Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Some History

Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Kn...
One of the many nice things about this time of year is that it often means a short break from work.  This in turn means I not only have extra time to hang out with friends and family, I also have a bit more time to think about stuff that isn't directly work related.  That in turn leads to more BLOG posts.  Today I'm thinking about big discoveries/inventions and how they impacted our lives and the lives of people doing business at the time.

Arguably the most important invention of the past seven centuries was Gutenberg's movable type printing press.  Prior to that books and papers had to be copied by hand.  The printing press played an important part in the protestant reformation but if you were a scribe it had a more personal impact.  After awhile it put you out of a job.  This wasn't the first disruptive change that humanities inventiveness brought to the world and it certainly wasn't the last.  Wars and disease get a lot of press in regards to shaping human history but innovation in both times of peace and war has played a significant role as well.

As human beings I think we have a tendency to either exaggerate or understate the importance of the events that are going on around us in comparison to what has happened in the past.  With that caveat in mind, the Internet may be even more important than the printing press in terms of the changes it has and will bring about.

I have a modern reprint of a very early Encyclopedia set that was originally published in the mid 18th century. The three thick volumes that make up this Encyclopedia do a pretty good job of representing the sum of human knowledge (at least from the western European perspective) at the time.  Books such as these were often funded by way of subscriptions and the publication of multi volume sets took several years.  It's hard in some ways to imagine a time when so much of humanities knowledge of science and nature could be summarized in three volumes that took several years for the publisher to complete.  At that point in time it was possible for a well educated person to have a good grasp on the entire breadth of the sciences and philosophy and to have mastered more than one.

Today discoveries are being made at a much more rapid pace and the amount of human knowledge has reached a scale our ancestors couldn't have hoped to comprehend.  Truth be told, neither can most of us.  Wikipedia reports over five hundred thousand topics covered in the English language with more being added all the time.  Imagine trying to read every single one and retaining even a smattering of the knowledge gained.  Human inventiveness could cease tomorrow and this would still be an impossible task.

Now we specialize in increasingly narrow areas and when we don't know the answer to something we open a browser, head to our favorite search engine and start doing a bit of research.  We may not be experts but within minutes we have a superficial understanding and if we're diligent than within hours we've gained a level of understanding that would have taken our ancestors days to match because they didn't have the advantage of having so much of human knowledge available in a a quickly searchable format.  Anyone who is old enough to remember card catalogs and the Dewey Decimal system will have a pretty good idea of what I'm talking about, as do those doing serious academic research as not everything is digitized and online at this point.

Circling briefly back to the printing press, it is not a coincidence that the renaissance started at about the same time as the printing press came into being.  One of the changes it brought about is that it made it much easier for knowledge to be shared.  No longer did a highly skilled human being have to labor for weeks transcribing a single copy of a book.  The labor involved in setting up the movable type in the press also required time and skill but once it had been done many copies of a particular volume could be made quickly.   In the case of shorter documents that took only a single page the work involved was much less.   Martin Luther launched what would become the Christian Protestant reformation as his ninety five theses was quickly replicated and circulated throughout Europe.

I can't really point to any single thing that the Internet has contributed to that has had as profound an impact at this point, but the Internet age is still relatively young and there certainly are many emerging trends and changes underway.  The US postal service is feeling a lot of pain right now and while I believe that some of that is self inflicted it is still the case that they are in a situation where the world has changed in a way that brings into question their continued viability as currently structured.   They are not alone; an increasing amount of commerce takes place online which has brought additional challenges to brick and mortar retail chains.  Well run companies have so far weathered the storm well.  For weaker ones the results haven't been favorable.  The current economic troubles have no doubt contributed to the demise of many of these companies but increased competition has played a part as well.  It used to be the case that your primary threats were local.  Now competition can come from anywhere, even the other side of the world.

Image via Wikipedia
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