Printing Press With Movable Type, Johannes Guterburg, c. 1440
The New York Times Magazine, The Innovations Issue - "If you were trying to name the greatest invention in human history, it would be...,"
Olduwan Stone Chopping Tools, East Africa
These simple, modified pieces of rock in themselves are not so great to us modern humans when we compare them to subsequent inventions, innovations, and discoveries. It is true that fire usage, metal tools, the wheel, writing, mathematics, architecture, industrial manufacturing, electricity, the internal combustion engine, airplanes, atomic energy, medical science and technology, electronic computation, and others have been greater in terms of their power to manipulate the environment and their ability to improve human living conditions.
The greatness of these first hominin (humans and their close extinct relatives) tools is in what they contributed to if not on their own precipitated - a new type of survival strategy in the natural history of animals commonly known today as "human cultural adaptation." These rudimentary tools our ancestors made, used, became dependent on, and gradually improved upon stand as our most important invention, ever. The subsequent impact of this new hominin way of life of which tool use was inseparable is still being powerfully applied to Earth, its environment, and all its life forms.
Stone chopping tools, used for butchering scavenged carcasses in East Africa 2.6 million years ago, are the oldest of our ancestors' tools to be preserved and later discovered in the archaeological record. Stone tool manufacture and usage helped initiate an unprecedented evolutionary adaptation in the natural history of animals. Hominin cultural adaptation did not emerge suddenly or fully formed. It is a set of innovations in hominin evolution comprised of the following: tool manufacture and reliance, upright walking, high protein consumption, social group innovations, increased brain size, and language. It is this adaptation complex - an ecological-behavioral niche that we gradually created and continue build upon - that allowed us to survive and upon which we still depend today.
This complex is an emergent baseline bio-cultural foundation that made possible and sped up the emergence of all subsequent human inventions, innovations, and discoveries. Without the advent of this tool-centered adaptation complex the subsequent social, technological, and scientific advances humans have made would have been unlikely if not impossible. For further reading on how Phase I, the human cultural adaptation complex, came about and what it has led to see The Driving Forces Of Human Evolution - A Reading List and The Case For Human Evolution, Science And Reason - A Reading List.
Regrettably, the article in the Times pivoted from the importance of tool use in human history to a very thin treatment of the shortcomings of subsequent inventions in the 20th and 21st centuries. The author, Hugo Lindgren, editor of the Times Magazine, citing economist Tyler Cowen's book The Great Stagnation, emphasizes the "innovation rut" we have been in since the mid-1900s compared to the more prolific one hundred years before that. From this point on, Lindgren's essay is devoted to descriptions of frivolous inventions such as buttocks-enhancing clothing, bug zappers, and popcorn shooting machines.
As for what many of us regard to be the greatest invention of most recent times, the Internet, Lindgren has this to say:
"Meanwhile, the great hope of our age - the Internet - has yet to boost our standard of living significantly. It has, however boosted our capacity for distraction, procrastination, extended inquiries into trivia, locating the ideal restaurant for every possible occasion, and pornography. Now, for some, those things equal a higher standard of living. But we are still waiting, Cowen says, for the great leap forward."
Initial thinking that would lead to the invention of the Internet began in 1961. By the early 1980s LANs, workstations, and PCs allowed the early Internet to flourish. A mere thirty years have passed since then yet Cowen and Lindgren bemoan the fact that the Internet has failed to boost human standards of living and is used primarily for frivolous purposes. Putting their complaints in an cultural evolutionary context, imagine one of our human ancestors in the year 2,599,970BP complaining to his group mates that thirty years of stone tool usage had not raised the standard of their living. Even after adjusting our comparative evolutionary time frames for the ever-increasing rate of human cultural evolution, Cowen and Lindgren's complaint remains ludicrous.
Further, there is an important difference between the current human "standard of living" and the current "quality of human life." The former is a description of what we humans have attained and what many now expect. The latter is a statement about the current condition of human reality. How we really live is to me more important than what we've achieved and expect.
As to how we really live, there can be no arguing that the Internet is powerfully with us and has already changed the worldview and hope of millions of people. It is already leading to an improvement in the quality of human living. First, look at the current number of cellular phones on Earth. Of the world's 7 billion people, 6 billion have access to cellular phones. According to the UN, more people have access to cellular phones than access to toilets! Cellular phones have produced a quantum leap in the ability of the world's poor and under-educated to communicate for social and business purposes.
Consider further the rapidly increasing number of "smart" cellular phones, 1.08 billion at present, and the 97.6 million wireless Internet portals (WIFI) currently up and running throughout the world.
The Wireless World This Morning. Graphic by WIGLE.NET
Today, millions of the world's poorer, under-educated people have more knowledge available in the palm of their hand than they can obtain from a four-year university education. Comparing the 2,599,754 years it took to harness electricity for human use - from stone tools use in 2,600,000BP to Joseph Priestly's initial work on electricity in 1767AD - we should be extremely encouraged by the rapid spread of Internet usage over the past thirty years. This is the real news about modern human inventiveness, not the frivolous use of the Internet and what it has not done for us lately.
Hope for our species' and Earth's survival continues to increase in proportion to the spread and increased usage of the Internet. As for Humankind's future, our failure to survive and the failure of the Earth to continue to provide a viable, sustainable habitat for Life, if they should come about, will be due to a lack of will or an inability on the part of global leaders and institutions, not our lack of access to know-how. More humans know today than ever before what our and the Earth's survival requires, thanks to the Internet.
How the Internet has failed us so far and is misused according to Cowen and Lindgren - for distraction, procrastination, inquiries into the trivial, and pornography - is not a matter inherent in the medium. The issue is our failure to act on the message, not a failure of the tool to deliver. Stone tool manufacture and usage was a crucial taught-and-learned skill of our ancestors during the first major phase of human evolution. It was likewise crucial to the emergence and success of human cultural adaptation. The human-modified rocks we call stone tools did nothing for our species. Their use did, and their proper use had to be learned and appropriately applied. The same applies to the Internet, our second most important invention.
Teaching and learning regarding the use of technology and reasoning remain integral parts of human cultural adaptation and will ultimately determine our species' and planet Earth's future. Reason and the appropriate widespread use of the Internet are keys to our success in Phase II of human evolution - Cultural Evolution, Phase II - Establishing A Unified Worldview. Hopefully, the Internet will inform our international political efforts to forge a global morality and civilization. It can do so by disseminating for everyone's scrutiny the full range of challenges we face and the solutions from which we might choose.