I have no interest in the book being reviewed here, and I don’t particularly recommend the review itself. But the reviewer makes a claim that I think is true, namely that the industrial revolution was not merely a next step, but in fact a sea change for the direction of human society:

Just about everyone living today is the beneficiary of what can almost certainly be called the single most consequential development in human history — namely, the onset of industrialization. As the economic historian Angus Maddison has shown in a series of studies of economic development over the past two millennia, human economies grew very little, if at all, for most of human history. Between 1000 and 1820 or so, Maddison estimates, annual economic growth was around 0.05 percent a year — which meant that living standards improved incredibly slowly and that people living in 1800 were only mildly better off than people living in 1000. But sometime around 1820, that all began to change. Between 1820 and today, world per capita real income grew 20 times as fast as it did in the previous eight centuries.

In the West, above all, the effects of this transformation have been so massive as to be practically unfathomable. Real income, life expectancy, literacy and education rates, and food consumption have soared, while infant mortality, hours worked, and food prices have plummeted. And although the West has been the biggest beneficiary of these changes, the diffusion of technology, medicine, and agricultural techniques has meant that developing countries have enjoyed dramatic improvements in what the United Nations calls “human development indicators,” even if most of their citizens remain poor. One consequence of this is that people at a given income level today are likely to be healthier and to live longer than people at the same income level did 40 or 50 years ago.

Thinking about this fact always leaves me scratching my head about the overall arc of human history. What does such a shift mean? Some of the possibilities:

  • There is no arc. The shift from pre-industrial to industrial has no meaning outside of the fact that it happened. Something else equally momentous may (or may not) happen at some point down the road, and that will have no particular meaning either.

  • For some reason God chose to bless us in 1820, lifting us out of the miry clay of economic stagnation and setting us on an upwardly spiralling path where the blessings are pouring out at increasing speed.

  • For some reason God chose to exercise judgment on us in 1820, tiring of our increasing propensity to worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator, giving us over to our own vain imaginings, unclean lusts, vile affections, to a reprobate mind that celebrates curses as blessings.

I lean towards the third possibility, of course. But what does that say about the many, many material “blessings” that industrialization has brought to us? Are they all curses in disguise? Should we have simply turned our backs on them from the beginning? Or are they potential blessings, but ones we’ve turned into curses through our ignorant, ungrateful, and ungodly use of them? Could we have integrated them into a godly life if we’d taken it slower and proceeded more thoughtfully, with a clearer understanding of the effect they might have on the fabric of our lives?

And, more puzzling, why were the brakes of grace taken off in 1820 (or whatever date you want to assign to the Industrial Revolution)? Had we been on a path of increasing ungodliness which finally reached a point where judgment needed to be passed? Neil Postman claims that it was important that, after the invention of the printing press, nothing much in the way of technological advancement happened for a few hundred years, giving us enough breathing room to make a peaceful and thoughtful transition to being a print-based society. Many other technological innovations are placed similarly in history. Why suddenly was there an onslaught of innovation that we were increasingly ill-equipped to absorb?

5 thoughts on “Progress

  1. Which ever view you take, it does give glory to God that He uses the technological advances to further His kingdom. Many have heard the message of salvation through innovative methods. With modern flight and communication, the message has been delivered to the ends of the earth.

    Much can be said on both the positive and negative side of technological society. As believers we need to be diligent to use advances for the glory of God.

  2. There are two cultures that I am aware of that have rejected continuous technological improvement.

    The modern day Amish and Japan from ~1600 to ~1850.

    The Japanese during this period even rejected firearms which they had started to adopt prior to this period. What is interesting is that once they accepted modern technology they were able to defeat a western power within 50 years of accepting technology (the 1904 Russo-Japanese war).

    An interesting study would be to look at “happiness” of the average person in these cultures. I would wager that it would be comparable or better to that of modern westerners despite the lack of technology.


  3. This post has stuck with me ever since you first wrote it, and apparently its content has been growing in my imagination — I thought you mentioned some other major advances and how those changes affected people, how societies adapted to them… like adding the coulter to a plow, for example.

    Have you written more extensively on this elsewhere and I’m not finding it, or have I mentally rewritten this post into a lengthier essay?

  4. Thanks for the links. I guess this one article is the one I was thinking of. Funny how the memory works — it seems that everything I ever thought on this topic I mentally appended to this post!

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