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Why History Converges And Cascades

2021 December 5
by Greg Satell

Throughout history there have been certain times and places that have given rise to phenomenal intellectual activity. The Vienna Circle and Cambridge’s Bloomsbury Group in the early 20th century are certainly examples, as is the Golden Age of Russian Literature in the mid-19th century and the post-war existentialist movement in Paris.

In a certain sense, these seem random, but they aren’t really. In each case, we can see undercurrents of politics, economics and other forces that gave rise to tensions people were trying to resolve. Great thinkers would explore, meet and influence each other, creating new directions and possibilities.

Yet it isn’t only intellectual life that converges in this way. History has a way of assembling forces around certain points of time and space, when long-standing trends intersect and give rise to  new things. That’s why we study past events and learn about the lives of great personages long gone, so that we can hope to proactively recognize these forces and adapt.

1948: The Birth Of The Post-War Era

1948 was a pivotal year in many ways. Harry Truman was elected in a surprise upset over Thomas Dewey. Gandhi was assassinated in India. In South Africa, the white supremacist Nationalist party took power, making way for a half-century of Apartheid. The communists took power in Czechoslovakia and the Soviets sealed off Berlin. The western allies responded with a massive airlift, the likes of which the world had never seen.

Yet what probably would have more lasting effects than anything else that year didn’t involve great powers, armies or even political parties. In fact, the most consequential events that year hardly made the newspapers and most people probably weren’t even aware of them. It was in 1948 that two breakthrough innovations at Bell Labs ushered in the digital age.

The first was the transistor, invented by John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain. Up until that time, computers used vacuum tubes, which were big, clunky, slow and tended to burn out. Transistors made it possible to make computers exponentially faster and more reliable. They also made way for the integrated circuits we still use today.

The second breakthrough, Claude Shannon’s creation of information theory, was less obvious, but no less important. The basic idea was that information can be broken down into quantifiable entities he called binary digits (or bits for short). It was information theory, along with Shannon’s earlier work that showed how Boolean algebra could be transformed through mechanical means into logic gates, that made the information age possible.

When I spoke to Fred Brooks, who led the development of IBM’s legendary System 360 that would dominate computing for a generation, he explained how both innovations proved pivotal to his work. Of course, it was the transistor that made the IBM 360 possible, but he also told me that it was his decision to switch from a 6-bit byte to an 8-bit byte, which enabled the use of lowercase letters, that helped make it transformative.

1968 – A Historically Tumultuous Year

While 1948 is remembered as a year of great events, 1946 is remembered for very different reasons. With armistices firmly in place in both the Atlantic and Pacific theatres, soldiers coming home from war started settling down and making love. With the inevitable result that came in the years that followed, the Baby Boom generation was born.

As the horrors of war receded and a new era of prosperity emerged, the Boomers began to see things very differently than previous generations. They would question authority, challenging old values and ways of doing things. Many began to advocate for gender and racial equality. Unwilling to take the world as it was, they sought to remake it in their own image.

Tensions simmered throughout the 60s, but in 1968 they would combine and explode. The year started with the Prague Spring, when a number of modest reforms in Czechoslovakia, intended to bring about “Socialism with a human face,” were met by a brutal Soviet crackdown. A few months later, Polish authorities got the message and crushed internal protests advocating for similar reforms.

During the American spring of that year Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were both assassinated. The summer brought, if anything, greater tumult. Bloody clashes between police and demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention discredited the party amongst many and paved the way for the election of Richard Nixon. Tommie Smith and John Carlos would raise their hands in a black power salute on the Olympic Podium.

Perhaps most of all, 1968 represented a handing of the baton. The 20-somethings of the 1960s would become 30-somethings of the 1970s. In the 1980s, they voted for Reagan in droves, and would shift how the the United States saw and governed itself as well as its place in the world.

1989 – Berlin Wall and World Wide Web

In November 1989, there were two watershed events that would fundamentally change how the world worked. The fall of the Berlin Wall would end the Cold War and open up markets across the world. That very same month, Tim Berners-Lee would create the World Wide Web and usher in a new technological era of networked computing.

Like in 1948 and 1968, the forces leading up to these events had been building for some time. The Polish Solidarity movement, which had been active since 1980, united activists from labor and the intelligentsia. It showed that the Soviets could be successfully defied. As the price of oil dropped throughout the 1980s, the Eastern Bloc became increasingly untenable.

In a similar way, the development of the World Wide Web had been brewing for decades. The US government had been building out ARPANET and computer scientists had been developing hypertext since the 1960s. All of the technology was in place in 1989 and Berners-Lee was able to create what became the World Wide Web in less than a month.

1989 would mark an inflection point in which the world would shift from hierarchies to networks and the global village which Marshall McLuhan had envisioned came into being. Much like he predicted, however, this village was not a friendly place, but would result in a “release of human power and aggressive violence” from which we are still reeling.

The Power Of Cascades

In my book Cascades, I explained how small groups, loosely connected but united by a shared purpose drive transformational change. It happens gradually, almost imperceptibly, at first. Connections accumulate under the surface, barely noticed, as small groups slowly begin to link together and congeal into a network. Eventually things hit a tipping point.

It’s not just people that are networked though, events are as well. There are always unseen connections between the forces of economics, technology, culture, politics and many other things. Much like social and political movements, the effects are almost impossible to detect at first, but can accelerate in nonlinear ways that defy the prediction of experts.

By all indications, we are in such a period now. We are undergoing four major shifts in technology, resources, migration and demography that will be transformative. Clearly, these shifts will create significant opportunities, but also great peril. The last time we saw this much change afoot was during the 1920s and that didn’t end well.

Yet that doesn’t have to happen. In 1948 we were able to create a new world order that ushered in an era of peace and prosperity unequalled in human history. The events of 1968 and 1989 also helped to bring about enormous progress. The difference between those epochs wasn’t so much due to any underlying forces, but the choices that were made.

Every generation faces great challenges. Some are remembered for their achievements, others for their tragedies. Like earlier generations, we have important choices to make. We should endeavor to choose wisely.

– Greg


Image: Wikimedia Commons

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