Stop Waiting for the Singularity. It Started 200 Years Ago.
The Industrial Revolution is the most transformative event in human history. It is the true Singularity — and you’re living through it.
In recent years a bunch of technologists have pushed a once fringe idea into the mainstream. That idea is the Singularity.
For most in Silicon Valley and beyond, the Singularity has come to mean one thing: a future event in which humankind merges with artificial superintelligence, sparking a new era for us as a species that is definitively different from anything that has come before.
Others think the Singularity won’t be about an AI-fueled merging with machines, but different and as yet unknown technological advances. Nanotechnologies and new genetic tech are both contenders.
Really, these different visions of the Singularity are all interpretations of its underlying definition as the singular event in human history. That is, a future event so transformative it changes everything, rewrites the rules of the human condition, and becomes a definitive break-point in our story as a species.
But what if all the current interpretations are wrong? What if we are already living through the Singularity? How would that change the way we view ourselves, and choices make make collectively in the 21st-century?
Here is a chart, created by the brilliant people at Our World in Data.
Here is another:
What do these amazing charts tell us? First, let’s start with what they show implicitly about the nature of life for humans who lived before around 1800.
Our species evolved around 200,000 years ago. For pretty much the entirety of human history, certain truths about our existence were very stable. Before 1800 almost everyone lived in what we would call grinding poverty. Reading and writing were not technologies available to early humans, but even once they’d been invented hardly anyone had access to them. Almost half of children — or more — died in infancy.
Think about that for a moment. Those truths pertained for almost all of human history; like 99.9% of it. You could extend the charts above back in time and see a straight line travelling back hundreds or even thousands of years.
Then around 1800, something happened.
That something was the Industrial Revolution.
In 1770 a British weaver called James Carpenter patented the spinning jenny, a machine for weaving cloth. If we have to choose a single moment as the spark that ignited the Industrial Revolution, Carpenter’s patent is a strong contender.
The spinning jenny and other innovations formed the start of a process of rapid industrialisation, first in the UK and then quickly across much of Europe. The effects of this revolution took time to take hold. But a few decades into the 19th-century they were inescapable. It was a technological revolution, and it changed everything.
Take a look at one more graph. This one shows the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the GDP of the UK. The UK is almost unique among nations in having economic data on record that allow us to estimate adjusted GDP all the way back to the 13th-century.
There is a story latent in this graph, and it’s one you know well. About how the 20th-century saw an unprecedented transformation in the material conditions of humankind. And how that transformation in turn transformed everything. Dramatically extended lifespan, the rise of the industrial working class, mass education, a nuclear world, pop culture and the social revolution of the 1960s, a transformation in gender relations, a planet turned into a village.
The whole story of the last 100 years. It all has its foundation in that material transformation.
The Industrial Revolution is the True Singularity
By convention the Industrial Revolution ended around 1840. And the Second Industrial Revolution — the one characterised by the advent of mass production and electrification — started around 1870. Then came computers and the Third Industrial Revolution. Now, many think we’re living through a Fourth Industrial Revolution powered by AI, automation and new genetic technologies.
Those stages certainly correspond meaningfully to periods in our technological and industrial development. But pull back the lens and look at these four industrial revolutions from the point of view of all 200,000 years of human history, and it makes more sense to view them as four stages of one event. That is, four stages of the Industrial Revolution, which began around 1800 and is ongoing.
And when you view the Industrial Revolution as a single, transformational event that spans multiple centuries, something else becomes clear. The Industrial Revolution is the Singularity. At least, if you adhere to the definition of the Singularity that was established above: an event so transformational it changes everything, a fundamental break-point in our history as a species.
We should all stop waiting for the Singularity and realise instead that we are living through it. The most fundamental transformation for our species, the ultimate before and after of human history, is happening all around us now.
Progress is Real
Many readers will already have guessed that these thoughts have been prompted in part by Steven Pinker’s new book Enlightenment Now. That book sees Pinker argue — with the support of a ton of charts — that the conditions of human life have improved pretty much across the board. Crucially, Pinker thinks that this is no accident: it’s the result of a determined application of reason, science and values of human flourishing that began with the Enlightenment.
The question of whether there is progress in human history is a fascinating and fraught one with a long history of its own. Pinker thinks the answer is a clear yes. Far fewer children die now in infancy than ever before: if that’s not progress, asks Pinker, then what is? Others, including the British philosopher John Gray, accuse Pinker of being a naive optimist. Gray thinks that while we clearly make technological advancements, we are doomed by our irrational natures to remain ethically flawed and to repeat the mistakes of the past. History according to Gray is better described as a story of cyclical advancements and regressions, not one of progress.
