History and Globalization

Friday November 5, 2021

I was talking with some friends a few days ago about “transformative technologies” — we got to talking about whether there are specific technologies that are truly transformatave, or whether it makes more sense to look at the technology dependency tree and say that the technologies that we think of as being transformative are not actually technologies, but rather points in time when we realized that we’d developed some branch of technology to the point where it’s transformative.

One funny thing about the modern era is that there are many places where we’re only now starting to realize the effects that extreme globalization is having. History is one of these arenas. Many of the transformative technologies of the past weren’t invented just once, but by many different people in many different places. Fire was surely discovered and tamed many different times by many different people, but even much more modern technologies have a similar story — perhaps most famously, Newton and Leibniz both independently inventing calculus.

It’s much more rare for two people to independently invent the same technology these days, because information flows so much more easily. It’s only in the past two decades or so that global, one-to-many communication became ubiquitous.

Coming back to history, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Great Man theory of history arose shortly after globalization began accelerating — it’s much easier to tell stories about individuals being the drivers of history when individuals can have global effects.

This is troubling for how we will tell the history of the 21st century, though, because the Great Man “theory” is not a useful lens for looking at the past, but it’s going to be much easier to lean on it in a world where individuals have very clear and obvious global impacts. If Mark Zuckerberg had not created the first social network that would go on to be globally successful in 2003, it’s highly likely that someone else would have — the important thing from a historical perspective is the structural incentives that gave rise to that, not the features of the specific platform that became successful, or the individual that we identify as being behind that.

This isn’t to say that globalization doesn’t have a significant effect on how technology is invented — it does, and since the dependency tree of modern technology is so dense and broad, the cumulative effect of many different technologies being globally understood months or years earlier than they otherwise would be is huge. However, we should be wary of looking at a world where most things are only invented once, and thinking that means the specific circumstances in which things happened to be invented under are fundamentally important.