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.