Author: Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna
Book Title: Age of Discovery (Buy the Book)
The world we live in today exhibits themes that have occurred throughout history, particularly during the European Renaissance. Throughout the Age of Discovery, Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna explore the connected nature of our world and the effects of technological and societal shifts.
The increase in complexity and connectedness led to themes of widespread urban migration, the proliferation of knowledge, and trade expansion. Both ages are also characterized by a shift in how society perceives basic truths.
The book draws connections between the Gutenberg press and the internet; the discovery of the New World and the fall of the Iron Curtain; and innovations in shipbuilding and the invention of planes and containerization. These changes, as well as other technological advancements, affected change in markets, urban flow, and wealth distribution.
Markets expanded with corresponding innovations to support the larger number of participants, creating jobs, raising incomes, and leading to both connections and competition. These new opportunities can lead to migrations and urban flow as individuals have the means to search for better opportunities. However, the better opportunities were not evenly distributed as both then and now the margins of society are growing farther apart.
Scientific and social developments brought about grand paradigm shifts. In the Renaissance, the core philosophy changed from revelation to observation. Paradigms of our own are not as easily condensed as we are still in the middle of them; however, we can easily see changes from closed to open policy, analog to digital media, and the broken rules of artistry.
Beyond advancements in any one field, the grand themes of the Renaissance are that of the connectedness and complexity. One genius will spark an invention, but collective genius is necessary to achieve success across industries. In the same way, collective effort is necessary to realize accomplishments far beyond the scope of an individual.
Associated collective doubts and collective risks are involved in the increase in complexity. Causes are layered and far removed from our day-to-day experiences, making it difficult to evaluate cause and effect relationships.
Goldin and Kutarna provide several insights into how to excel in a Renaissance age.
- Welcome genius. Be open to new ideas, consider innovations that you may otherwise overlook as risky or dangerous, and test both current beliefs and new ideas for true merit.
- Welcome the innovators of genius. Diversity of thought breeds new ideas and can be achieved only through a diversity of people.
- Endorse patronage. From art to science, the innovators of our age need funding. Michelangelo’s David stands as a prime example of the age- unsure, armed but weary. Carved in the last Renaissance, he stood for the changing age of discovery. He can just as easily stand to represent our present age. We are on the brink of greatness, about to face our Goliath. With innovation, genius, and perspective, we can overcome anything in our path and build a better future for humanity.
The grand themes in the world today are reminiscent of themes that have occurred throughout history; however, they can be viewed with distinct clarity in the Renaissance. Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna, authors of Age of Discovery, explore the connected nature of our world and the effects of this shift in both 1450-1550 Europe and our global world today.
The Renaissance was characterized by a proliferation of “genius” and a shift in how society perceived basic truths. These changes were spurred on by increased technology and new discoveries. The result was an increasingly complex and connected world; urban flow increased, information was widely disseminated, and trade expanded.
These themes are again prevalent in our current age and Age of Discovery explores the associated benefits and risks. There are lessons that can be learned from history just as there are warnings to be heeded. Goldin and Kutarna explore them both by explaining what changes are shifting the foundations of modern society and further exploring their effects.
Effects on Human Connections
The past also shows a distinct shift in the way in which knowledge was disseminated. A German entrepreneur by the name of Johann Gutenberg combined the well-known ideas of a press and Chinese paper in an entirely new way. The Gutenberg press enabled a communication revolution, empowering printed text on a mass scale to widely disseminate ideas. A scholar went from reading a dozen books in his lifetime to hundreds.
Books, in turn, changed from priceless artifacts to cheap commodities. These widely disseminated books standardized learning and assisted the emerging scientific field by providing identical detailed images, diagrams, and maps.
Instruction shifted from oral to written such that the dissemination of knowledge became less dependent on universities and apprenticeships. However, the knowledge was only captured in a specific printed language and then stuck in said language as opposed to oral knowledge which flowed more easily across language barriers.
Our present age mirrors the democratization of text, enabled by the rise of the internet. Our age is truly the digital age, an age of machines and increasing processing power. Computers started the revolution and cell phones made it ubiquitous. All thoughts and speech can be captured and shared across the world at the press of a button and perfectly copied an infinite number of times.
Cost and time of disseminating knowledge are again decreasing. The broadcast nature of the internet allows for an increase in freedom of speech. As a result, propaganda is even easier to spread. The rise of the internet has caused a shift in the way that we learn from knowing facts to being able to efficiently locate the available facts.