The raging debate between Pinker and Gray is sustained partly by the simple fact that they define progress differently and then proceed to talk past one another.
But it’s hard not to be swayed by Pinker’s argument that — by any sane definition of the word — we humans can make progress, and we have made it across the last two centuries. Billions around the world can reasonably say that if they could choose to live at any time in history, they would choose now. And that’s thanks to an Industrial Revolution fuelled by reason and science.
So how does it help to view that Industrial Revolution as the Singularity? The answer is perhaps as simple as this: it allows us a new perspective on what is happening to us. And in doing that, it helps us to think about how we should respond to the challenges we’ll face in the 21st-century.
We humans can make the world a better home for ourselves. And we can deeply internalise values that cause us to do less harm to one another. That is progress. Today, fuelled by science and reason, that story is taking us through a historical Singularity of unprecedented change. But in this new world we are making, we remain the same humans with the same essential, evolved human nature. And that has two crucial implications.
First, it means the story that is human progress is never finished.
Sure, we make progress. But new extrinsic challenges will always arise, and we’ll always find new ways of thwarting ourselves. The solutions we devise will cause new problems of their own. And on it goes. There is no end-point or final, utopian moment awaiting us. Instead, you can understand the story of human progress best as an unending struggle between our rational and irrational selves — an unending struggle to make the world a better home and to realise our highest ethical vision of the human.
Second, it means that the struggle that is human progress is inevitably a traumatic one.
It’s hard to argue with Pinker’s idea that progress is inextricably linked to our capacity to use reason to understand the world more fully. But when we commit to science and reason, we forgo the consolations of myth, religion and magical thinking. Modernity has brought undreamed of improvements in our material conditions, but also ruthlessly stripped us of the consoling idea that human beings hold a special place in the universe, that our lives individually and our species collectively have a transcendental meaning, and that our current suffering makes sense within a broader cosmic drama. For almost all of history, humans held on to those consolations. Modern, Enlightenment, post-Industrial Revolution humans cannot. We are unconsoled humans.
To make matters even more challenging, the new world that progress creates is inevitably one of rapid and disorientating change. Citizens of modernity have always found it difficult to cope with the new and complex environments in which they find themselves. In the 21st-century, that will be more true than ever.
When we come to view the Industrial Revolution as the true human Singularity, we see the time we’re living through in its full historical context, and all its transformative power. We understand that we find ourselves amid a definite break-point in our history, struggling to cope with the disorientation and complexity attendant upon that. And in this environment, one response becomes obvious. It’s a small thing in one way; in another it’s everything. We are living through traumatic change, stripped of the consolations of religion, myth and magical thinking. Our first job, and the most meaningful work left to us, is to console one another.
Without that, the changes we’ll see and the complexity we’ll face in the 21st-century may simply be, for millions of people, too traumatic to be borne. And that will make progress vulnerable to the forces of reaction, including more virulent strains of the populism that we’re currently seeing. If we want to advance as far as we are able, we need to redesign our societies to make possible a significant turn back to one another.
Modernity has atomized us, tearing apart the traditional bonds of family and friendship in pursuit of constant productivity and economic growth. In the 21st-century, automation and AI will both obviate the need for much human labour and create conditions of even greater and more disorientating change. The practical conditions are in place for a turn back to one another; the need for such a turn is increasingly clear. That means remaking our societies so we are able to spend more time with one another. To care for one another more, and when it is most needed. Parents to children, adults to elderly parents, the well to the unwell, friends to friends.
When we can have undreamed of productivity and abundance with far less human labour, only a very few will be able to find meaning in work and their contribution to the economy. In that environment, what is left? The answer is the thing that mattered most all along, the only thing that can never be automated away or swept up in the calculus of productivity. That is: care for each other, and the need to be truly seen by another human.
I See You
There are good practical — even economic — reasons why a turn back to one another makes sense for the 21st-century.
An army of 50-year-olds freed to care for their elderly parents goes a long way towards solving the looming care crisis that pretty much every industrialised economy is facing.
A universal basic income would help, by freeing millions from the confines of the traditional ‘job’. It would also make a symbolic statement of radical and revolutionary power: ‘your primary value as a human is not the value you bring to the economy’. But the changes we need to make — to our societies and our collective consciousness — in order to make a turn back to one another go far beyond that. And right now, no one has a clear picture of what they are (certainly not me).
But perhaps the first step is simply to see our predicament clearly. Living through the definitive break-point in human history is amazing, and traumatic. Progress is great, but the struggle is real.
So we should prioritize the hardest and most important work of all. And that, simply, is being with one another.
David Mattin is Global Head of Trends and Insights at TrendWatching.