Big History from 2300 AD

Bede writes history, 8th century

Bede writes history, 8th century

The British SF writer Charles Stross posts a challenge:

Assume you are a historian in the 30th century, compiling a pop history text about the period 1700-2300AD. What are the five most influential factors in that period of history?


For the sake of argument we assume: no singularity/rapture of the nerds, no breakthroughs that lead to wholesale invalidation of the known laws of physics, and no catastrophic events that render humanity extinct, destroy all archival records, or consign us all to a pre-industrial level of civilization.

Stross’ candidates are in the first comment on the linked thread. Brad deLong’s response is here. I reproduce both lists in fine. See also the comment threads. I contributed a comment, but RBC readers deserve a weekend play space too.

I just have three points – the replicator, advanced IT, and the stabilisation of the population are taken as read. As you would expect, there’s a lot of overlap with the earlier lists. Add your own.

JW1. The Big Crunch

Ages ago I posted my one-minute world history. Here it is again, in its 117-word entirety: Stross’ mere 600-year frame is spacious by comparison.

Modern humans emerged in Africa about 100,000 years ago, skilled hunter-gatherers like their hominid predecessors. In the expansion phase, we spread over six continents, while our culture differentiated into around 10,000 language communities. About 10,000 years ago, roughly when humans were reaching Patagonia, women gatherers in the Fertile Crescent domesticated grasses into cereal crops, and male hunters tamed sheep and goats. This revolution triggered population growth, specialisation and social stratification, organised religion, science, writing, and states. The interaction of states by trade, cultural exchange, migration, warfare, genocide, empire and law drives the contraction phase of human history, with steadily decreasing cultural diversity. We are now in the final phase, nearing a global unity – of peace or self-destruction.

Project 300 years forward, and the Big Crunch is complete. Stross has ruled out collapse, so the historian is looking back from the achievement by 2300 of an orderly world organized as a single federal polity and economy. This was already visible in outline by 2000 in the European Union, the network of technocratic global institutions, and the United States, a very successful state based on shared values read into a sacralized constitution – an artificial nation to a Herderian. How democratic is this polity? Not much. The Autarch or Committee of Public Safety or Solon Mark XXV has to listen to the views of the 10 billion, but it isn’t the Pnyx.

The crunch has also nearly completed the work of cultural re-homogenisation. By 2000, the world was already down from the peak 10,000 languages to 3,000 or so, and the little ones were dying like flies. “TV is cultural nerve gas” – Anon. The odd little bastard Teutonic language twice rescued, first by King Alfred of Wessex, and later creolized by the children of Saxon peasants and Norman soldiers, became the lingua franca of the world. The solution of the problem of accurate machine translation by 2050 halted the process before complete reunification, and around 100 languages survive as vehicles of broad-spectrum regional communication, a few hundred more as marginalized local heritage.

JW2. The rise and fall of capitalism

The main institutions of the capitalist order were already in place in Britain and Holland by 1700: banks, central banks, joint-stock companies, and stock exchanges, though the legitimising ideology took a century more. By 2000, capitalism had conquered the world, and the state socialist experiments inspired by Marxism had failed. In parallel, the ideology (market economics) even attempted a bizarre imperial takeover of social science, treating the arm’s-length exchange transaction as the paradigm of human interaction.

The subsequent decline was slow. At its peak, there were cycles: first overreach, such as the plutocrat elections in the USA of the early 2000s, now seen as an attempted coup; then reaction, exemplified by the Wall Street riots and Great Fire of 2022, and the Robin Hood terrorist movement with its ghoulish videoed executions of billionaires. The theory that these marked a chaotic tipping point is now discredited. The dominant view among specialists is that capitalism worked itself out of a job by removing scarcity: Blue Plenty.

Capitalism was always, contra its ideologues, dependent on a large socialist sector for its reproduction: education, social insurance, and the internal command economies of companies. Also on the unacknowledged communist one of information: science, religion, software, community action, poetry, and debate. The IT revolution and the shift to a service economy tilted the advantages steadily towards the socialist and communist modes of production over an ever-wider area. Meanwhile technology made manufactured products cheaper to the point where the overhead of complex markets ceased in most cases to be worthwhile. We still have positional scarcities, in 3000 as in 2300, but we deal with them by aristocratic competition in virtù. The Olympic Games have become the central institution of what is left of the economy.

JW3. The Way

The survival of humanity through the existential ecological crisis of the mid-21st century was both enabled by and reinforced the emergence of a common global civic religion, the Way. The human rights movement of the late 20th century was a gut reaction to the unequalled mass slaughters of the first half; but in content it was a piece of politically clever Enlightenment syncretism. It prefigured a more systematic extraction of common elements of values in the world religions, including the Golden Rule and an ethos of stewardship of the biosphere. The surviving religions retain their distinct ritual, mystical and eschatological elements, but acknowledge the common ethical ground. By 2100, it was common for schoolchildren to pledge allegiance to the Way, as prior to local loyalties and identities.


Charles Stross’ list:

S1. The great fossil fuel binge
S2. The population/GDP/innovation bubble (fuelled by #1)
S3. The parasite crash and social rebalancing, including the end of patriarchy (made possible by medical advances facilitated by #2)
S4. The end of [vertebrate] meat eating (side-effect of #1 and #2)
S5. The collapse of cognitive distance and the perfection of memory (side-effect of #2)

Brad deLong’s list:

DL1. Universal literacy.
DL2. Artificial birth control.
DL3. The coming of the Replicator–or close enough–for foodstuffs and for things made out of metal, wood, plastic, and sound.
DL4. The coming of information technology in whatever its flowering will be.
DL5. The death of global distance.
Plus whatever disasters lurk at the bottom of not the Pandoran but the Promethean Box of 1700-2300.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]