In both ages, the printed word helped to solidify national identities. The text was bound in the language of print and languages were consolidated from many dialects to a few printed languages. Today, English is the most common language with over 50% of the Internet available in only the one language while the next most common language, Russian, only accounts for 6%. The widespread dissemination of knowledge also helped to harden religious identities. The language barrier, enhanced by written text, still frustrates the connective forces of the world.
Movements and Connections
Then and now, the maps of the world were shifting. By 1450, the map drawn by the ancient Ptolemy had been recently rediscovered and interactions with the Ottomans increased awareness of outside lands. Columbus, Magellan, and de Gama influenced new maps of the world, all centered on man’s observations that challenged and even contradicted the “wisdom of the ancients” and revelations of the scriptures.
This exploration of our world would not be possible without the transportation to do so, enabled by innovation in shipbuilding to travel open seas. Larger ships were necessary to travel the long ocean trips that were now known to connect Asia and Europe.
Business technology was developed to attend to the growing long-distance trade. Traders could purchase a fraction of the cargo space on a ship instead of fronting the cost of a full ship, allowing a greater number of merchants to be involved in long-distance trade.
Well-situated at the confluence of old and new worlds, Europe could trade with both economies using these new maps and routes. Trade expanded from a local to a continental affair, allowing for more participants. The length of each trade route increased the need for flexibility in credit.
As a result, trading houses created the ability to sell bills of exchange to a third-party, expanding exchanges from one-to-one transactions. These lines of credit passed between parties many times such that they traded like cash. This expansion allowed for broader participation and continental integration.
The effect on trade was to decrease the risk due to transportation cost and delays such that goods from farther abroad became potentially more valuable to import.
Again, in today’s age, we draw new maps. Our changes are political rather than geographic, however, they have a great influence on the people of our age. The map of a generation past, split into Communist and Capitalist sectors, symbolized by the Berlin Wall, is now obsolete. In the span of a decade, four billion people joined the free market and the openness of the modern age encourages investment in developing countries, expanding financial circuits.
Securitization (selling parts of an IOU cocktail and credit derivatives (third parties taking the lending risk) add to the complexity of lending and the emergence of the subprime mortgage market. Our age has also seen deregulation in order to incorporate new technology on electronic trading. The complexity of the financial system increases the underlying risk as evidenced by the 2008 meltdown.
Today’s ships are the cars and planes that connect our world such that no two cities are further than a day apart. Our merchandise is also more easily traded internationally with the rise of containerization in standardized, traceable packages.
The size of our ships has likewise increased as the economics of shipping shifts such that traveling the long way around a continent in a larger ship is less expensive than traveling a canal in a smaller vessel. Our age also increases the number of participants by the advent of trade intermediaries that make big business infrastructure available to small firms.
Overall, the expansion of trade creates jobs and raises incomes for the poor by increasing the size and stability of the market. The growing market provides the incentive and means for the movement of people. Many migrants are in the search of a better life in an economy that can better support and sustain them. In many cases, cities are the hub that draws people as they provide protection, richer social and intellectual life, and efficiency of resources.
Wealth and Privilege
The previous century was devastated by the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, and the Mongols, bearing with them another plague. The convolution of these events and other depressing economic activity across the continent. However, with the passing of these events, demographics changed and living conditions increased.
Suddenly, the labor supply was in high demand due to the high loss of life and as a result, landlords improved conditions to attract labor. In some states, the government offered land to peasants to both gain a pliable tax base and to cultivate great swaths of land. As such, peasants began to acquire ownership of their time and the ability to sell their skills and surplus on the open market.
The late 1400s and early 1500s saw an average welfare increase but the margins of society, the rich and the poor, grew farther apart. During the Renaissance, the top 5-10% owned 40-50% of the overall wealth. The bottom of the income scale saw falling real incomes as their stable wages did not rise with inflation. The influx of poor and the poor relief system depressed wages for unskilled labor. Shock events hit the poor harder than the rich.
Today, the extreme poor still live day to day, undernourished; however, this is far less common. In the last 25 years, the percentage of humanity below the World Bank’s international poverty line has dropped from 43% to 12%. Overall welfare is also increasing as life expectancy is climbing, literacy rates are increasing, and the gender gap is closing.
Recent years have also brought a decrease in disease because innovative vaccines led to fewer childhood deaths, safer drinking water results in healthier communities, and increased prenatal care helps save the lives of mothers and their children.
