Updating the wave theory of social change: entering the 6th information revolution in human history

The magazine strategy+business has an interesting interview on wave-based change dynamics, with historian Elin Whitney-Smith who has spent 30 years researching and refining her theory of economic progress as a series of information technology disruptions. This interview by Art Kleiner is worth reading in full.


“S+B: Your book-in-progress says that today’s turbulent economic events all have the same root cause — a shift in the way information is managed. Can you please explain that idea?

WHITNEY-SMITH: There have been six information revolutions in human history. Each represents a major change in the organizational paradigm — a change in how people form themselves into groups. The first was among hunter–gatherers just before the invention of agriculture; second, the rise of counting and written language; third, the fall of Rome; fourth, the invention of the printing press; fifth, the electric information revolution that accompanied trains, telegraph, and telephone; and sixth, the digital information revolution that we are now living through. In the last three, the economics follow the same pattern: a long boom followed by a crash. Then a difficult and turbulent struggle begins. New ways of organizing emerge and the old ways, supported by established elites, fail.

S+B: Why do the old elites lose power?

WHITNEY-SMITH: In the short run, it’s always better to be a Spanish grandee than it is to be an English weaver. In the 1600s, the Spanish grandees had no reason to innovate since their wealth was already assured, and they were suspicious of the newly invented technology of the printing press. As a result, the economic leadership of the world shifted to northern countries, like England and Holland, where weavers and other tradespeople reorganized to take advantage of the new capabilities that the press afforded them. It took time for this new approach to pay off, but it did. The world changed accordingly, while the grandees gradually fell behind.

Similarly, in the 1840s, it was better in the short run to be a Massachusetts mill owner than a Pennsylvania Railroad managing engineer drawing an early organization chart. In the 1970s, it was better in the short run to be the president of General Motors than a college student writing computer code. In each of these cases, the member of the existing elite had little incentive to change the way the system worked, or to “mess with success,” but the member of the “out group” — the weaver, engineer, or student — had little to lose and much to gain through being innovative. These out groups ultimately change the way the system works.

Today our own grandees — our economic and political leaders — are making a lot of the same kinds of mistakes that previous elites made. By doing so, they are reducing their chances of dominance in the future. They either ignore the new information technology and miss out on opportunities, or they fear the world it creates and try to co-opt it, shut it down, or control it. This generally fails, their fortunes decline, and a new group of dominant competitors emerges.

S+B: How long does this transition take?

WHITNEY-SMITH: Throughout history, the time frame has gotten shorter. Among hunter–gatherers, it took thousands of years to make the transition to agriculture. From the fall of Rome to the press was almost 1,000 years. The printing press revolution took 220 years. The electric revolution [trains, telegraph, and telephone] took 110 years, and, as I count it, the digital revolution started about 50 years ago. So, in recent information revolutions, there is a kind of rule of halves.

S+B: Why do you call some of these early transitions, such as the shift to agriculture, information revolutions?

WHITNEY-SMITH: First, an information revolution isn’t always associated with an information technology. It is about how information “works” in a culture. Second, if preagricultural people were anything like current-day indigenous hunter–gatherers, they were the purest information culture that has ever existed. They made their living by what they knew, not what they owned. They knew where the animals would be and when to gather the plants they needed. They perceived a world of plenty. Their status didn’t come from having possessions, but from information — having a better story or a better song or dance. Their world view was thus based on sharing; a song or story gained in value by being shared. That’s how people lived until about 10,000 years ago.”

2 Comments Updating the wave theory of social change: entering the 6th information revolution in human history

  1. Avatarhappyseaurchin

    Interesting. I wonder why the metaphor of waves was chosen? Waves have period, usually regular, whereas everything said so far seems to be suggesting progress and replacement, the usual development trajectory.

    When I considered these matters in my magnus opus, I did dip into history, but only to support what I had observed about current trends. I saw this period we are living in as being rather unusual because of the concurrence of various cycles, much like the unusual solar event where the planets line up. That is, there are cycles in psycho-social dynamics at different levels of scale, such as one might find in the sea, from tidal surges, oceanic waves, surface waves, ripples, and then they converge with a kind of constructive interference, peaks occur. I was heavily influenced by DeLanda’s “Thousand years of non linear history”, which took me a decade to slowly assimilate.

    Essentially, if we are going to talk about waves, then please let’s be more sophisticated. If we wish to relegate it to a “mere metaphor”, then we are denying the deeper metaphoric insights gleaned from comprehending that psycho-social dynamics are more akin to liquid dynamics than they are to solid things, which lends itself to clunky interpretations of cause and effect, and bias to institutional forms and concrete physical inventions. I would be interested in reading material from an academic level comprehension (as compared to my simplistic intuitive formulations), who has managed to ditch the standard “objective science” methodology (ala archaeology based on things, and a historical perspective too biased towards a linear accounting), to a more “subjective science” methodology (synthesising moments in past psycho-social contexts, and being careful to retrospect on history aware of a continguous theory of mind and insight into the present condition).

    But I may remain waiting for a while…

  2. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    I haven’t fully read this article myself yet, however, if you look at Carlota Perez similar take, that one is based on the Kondratieff’s waves which have a 60-70 year regularity … each ending with big systemic shocks, 1873, 1929, 2008 … it seems researchers have traced them back to even precapitalist times ….

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