Glenn Reynolds’s latest TCS column is a quick recap of the history of human civilization. He starts out by describing the lives of our remote ancestors, some 10,000 years ago:
What material possessions exist are homemade, except for a very small amount of stuff purchased from itinerant traders carrying a few rare luxuries. Children aren’t sent off to school, but hang around the adults as they go about the business of the day. A few activities, like big-game hunting, are off-limits to the kids, but in general they grow up quickly, and are a part of what goes on.
Breezing through several millenia of agriculture, empires, and industrialization, Glenn demonstrates how radically human societal structures have been altered by technology:
Big organizations doing big things: It’s the story of the 19th and 20th Centuries. In fact, it was so much the theme of those centuries that it’s easy to forget what a departure this was from the rest of human history. But it was a huge departure, brought about by the confluence of some unusual technological and social developments.
And it was a mixed bag. On the one hand, it made people in industrialized countries a lot richer. On the other hand, it created a lot of social strain, as traditional ways of living were disrupted by the new ways of doing business.
Parents and children were separated. Husbands and wives were separated. “Work” became something separate from the rest of life, and itself became different. An old-style blacksmith made a plowshare or a sword from beginning to end. A worker in Adam Smith’s needle factory, or Henry Ford’s automobile factory, performed a single repetitive task with no real connection, emotional or intellectual, to the overall product.
Then, of course, along comes the information revolution and Moore’s Law. When the tiny microchip replaces the massive deisel engine as the driver of economic growth, vast organizational structures start to look…well, if not obsolete, maybe a little superfluous.
Years ago, just when desktop publishing was becoming huge, I worked for a software company that sold a typographical and page layout system. One of our favorite marketing tag lines was a quote (variously attributed to Ben Franklin, W. R. Hearst, and others):
“The power of the press belongs to those who own one.”
This quote has since taken on new meaning in the age of blogs. After 20 years or so, it’s easy to forget that a small revolution in its own right occured when, all of a sudden, virtually anyone anywhere could produce typeset copy. If you wanted to be a publisher, all you needed was a computer, a laser printer, and access to a photocopier. Publishing, or at least a good-sized piece of it, was de-industrialized. That is to say, the big industrial components that only a big company could afford to purchase, house, and operate — in this case, a linotype machine and an offset press — were made optional.
Over the past two decades, de-industrialization has emerged in many other areas. The recording industry has been massively de-industrialized. The equipment for making a musical recording has been simplified, but that’s nothing compared to the change in infrastructure used to distribute a recording. We no longer need factories to press vinyl records; at this point, even burning CDs is starting to seem kind of quaint and clunky. Likewise, in his TCS piece, Glenn talks about how someone with a digital camera, an internet connection, and some good software can do things the big three networks couldn’t even imagine doing back in the 60′s.
But de-industrialization is not limited to publishing and other communications technology. As Glenn mentions in his column (and as Stephen has written about extensively here and here and lots of other places) the end of industrialization as we know it comes when individuals can produce their own goods, and possibly even the energy to produce those goods, on their own. The industrial revolution came about in the first place because bigger was better: a factory was far more efficient at producing widgets than a single skilled widgetman. With fab technology, that will no longer necessarily be the case. The desktop fabricator won’t be specialized to produce one particular thing (or kind of thing) and it is no more or less efficient if it produces one or a thousand units.
As Glenn correctly points out, de-industrialization will not completely undo industrial society. There will still be large corporations and government entities; many of us will continue to live “standardized” lives, with sharp distinctions between the home and the office, recreation and work, career and family, etc. But as these distinctions are increasingly seen as optional — as is already the case for many who now work from home, their employers having partially de-industrialized the notion of “workplace” — human society will begin to evolve into something new.
To be sure, these new ways of organizing oursleves will have some things in common with our remote past that industrial society did not. Easing the distinction between workplace and home sounds nice; easing the distinction between work and play sounds fantastic. But we aren’t moving back to the hunter-gatherer days, or to any model we can easily identify. De-industrial society will be as much as a surprise to us (or our descendants) as industrial society was to the descendants of our agrarian ancestors.