History of the future

If this video encourages anything, it is a difference of opinion. What about the steam train? Transistors? "On the Origin of Species" by Charles Darwin? Or, in terms of changing history, Sir Hiram Maxim’s devastating invention: the machine gun. Innovation is everywhere, and we don’t all agree on it.

Taking a more birds-eye view, though, throughout history, we can see that population size has been commensurate with innovation. The early cradles of innovation were Babylon, Cairo and Baghdad. In the 13th Century, China was a wealthy and highly-populated place. The Chinese invented paper (and paper currency), gun powder and wood block printing. With a population of 100 million, compared to only 60 million across the whole of Europe, one might think that Chinese culture would drive technological developments for years to come.

At around this time, Europe’s population began to grow, and with it came the technological innovation which culminated in the western Renaissance. European culture accelerated idea sharing, whereas China’s scholar officials suppressed it.

The Gutenberg Press - A Knowledge Renaissance

Not surprisingly, one of the most important events in history to me was the invention of the Gutenberg press. It facilitated the sharing of literature to the masses for the first time in an efficient, way. As with every medium since, authorities have wrestled with libel and sedition as well as education and entertainment; but the printing press was our first chance to share ideas beyond the oral storytelling tradition (or indeed the meticulous hand-copying of the world’s many religious classes).

Ideas are like DNA!

And ideas are truly the only resource that expands rather than depleting the more we use them. They are like DNA: they are copied and refined and mutate over time. Those that have value stick; those that don’t wither away. Take the wheel – the first innovation in the video - it was not a policy decision that helped it spread. It was simply copied, tried and tested, and proven in the harsh testbed of trial and error.

Today, as our cities expand and we routinely cheat death with medicine, we are engaged in a race between our lifestyles and our ability to manage the natural resources at our disposal. Whoever said “necessity is the mother of invention” deserves great credit; and we are on the cusp of some of the most challenging, and therefore inventive, times in human evolution.