A problem of human scale: technological revolutions and their impact

Since the mid-1980s, rapid technological innovation has driven dramatic social change, coinciding with political upheavals like the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. This historical juncture resembles two earlier periods in Europe: the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. In the early 21st century, we're experiencing another such shift, challenging Western hegemony established five centuries ago. Addressing the issues brought about by this rapid shift, particularly the governance of technology, is crucial for our future.

The speed with which technological innovation has provoked dramatic social change since the mid-1980s is unprecedented. The burgeoning impact of the information revolution on society as well as the astonishing developments in biotechnology coincided with a political revolution that has been no less consequential. The collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991 arguably represented the end of one historical epoch and the beginning of another.

The breadth and rapidity of change is new. However, the coincidence of political and technological revolutions, leading to a fundamental re-ordering of society, is not. In Europe, we have seen similar processes twice before. The comparisons between the three periods are inexact, yet close enough to help understand the accelerating interaction between technology, society, and geopolitics that we are currently witnessing. It is worth noting that the first two periods culminated in violence on an unprecedented scale.

The first upheaval – the Renaissance and the Reformation – separated the medieval period in Europe from its modern history. The invention of movable print in the 1440s both spread and interacted with a political revolution triggered by the German monk, Martin Luther.

Less heralded technological innovations in maritime and weapons technology had an indirect but nonetheless important relationship with the politics of Lutheranism. These engineering advances may not have had the same long-term impact as the coming of the printed book, but they should not be underestimated.

They were especially influential in shifting the locus of political power in Europe from the Mediterranean to the North Sea over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries, a shift which was confirmed by the climax of this period – the Thirty Years’ War, bloodshed on a never-before-seen scale.

The second break occurred towards the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries when the steam revolution encouraged the emergence of mass industrial processes at the same time as decisive political revolutions broke out in America and France. As with the Reformation, the industrial revolution led not merely to rapid changes in people’s lived experience but also to a change in the tectonics of geopolitics over the period of a century and a half.

Military and political power moved away from Central and Western Europe both across the Atlantic to the United States and eastwards towards the Soviet Union, a Eurasian state but not before the US had dropped two nuclear devices on Japan.

Just over 30 years after the breakthroughs in computer technology and the revolutions of 1989, we can now map with some precision the beginnings of a geopolitical shift that is challenging the hegemony which the West, the US and Europe began to establish exactly five centuries ago.

Living through the opening phases of this third historical period, we can dimly make out the contours of a parallel experience between the early 21st century and the previous two turning points. All three led to astonishing advances in prosperity and in destructiveness.

The three are separated by qualitative characteristics that emerge from a quantitative. This is the issue of scale. On each occasion, the dual revolutions have had an impact on society whose scale is significantly greater than the previous ones.

Our world has never been more connected and yet we face an epidemic of loneliness, alienation, and stress-related illnesses. Our cluttered, frenetic, upgraded lives feel increasingly out of control. Our machines are supposed to work for us, but often we appear to be working for our machines. Technological triumphs have created new challenges, pushing some fundamental things out of joint, particularly in the less tangible realms of culture, character, and spirit. Finding our balance and keeping our sanity will become more difficult as our lives grow ‘bigger.’

And just at this moment, we face four crises, The Four Horsemen of the Modern Apocalypse, each capable of extinguishing our societies (not to mention most others). Top of this list is the climate crisis; second are the myriad, proliferating weapons of mass destruction; the third we are now well acquainted with: pandemics; the last one is precisely our overdependence on networked computer systems and artificial intelligence.

Our deepest misfortune is that these threats coincide with a crisis in politics that has helped some of the most venal, incompetent, and malevolent characters to some of the most powerful positions in the world. Trump, Bolsonaro, Putin, Modi and Xi are not the cause of our problems, but they are a symptom which indicates just how deeply the problems run. For, make no mistake, the human scale challenge is related to governance.

If we are to meet the profound challenges we face and save the planet, then we must make sure that we remain in control of technology and that technology does not assume control over us. In the coming years, this will be the core issue affecting governance of democracies and authoritarian regimes alike.

Misha Glenny_(c) Katharina Schiffl
Misha Glenny
Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen

Journalist und Autor