program. Liberals and socialists developed competing programs to accelerate the process of progress and share its benefits more widely based on their understanding of the technological and sociological forces at work.
These debates still echo in politics today, but many 21st-century thinkers and activists have increasingly moved from a fascination with the fact of change to an alarmed analysis of the effects of its relentlessly accelerating rate. Change itself is old hat for us today. In 18th-century Europe, reflective people understood that the rate of historical change was significantly greater than in past times, and they were conscious of ongoing progress in technology and society as the unavoidable background of their own lives. In the 21st century, we don’t just feel the presence of progress. We feel the acceleration of progress as the Information Revolution unfolds. It is the consequences of that acceleration—both as we experience it today and as we extrapolate it into the future—that engage our attention and, increasingly, our concern.