However, the extreme edges of our society today are even further apart than during the Renaissance. As of 2015, the richest 62 people own half of all wealth. The advent of technology in an industry typically increases profits for owners and managers and not the workers that the technology, for the most part, is replacing.
The country that an individual is born into still largely determines the life they will live. Even within a specific country, the neighborhood of birth determines a person’s life expectancy, education, and more.
Scientific and social developments brought about paradigm shifts in the Renaissance. Scientific developments showed that the earth was not the center of the universe but rather simply the third planet rotating around the sun. This observation came alongside a core philosophical change from revelation to observation and from honoring humanity’s God-given place to striving to rise above it.
The trend towards observation of the world led to better medicinal practices through study and dissection and better chemistry through new experimentation. In fields ranging from ships to agriculture and mining to hydraulics, technology advanced with this increase in observation. The field that is most renowned for its dramatic shifts is that of art. The Renaissance will forever be remembered for the shift from displaying a formulaic story to showing the world through the artist’s eyes.
Today’s technological and societal changes are likewise causing shifts that are as dramatic but not as easily condensed as they are still developing. However, in the past decades, several major shifts have rocked our society. The policy has changed from closed to open and media from analog to digital.
The sovereignty of the state has shifted focus to responsibility for crimes against humanity and interaction in the international community for domestic prosperity. The realm of art has seen the rules being laid by the wayside and the barrier between the artist and the audience broken.
Several factors provide the framework of the paradigm shift. Great innovations are due not to an individual but rather collective genius. Collective genius brings together disperse fragments across industries to creatively combine past solutions to new problems and accelerate the pace of progress. The pace of ideas has contributed to this genius, increasing the overall flow of knowledge and spark of innovation. General-purpose technology that may be utilized across sectors elevated each field where it was adopted.
Additionally, more well-educated and better-fed people are able to contribute and there are more minds to engender more change. These people are working together with increased points of contact, as seen in the increased academic study across borders and students studying abroad. Finally, strong social and private incentives reward risk-taking, including in the competition between states. For example, the first patent system was created in Venice in the 1470s and in the next hundred years became common across Europe.
Similar to collective genius, collective effort refers to the grand scale that can be achieved only with input from the masses to support the initiative.
Several great Cathedrals were built in the century; a new St Peter’s, St Mary’s in Seville, and Our Lady in Antwerp. Seville, recently significant because of increased trade with the New World, and Antwerp, an up-and-coming financial center and mercantile port, were able to pool their effort into a symbol of the age and their success. In the secular field, libraries also increased in size, both in terms of construction and in terms of volumes.
Today’s collective efforts are exemplified not in construction but in technological efforts like open-source software like Linux, open-source research like Wikipedia, and mass compilation of the times in Facebook and YouTube. Collective effort to overcome the language barrier is being overcome by mass volunteer efforts to translate the web while learning a language.
Collective effort is poured into the analysis of scientific data as more data is collected than can be effectively processed. “Citizen science” has evolved to include non-scientists in volunteering to do analytics to help in fields ranging from cataloging galaxies to identifying animals to searching for illegal fishing in satellite footage.
Collective Doubt and Belief
Reasons to Doubt
With the wrong perspective, the achievements of any age may go unnoticed, pass as disappointments, or be downgraded as non-important when viewed in comparison to immediate concerns.
The most iconic example of a discovery that at first seemed to be a disappointment is Columbus’s voyage across the Atlantic. While Columbus returned a failure for not finding a sea route to Asia, the future celebrates his voyage as a great discovery as the New World.
Today one may doubt the present advancements for several reasons. Economic productivity saw a much greater increase in the early to mid-1900s, due to cars, electricity, radio, and telephone, running water, and flight, than in the past decades. Our present age did not invent computers or fly to the moon. Much of our technological advancements have been gadgets with no globally life-changing effects.
Reasons to Believe
Economic terms are not enough to encapsulate genius. A better question might be to ask youth if they would rather live in the age of their parents or ancestors or in the new age. The overall change should be viewed above simple economic terms.
Simple measurements cannot capture all tangible impacts of genius. It is too early to yet understand the impacts of our age. Additionally, simple measurements of GDP and productivity are not intended to measure general well-being and should not be substituted as the end-all, be-all.
The future holds even bigger feats. The law of diminishing returns should not be applied to the broad innovation of technology. Each solution adds a new way to solve a separate problem across fields and sectors. More discovery is ahead than behind, regardless of how much is discovered.
