Another age of discovery

Have we been here before? I know - it feels as if the Internet, virtual reality, Donald Trump, Facebook, sequencing of the human genome and machines that can reason better than people constitute a change in the pace of change without precedent. But we've actually been through an extraordinarily rapid transition like this before in history - a transition we can learn a lot from.

Professor Ian Goldin, director of the Oxford Martin School at Oxford University, and Dr Chris Kutarna, also of Oxford Martin, have just published a book - Age Of Discovery: Navigating The Risks And Rewards Of Our New Renaissance - about lessons we can draw from the period 1450 to 1550, known as the Age of Discovery. It was when the world made a series of great leaps forward, propelled by da Vinci, Michelangelo, Copernicus and Columbus, that produced the Renaissance and reshaped science, education, manufacturing, communications, politics and geopolitics.

"Gutenberg's printing press provided the trigger," Prof Goldin told me by e-mail, "by flipping knowledge production and exchange from tight scarcity to radical abundance. Before that, the Catholic churches monopolised knowledge, with their handwritten Latin manuscripts locked up in monasteries. The Gutenberg press democratised information, and provided the incentive to be literate. Within 50 years, not only had scribes lost their jobs, but the Catholic Church's millennia-old monopoly of power had been torn apart as the printing of Martin Luther's sermons ignited a century of religious wars." Meanwhile, Prof Goldin added, Copernicus upended the prevailing God-given notions of heaven and earth "by finding that far from the sun revolving around the Earth, the Earth rotated around the sun," and "voyages of discovery by Columbus, da Gama and Magellan tore up millennia-old maps of the 'known' world." Those were the mother of all disruptions and led to the parallels with today.

"Now, like then, new media have democratised information exchange, amplifying the voices of those who feel they have been injured in the upheaval," said Prof Goldin. "Now, like then, public leaders and public institutions have failed to keep up with rapid change, and popular trust has been deeply eroded." Now, like then, "this is the best moment in history to be alive" - human health, literacy, aggregate wealth and education are flourishing - and "there are more scientists alive today than in all previous generations." And yet, many people feel worse off.

Because, as in the Renaissance, key anchors in people's lives - like the workplace and community - are being fundamentally dislocated. The pace of technological change is outstripping the average person's ability to adapt. Now, like then, said Prof Goldin, "sizeable parts of the population found their skills were no longer needed, or they lived in places left behind, so inequality grew." At the same time, "new planetary scale systems of commerce and information exchange led to immense improvements in choices and accelerating innovations which made some people fabulously rich." Was there a Donald Trump back then?


Before the Gutenberg press, manuscripts were handwritten and knowledge was confined to the privileged. The printing press "flipped knowledge production and exchange from tight scarcity to radical abundance... now, like then, new media have democratised information exchange".  PHOTO: REUTERS

"Michelangelo and Machiavelli's Florence suffered a shocking popular power-taking when Girolamo Savonarola, a mid-level friar from Ferrara, who lived from 1452 to 1498, exploded from obscurity in the 1490s to enthrall Florentines, who felt left behind economically or culturally, with sermons that laid blame upon the misguided policies and moral corruption of their leaders," said Prof Goldin. "He and his zealous supporters, though a small minority, swept away the Medici establishment and seized control of the city's councils.

Now, like then, new media have democratised information exchange, amplifying the voices of those who feel they have been injured in the upheaval.

"From there, Savonarola launched an ugly campaign of public purification, introducing radical laws including against homosexuality, and attacked public intellectuals in an act of intimidation that history still remembers as the Bonfire of the Vanities. Savonarola was amongst the first to tap into the information revolution of the time, and while others produced long sermons and treatises, Savonarola disseminated short pamphlets, in what may be thought of as the equivalent of political tweets." The establishment politicians of the day, who were low energy, "underestimated the power of that new information revolution to move beyond scientific and cultural ideas" to amplify populist voices challenging authority.

Yikes! How do we blunt that?

"More risk-taking is required when things change more rapidly, both for workers who have to change jobs and for businesses who have to constantly innovate to stay ahead," Prof Goldin argued.

Government's job is to strengthen the safety nets and infrastructure so individuals and companies can be as daring - in terms of learning, adapting and investing in themselves - as they need to be. At the same time, when the world gets this tightly woven, America "needs to be more, not less, engaged, with the rest of the world," because "the threats posed by climate change, pandemics, cyber attacks or terror will not be reduced by America withdrawing". Then, as now, walls stopped working. "Cannons and gunpowder came to Europe that could penetrate or go over walls and books could bring ideas around them," he said. Then, like now, walls only made you poorer, dumber and more insecure.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2016, with the headline 'Another age of discovery'. Print Edition | Subscribe