I’m thrilled to announce the launch of my new podcast: Context. If you’ve enjoyed engaging in history with me so far, I think you’ll continue to find value in the new show. First, I’d like to take a moment to explain my shift from How It Began to the new podcast, Context.
What really moves the dial of history? What historical forces actually sustain progress? These questions are so big and so important that many historians used to dwell on the biggest and most disruptive of historical events, war, to find answers. But, over the past couple of generations, it’s become quite clear that the manner in which we cooperate is more important to how we make progress than the manner in which we fight. Wars were waged for millennia, and the fortunes of civilizations waxed and waned. It’s only in the last several centuries that we’ve managed to sustain the growth in our prosperity whether war is raging or not, and a transformation in how we work together has been the driving force behind this miracle. Historians have awakened to the fact that something we all too often condemn has underwritten our progress in the modern world to make the gains of civilization actually stick, and compound on each other over time. This is the social technology that we call money.
As the time traveler from H.G. Wells’ classic story realizes in this scene from the 1960 motion picture, time is a subtle thing. And, for many who may consider the historical forces that gave rise to the modern world, time as a subject of study is as easily overlooked. Like a fish pondering water, our submergence in the flow of time can make it difficult to comprehend just how fundamental time consciousness and timekeeping technology have been to the evolution of our civilization. But, to wind up the great mechanism of modernity, and set it ticking away to the steady beat of progress we’ve come to take for granted, our mastery of clockwork was critical.
What was the Enlightenment? You might remember it from your history courses as something having to do with philosophy or science, something buried centuries in the past orchestrated by wig-wearing aristocrats, which has ceased to mean much to you as you’ve grown up and carried on with more relevant business. The Enlightenment… just another anthology of dead men and dates, right?
You’re never quite alone when you have a book. Opening those pages connects you to the thoughts of another; someone perhaps long dead, someone who maybe saw the world quite differently. But when you’re reading what the author has set down, their thoughts can merge with yours. You can engage their ideas, and in so doing, test and refine your own. Every book is an intellectual crucible, and this is what makes them indispensable to the progress of knowledge. But, up until around 500 years ago, the average person almost never saw one.
How did we build this civilization, with all of its complex machinery, from the primeval wilderness of stones and forests? That’s where it all started, after all, with rocks and sticks. Everything you see around you, all the tools and instruments, all the buildings and bridges and cars, everything we’ve conjured to keep us safe, and productive, and comfortable, and powerful, from the tiniest circuits of the smartphone to biggest beams of the skyscraper, was once no more than the mineral of the earth and the wood of the forest. What was the key that enabled us to unlock so many new technological forms and functions?
The great elixir of productivity. The clarifying tonic of the mind. What is this magical bean!? I start every single day with a cup of coffee, and chances are, you do too. Worldwide consumption has grown well past 500 billion cups a year. Coffee is a fundamental part of the modern world. There’s a compelling historical argument connecting the rise of Western science and reason, The Enlightenment and democracy, stock markets and even insurance with the spread of coffee consumption.
What have you had to eat today? It seems like such an innocuous question, doesn’t it? Perhaps a banana at breakfast… what of it? Maybe a burger for lunch balanced by a crisp salad on the side? No big deal, right? Wrong. Unless you grow produce and rear livestock yourself, which has become an exceedingly rare occupation in developed economies, food like that on your plate is actually a very big deal.
Music by Zack Hemsey, “Redemption,” from the album The Way, 2011.
Picture awakening to the most beautiful morning as the sun shines through your window in a spread of dust speckled beams. Perhaps the long winter has just passed. You open your window, and the smells of tender green leaves, vivid blooms, and springtime’s organic warmth stirs something deep and instinctive within you. A seasonal onrush of energy awakens your senses, and you feel like a child again, eager to soak your bare feet in the glistening due of the grass. Once outside, you find yourself immersed in the morning’s crescendo of birdsong and insect buzzing and all of biology’s many other instruments attuned to the great symphony of nature. You feel that you comprise one of the melodies of that magnificent opus, that your awareness of its beauty is one its most beautiful notes. The brutal harmony of this ceaseless song may sometimes impose terrible suffering, but times like this, you realize, are occasions for the living to rejoice, and you among them can’t help but wonder at its beauty.
And, here we go again. You press play, and another podcast, another story, commences. And then, it just happens – you can be driving, exercising, you can be savoring a swallow of wine – it doesn’t really matter. So long as you can hear me and pay some attention, the rest seems effortless – you comprehend the sounds I make. Your mind’s eye orchestrates the play for you. These words, these ephemeral little sculptures of breath, set the stage and all the actors in motion in barely a blink, 300 syllables a minute, in fact – that’s how fast we comprehend the spoken word. The scaffolding of prepositions and conjunctions support the persons, places, and things of nouns, whose form and substance are specified by adjectives and enlivened by the action of verbs. We are surely some species of magician, you and I, to conjure such worlds of meaning from air.