Reasons to Fear
Some limits in society have kept us safe and much of the time technology indiscriminately overcomes limits. For example, a prime example of the diffusion of technology is the spread of guns and weaponry. In today’s age, we need to be watchful of the next destructive weapon to spread, a weapon like bioterrorism that the world is not prepared to handle.
The ease by which information spreads also allows for the proliferation of harmful information. The same infrastructure that brings together those in need or helps maintain social connections can be turned to enable destruction. As a result, once marginal movements can reach more people and unite them to cause harm.
The intelligence instilled in new technology makes it easier to replace workers with machines. Nearly half of all jobs in the United States are at risk of automation. A world without jobs is a scary one indeed.
Technology increases the power of states. Technology allows the state to monitor its citizens and to broadcast a planned state message to all citizens. As seen in certain countries, the breadth of information available to its citizens is controlled, restricting the citizens’ access to a full range of ideas.
In times of increased development, the world becomes more complex. Causes are layered and far removed from our day-to-day experience, making it difficult to evaluate cause and effect relationships. We are not able to see systemic dangers that creep up in the flow of innovation and then shock us.
The world also became increasingly concentrated. This concentration is creating a strain on the supply of infrastructure and resources. When a failure does occur, that failure is more likely to spread and at a faster rate. There is a greater level of mutual reliance amongst people and a decrease in self-sufficient units.
Then and now there is a dangerous threat of fast-moving, easily contagious pandemics. In the Renaissance, plagues shifted from being regional affairs to sweeping across the continent along the trade lines and conflict zones. Today we can look to the spread of SARS and Ebola to see how global the threat has become. While SARS struck in a dense population first, it was luckily a population with a strong public health system able to enforce strong quarantines.
Ebola hit where this was not possible. In our globally connected society, a lethal virus in a large city with national and international connections is a global danger. For example, if an infected person took two plane rides prior to quarantine, 75% of the world would need to be vaccinated to stop a pandemic.
A trade crisis hit as lines of credit became deregulated such that lending houses could sell in the secondary markets, even lending solely on the of their own merit. Sovereigns borrowed without anyone doubting their unfailing ability to pay back the sum. When the state defaulted, the losses were felt industry-wide.
Securitization and credit derivative gave us the same sense of false comfort that ultimately led to a tremendous crash. While those of the Renaissance believed the sovereigns “too big to fail,” our own banks became the same and that knowledge encouraged risky practices as they knew they would not be allowed to bust.
There are risks in any new change but there are ways in which we may mitigate the risk. In order to grow successes together, we must be united. We cannot abide by set labels that divide sets of countries and pretend to be static. The world is ever-changing and increasingly connected, and this should be addressed.
Growing awareness of the changing world and how our actions affect it can increase our sense of urgency. There are problems in our global society that need to be addressed and the first step is understanding that the problem itself exists.
In 1497 a Dominican friar, Girolamo Savonarola, rose to great influence in a very short amount of time in a reign that culminated in setting fire to heretical books and immoral objects in a great Bonfire of the Vanities.
Savonarola arrived in Florence at an auspicious time as a confluence of events helped convince the masses of his apocalyptic message. Foreign empires loomed, the Medici patriarch fell suddenly ill, and foreign armies invaded, bringing disease and making off with their wealth.
The age of rapid change produced a climate of high anxiety. Savonarola can be viewed as a reactionary prophet, horrified by the humanistic trend in society and moral permissiveness that accompanied the elevation of man’s desires.
He radicalized traditional practices and seized control of the catechism school for teenage boys, rewriting the curriculum to produce ideologically bonded youth. Savonarola embraced his advantages and the technology of the time, adopting the printing press to produce “open letters” on pamphlets, the first ever to do so.
Savonarola’s example gives us three insights into what we can look for in reactionary forces in present day.
- Expect it. The present age is encouraging rapid social change, social change that in turn engenders reaction. The same technologies that drive the societal change are also adopted by extremists as can be seen in the Islamic State’s effective use of social media to disseminate propaganda and network for finances and arms.
- It is not due to ignorance. There is a misconception that education can eradicate extremism, however, extremism is not rooted in ignorance but rather a different view of what the present age means. The difference in “moderates” and “extremists” is the measure by which they view progress. Few groups wish to return to the past. Instead, they wish to create a new age that exemplifies certain political and societal characteristics more perfectly than any other.
- Extremism is fueled by disillusionment with the moderate system. Extreme views can be combatted by more consistently delivering on the promises the moderate world makes. More people would feel encouraged and fewer disgruntled enough to join a reactionary force. To draw on the Savonarola example, the friar gained such a large support base so quickly because the masses could see the current religious figures, those they looked to as God’s messengers, living extravagantly, flaunting wealth and vice. When the people who they relied upon to save their souls did not deliver on their promises, the people sought a reaction.
