How social and physical technologies collaborate to create | Aeon Essays

Revolutions in physical technologies involve major changes in how we use matter, energy or information. The Stone, Iron and Bronze Ages were revolutions in our use of materials. The Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions were, in essence, energy revolutions. Each of these revolutions was transformative in its own way, but information technology revolutions arguably have a more direct impact on our social technologies than revolutions in matter or energy. This is because our social orders are ultimately products of human imagination; they are ‘imagined orders’ as the historian Noah Yuval Harari calls them in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011). Social orders are built on ideas, on knowledge and information, and depend on our abilities to store, process and transmit that information. The evolution of language itself, followed tens of thousands of years later by the development of writing, were transformative information revolutions that shaped social orders in profound and unpredictable ways. Who could have predicted that Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press would catalyse the Protestant Reformation, the invention of science, the Enlightenment, the creation of mass culture, and the development of democratic politics? Information revolutions change our cognition, our emotions and psychology, our moral values, our identities, how we interact with each other, and how we organise our societies.
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