What Makes the Modern Era Different than the Dark Ages?
I’m fond of saying that modern times is just like the Middle Ages with better weapons. And if we’re talking politics and basic human nature and the greed of the the rich and powerful, absolutely for sure, nothing has changed since the Roman era when the whole concept of exceptionalism was invented. That however is fodder for another day, the curse of Rome. I spend a lot of time thinking about history and how it relates to today, another curse. Today I’m focusing on change, what makes today different that life in the past. And I mean what things have actually changed society and culture, and not just just simply been new trappings. This is my current list of what is really different about today’s world. Some of these changes have profoundly changed everything about civilization, some of them only threaten to do so, but all of them are very recent in any historical context, and their implications and effects are still unfolding. I don’t know where it’s all going, but these are some of the central forces at work.
Lastly, this is just one amateur historian’s opinion, and presented more as fodder for thought and discussion than anything else. I am listing them in their order of appearance in the historical time-line:
1. Gunpowder and smokeless gunpowder. Gunpowder was one of the most, if not the most, important equalizers in history. It literally ended feudalism, a way of life for most of the human race throughout much of history. Under feudalism a tiny class of knights and royalty could rule a nation pretty much as they pleased, and there was little anyone could do about it. Once guns became widely available any peasant could pick up a gun and kill the greatest knight in the land. With a gun, one person could fight ten people and have a chance. And smokeless gunpowder accelerated this process, it made it possible for one person to fight a hundred people. Since so much, if not all, of our culture revolves around violence, the changes wrought by gunpowder are deep seated and still evolving.
2. Industrialization. This one is both very obvious, and completely misunderstood. For all of human history human labour was the backbone of human society. Whatever we built or had was produced by people with very few exceptions. This is why slaves and serfs existed, when everything is the product of human labour, humans are the basic unit of wealth. Industrialization ended all that, we didn’t give up slavery or serfdom because they were bad, we gave them up because they didn’t make sense in an industrialized world. They’ve been replaced by grinding mind-numbing poverty in the third world, where people are less than serfs or slaves, but most of us in the west don’t see that or don’t want to see that.
3. The modern media. Propaganda and advertising are two of the great accomplishments of the twentieth century, and their influence and effects run deep and as with gunpowder, are still evolving. Leaders have always used propaganda of course, but it has been elevated to a science in this century. Few people know it or will admit it, but many of our beliefs, social norms, lifestyles, and buying habits have been deliberately programmed into us to either make money or garner support for war and politics. The implications of this are profound, but that’s something the powers that be go to great lengths to avoid teaching us.
4. The steamship and the railroad. Since around 1900 it’s been possible for the industrialized world to feed, cloth, and house everyone on Earth. The wealth is there because of industrialization, and the means to move it around is there because of steamships and railroads. No one on Earth has died from lack of food, shelter, or medical care since about 1900 because such wasn’t available. Granted this hasn’t changed the world the way it could have, but the point is that the billions of desperately poor people that live on Earth now are doing so because of culture and politics and greed, not because we don’t have the means to take care of them. The potential for great change is here, but it hasn’t been realized yet.
5. Nuclear weapons. This is the most recent world changing invention, and the one whose implications are still almost unknowable. While humans have created any number of dark ages and destroyed any number of civilizations, it’s never before been possible to fight a war that would end life on Earth as we know it. And since the spread of technology can only be slowed, not stopped, the effect of nuclear weapons in the future can only be guessed at. At some point there will exist personal nuclear weapons, one person could literally fight a million people. To a certain extent nuclear weapons are just an extension of gunpowder, but their expense and difficulty of manufacture puts them in a class of their own. We’re not going to blow up the Earth with gunpowder, the jury remains out on whether we will blow it up with nuclear weapons.
That’s it for now. I may expand on some or all of these in the future. And I may very well change my thinking and modify the above. This is a post where I encourage people to comment, it’s not just for entertainment. I want to provoke discussion and get feedback. Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit, and it’s use here in no conceivable way interferes with the copyright holder’s commercial use of the image, arguably the opposite. It’s from the PC game “Empires: Dawn of the Modern World.” A review is here, credit and copyright: Activision. I chose it because it appealed to me, a stylized and somewhat creepy representation of some of the madness of the twentieth century. Those British bombers were some of the greatest terror weapons in history, and about as successful as most terror weapons, but that’s grist for another day’s mill.)