Today is similar. Wealthy nations widely broadcast their wealth in the face of those who only see the gap. When a young person is unable to find a job and support his family, it is much easier to turn to an alternative, namely extremism. Alternatively, when certain groups feel they are unable to participate in the political forum as full citizens, it is easier to turn to a forum in which they may contribute.
Strains are compounded by mainstream division. Concentrations of prosperity or poverty divide society as the disparity breaks down the community. When this concentration is viewed as a stable system, it engenders apathy in large swaths of the population.
Similar to Savonarola, Martin Luther, disgusted by the hypocrisy of the church, spoke out against the system. The age of wide dissemination of ideas spread Luther’s ideas to individuals across the continent willing to act against corruption.
Various states were proponents of Luther’s ideas as it gave them more power; education, lands, and clerical appointment became their prerogative. Civil wars, revolts, and rebellions spread across the continent causing mass migrations, the largest until the First World War. Anti-migrant laws spread as the population feared the disease migrants brought and the jobs that they stole.
Now, talk of globalization has declined in the past decades as the term no longer engenders thoughts of a peaceful global future but rather the doubts of increased connection. After the 2008 recession, the top 1% increased their earnings while the bottom 99% lost an average of 12% of their income.
An example of the discontent is the Occupy movement and protests across Europe in reaction to the “austerity measures.” The mass disillusionment led to political shifts and both far-left and far-right movements are making headway.
The autocratic world lacks a forum for protests, so conflict tends to end in revolution or repression. Unemployment, rising disparity, and shock events cause protests and near famines.
In order to excel in the coming age and take advantage of the opportunities, we must magnify genius as well as dare to fail. This can be accomplished in a few ways:
- Welcome genius. Look twice at innovation that you may otherwise overlook as risky or dangerous, consider unrelated ideas together, test both current beliefs and new ideas for true merit. In this way, be open to new ideas, accepting and experimenting with different concepts to see what innovation they may spur.
- Welcome the innovators of genius. Diversity of thought breeds new ideas and can be achieved through a diversity of people. Migrants bring varied ideas and frameworks to asses a problem. When a variety of frameworks, ideas, and backgrounds mingle, a stronger solution is possible. Welcome these people who carry with them their different perspectives.
- Endorse patronage. From art to science, the innovators of our age need funding. Governmental funding of research has flattened and become conservative which does not lend itself to groundbreaking research. However, a growing portion of this need is being backed by crowdsourced lending, a sector that has outpaced the global venture capital industry and still growing.
In order to push the bounds of innovation, we must explore new ideas and experiment as each new discovery opens the doors to new territory to explore. The cost of failure is decreasing due to rapid prototyping and online capital raising, encouraging the bold to take new risks.
Governments can incentivize the pursuit of opportunity through closing tax loopholes and shifting the tax base upwards, reforming energy and agriculture subsidies, strengthening the social safety net, rebalancing IP protections, and simplifying regulations.
In the pursuit of genius, the location of the endeavor matters. A community of deep craft is priceless when developing one’s own and the concentration of people pools creative genius. Crossroads of people and ideas are the hub of innovation. If one is not accessible, build your own.
Strengthening of infrastructure, particularly for sharing ideas, brings together disperse ideas. New areas of innovation may be deliberately designed for a specific impact in a sector, drawing a set of people skilled in that area.
We must gain perspective to appreciate the general upward trends in wellbeing, trends that won’t make the news but have a real impact on people’s lives. Embrace this perspective to refrain from rushing towards quick rewards but rather learning from failure and experience.
Furthermore, and most fundamental to our character is that we should cultivate virtue, a learned trait. Where virtue exists, it can become the norm, encouraging others and eventually the society to exhibit those virtues. Honesty, audacity, and dignity help society flourish and flourish in a combined effort, creating a collective genius.
Michelangelo’s David stands as a prime example of the age- unsure, armed but weary. Carved in the last Renaissance, he stood for the changing age of discovery. He can just as easily stand to represent our present age. We are on the brink of greatness, about to face our Goliath. With innovation, genius, and perspective, we can overcome anything in our path and build a better future for humanity.
Britt always taught us Titans that Wisdom is Cheap, and the principal can find treasure troves of the good stuff in books. We hope only will also express their thanks to the Titans if the book review brought wisdom into their lives.