“Where it began, I can't begin to knowin’…” Neil Diamond, Sweet Caroline
While fossil evidence of the dawn of humanity was first discovered in the Kibish Formation in Lower Omo Valley in 1967, it wasn’t until 2005 that the remains of a skull were satisfactorily dated at 195,000 BC, plus or minus 5,000 years. What came before this point in our collective history is unknown, and indeed, scant evidence exists as to what happened in the millennia afterward.
All we do know is that, in the 150,000 years or so that followed, we experienced some kind of cultural epiphany, a waking up of our individual and collective consciousnesses. By 40,000 years BC we were creating music and art, we had begun to breed animals and harvest crops, and we had spread across all 5 continents, leaving the beginnings of a historical trail behind us.
While 150,000 years may sound like an inordinate amount of time, it isn’t that great. Imagine if, as a child, you were given a note by a very old man — let’s say he was 90 years your senior. If you lived to a similarly ripe old age, you might pass the note to a child — it isn’t impossible to think that it could become some kind of tradition. Passing such a note from elder to junior would only need to happen 1,700 times for 150,000 years to be reached. To put this in context, if each five-second transition could be compressed without the intervening years, the whole exercise would take under 6 hours.
But we digress. Conflicting theories exist as to what happened in the intervening period, many of which have been based on the quite recent and sudden availability of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) evidence, leading to an explosion of studies. One of the more romantic, and therefore attractive options was that, 74,000 years ago, humanity was at its lowest ebb. Faced with environmental extremes for the preceding 50,000 years or so, then came the onslaught of due to a volcanic explosion from the Toba Mount in Sumatra. Geological records suggest this lasted six years and was sufficiently impactful that it caused an ice age that lasted a thousand years.
At our lowest point, so the story goes, only the 2,000 most hardy human souls, only the most creative, clever and strong were able to survive, somehow, living on their wits and their ability to harness the flora and fauna of the world around them. From this pool of hard, smart individuals we came, in all our diverse, multicultural glory. Humanity triumphed over adversity and, as a result, inherited the earth.
It’s a lovely story but probably not true, according to Anthropologist John Hawks. Not only did Hawks refute the theory (setting a more likely figure at around 120,000 people, itself not enormous), he put the cultural surge down to cultural connectivity and the way we have connected and bred — essentially, we are diverse because we are not so likely to interbreed. For example when Homo Sapiens arrived in Europe, examples such as Oase Boy suggest humans were not against procreating with the indigenous, Neanderthal population.
But what drove such cultural connectivity? One view is from the Lund university, that the creation of tool has itself driven culture. “"When the technology was passed from one generation to the next, from adults to children, it became part of a cultural learning process which created a socially more advanced society than before. This affected the development of the human brain and cognitive ability," says Anders Högberg, PhD.” In other words, as we started to collaborate on creating tools, we created habits that we have been honing ever since and which are still a deep part of our collective psyche. Innovation drove collaboration and vice versa, catalysing the explosion of creativity which has transformed humanity.
And we haven’t really looked back. It does beg the question — what would our 40,000 year old forebears have made of the environment they see before them today? The wars and famines we still experience may have been all too familiar, the mannerisms, behaviours and even the music potentially very similar. But what would they have thought of the automobile and telephone, of iPads and web sites?
In this book we try to answer exactly this question. We start by looking at the technological threshold upon which we now stand — the processors and networking, the software and protocols that are creating a smarter bedrock upon which our collective futures are being built. We also look at the resulting foundation of technologies — ‘cloud’-based processing using massively powerful computers to analyse (but also generate - yes, that’s a dilemma) vast quantities of data and connect it to a widening network of increasingly small devices. Is this foundation finished? Absolutely not — but its near-future shape is now clear to see.
We then look at what innovators have been doing with this set of capabilities. We consider the role of software and the sometimes-maverick characters that have created it, together with the resulting data — variously compared to mountains or fire hydrants. Bringing all these pieces together we look at the ‘open’ movement, both a consequence and a cause.
With an understanding of our technological foundation in place, we consider the impact the shift is caving on our corporations, on our culture and on ourselves. We look at how technology is changing the nature of democracy and public intervention, how youngsters are being born into an information-fuelled world, even as older generations still struggle with the basics. And we review whether customers are clear on the ramifications of corporate actions on their privacy and wellbeing.
From present to near future, we look at where technology is taking us as machine learning and mobile, drones, 3D printers and data farms conspire to give us what are tantamount to superpowers. What are we going to make of it all?
And we ask the question — where do we go from here? Are we heading towards a utopia or armageddon, and what might influence our direction one way or another? What do we need to keep in mind as people and as governments, to ensure we maximise the good and minimise the bad?How should we consider such tools from a media, business and government perspective, identify issues which need to be kept in mind, and highlight areas that should be treated as a priority by policy makers and strategists.
The very ground beneath our feet is becoming smarter, and we can choose to move with it or be moved by it. Which leads to the conclusion — that while technology can enable us to become smarter, this is ultimately something we will have to do for ourselves.
The smart shift is happening. Are you ready?