When the edge of town seems to most people like the edge of the earth, how do you to rally the resources needed to outfit a fleet of ships capable of sailing beyond the horizon? When the universal speed limit is assumed to be the plodding stride of a horse, where do you obtain the means of building a steam-powered railroad fast enough to redefine time? If you wanted to build energy conduits over continents to light up the world, if you wanted to manufacture automobiles cheap enough to be purchased by the workers who assembled them, if you wanted to put artificial intelligence in everyone’s pocket, if you wanted to change the world, to whom, exactly, would you turn for funding?
The dream is as old as humanity itself: to possess the power to know what anyone anywhere can know, regardless of how far away in space and time. Villains have yearned for such power, of course, but so have heroes and healers, builders and artists, inventors and students of every age and culture. The instinct of humanity to connect and collaborate runs as deeply through us as the instinct to hunt runs through the wolves of the wilderness. But for countless millennia, insights beyond our own were mostly beyond our reach. For a hundred thousand years the minds of others were accessible only through face to face conversation, or through the stories and artwork of far off times and tribes, warped into myths by the distance of their origin.
All around us, all the time, swirls a storm of information. It’s natural for us to overlook this tempest of data; as we move through our lives, we’re indulging in millions of years of evolution that’s honed our instincts and intuitions to unconsciously harmonize with nature’s informational symphony. Our instincts help us stay balanced, for example. The information needed to keep us on our feet reverberates through our nervous system sending signals back and forth to our muscles to constantly adjust their tissue tension in line with gravity. Our intuitions help us communicate. The information needed for speech is expressed through a developmental acquisition of linguistic rules that, by about one or two years old, enables us to share ideas with other people through words that represent recognizable bits of information instead of random sounds. There is no end to the number of examples we could discuss because, at its most essential level, everything we do is based on information.
Take an average person from the early 1800s, and put him into a time machine. Now, imagine that your goal is to maximize this person’s dazzlement by sending him to an era utterly alien to his own, but you have only two choices: you can either send him two hundred years into the future or two thousand years into the past. Which would you choose? Which age would be the more baffling to him? That of his descendants some eight generations on, or that of his ancestors eighty generations back?
It’s a fine day, and you’ve decided to get some fresh air and exercise. You’re out and about, moving with vitality, and comfortably unaware of the moments that come and go in the pleasant procession of time. But, something is about to happen that will shatter your serenity and make this otherwise disposable moment suddenly unforgettable. You see, you are about to fall victim to a traumatic accident, a compound fracture of your leg. Your eyes will widen with shock as you see the sharp, white protrusion of bone where it should not be, and as the pain crescendos, all you will want is to reach out and grab this moment and hold it once again… this moment when you were healthy, when you moved with vitality, when the horrible accident had not yet happened.
There seems to be a conspiracy of giants operating in the world. Millions of tons of metal and stone have been ripped from the earth and transposed into structures whose scale appears to mock the apparent feebleness of man. Glistening towers of glass rise a thousand feet into the air, sinew of steel entangle distant shorelines in their implacable grip, and mountain ranges of concrete harnesses the wild might of rushing rivers. To confront the biggest construction projects of all time – the skyscrapers and bridges and dams of the modern world – is to stand incredulous that they could be anything but the mad work of leviathans. But these immovable objects of monumental infrastructure actually represent the unstoppable force of human will, artifacts of our minds rendered so physically imposing that they merely create illusions of superhuman scale.
What if we could be like heroes in a fantasy and be accompanied by a fully customizable side kick? A creature so complimentary to our way of life that it offered a kind of superhuman partnership. A guardian whose senses were keener than those of a genius detective, a protector with speed and endurance beyond that of an Olympian, and a friend whose courage rivaled the bravest warrior? What if this companion kept us as playful as a child even into old age, and just a little wild even through the most refined routines? And what if, despite its endless gifts, it appeared to enjoy the partnership even more than we did? Where on earth would we find such a being? Among the monsters of the forest might seem the least likely place. But as it turns out, that is exactly where they came from. For these beings are no fantasy, and we need not be a hero to have them by our side, even though our dogs often make us feel like one.
Imagine the clearest, darkest night, and encountering some open place where the sky seems to wrap around you. You find a soft place in the grass and, and lay down to stare up. Here, far from the crowds and the lights, the stars are dazzling. You can see the dusty bands of the Milky Way stretch through countless constellations of distant worlds. To gaze upon the night sky like this compels you to wonder – compels all of us to wonder – at the vast beauty of the universe and our place within it. This is part of what makes us human – we’ve surely wondered at the stars for over a hundred thousand years.
Does something feel special about today? Do you feel especially powerful? The sun rose this morning once again to reveal the usual busyness of humanity. You got into your car to go to work, driving the usual route. But there, in your car, you did something almost magical. With the turn of your wrist, you ignited a spark that set off a cascade of explosions that would propel you rapidly through space. And when you reached the main road, you unleashed the full power of 200 invisible horses. By all stretches of the ancient imagination, you became a sorcerer today.
Intro music: “Nero” by Thomas Bergersen and Nick Phoenix, licensed by Extreme Production Music USA.