The Sum Total of Human Experience For 2000 Years
A little while ago the Economist put up this chart in their Daily Chart section. I’ve been meaning to blog it but life has a way of getting in the way of blogging. It’s a chart of summing up the years lived and the economic output of humanity for the last 2000 years.
SOME people recite history from above, recording the grand deeds of great men. Others tell history from below, arguing that one person’s life is just as much a part of mankind’s story as another’s. If people do make history, as this democratic view suggests, then two people make twice as much history as one. Since there are almost 7 billion people alive today, it follows that they are making seven times as much history as the 1 billion alive in 1811. The chart below shows a population-weighted history of the past two millennia. By this reckoning, over 28% of all the history made since the birth of Christ was made in the 20th century. Measured in years lived, the present century, which is only ten years old, is already “longer” than the whole of the 17th century. This century has made an even bigger contribution to economic history. Over 23% of all the goods and services made since 1AD were produced from 2001 to 2010, according to an updated version of Angus Maddison’s figures.
For a moment, I want people to consider what this means. That 28% of human history and experience was lived in the 20th Century tells us that whatever was important leading up to the 20th Century, things that were just as important happened in the 20th century. Add in the 23% from the last 11 years of the 21st Century and basically, the last 111 years account for 51% of the sum total of human experience for the last 2000 years.
If you look at that gentle slope to the left of the 20th century, that includes the Empire phase of the of the Roman Empire minus the first 49 years which fell before 1AD, the various empires in the Middle East and Persia, the multitude of Chinese Dynasties since the latter Han Dynasty, and so on. The cultural output probably correlates with economic output as a proxy, so what this all suggests is that everybody from (just randomly, no relative importance implied) Tacitus and Suetonius and Zhuge Liang and St Thomas Aquinas and Renee Descartes and Johann Sebastian Bach, and Constantine and Napoleon, all fall into 49% to the left of the 20th Century.
In turn, if you had a detailed understanding of the 20th Century and the 11years of this century, you’d actually be on top of 51% (and growing in proportion) of human history since 1AD. This doesn’t immediately relegate the classics of any field to the dust bin, but it puts it all into a different perspective.
There was a study done in Germany that pointed to 1970 as the year classical education ended. That is to say, it was the year in which the teaching of classics was no longer the mainstay of education, that increasingly vocational education pushed aside the classical education. If you look at this chart, you can see why. The push of modernity was directly the push of the massive demographic that arose in the 20th century. It is possible more people were lost to war and violence than any other time in history in the 20th Century, and even then it managed to produce so many life-hours and economic output and by extension, cultural output.
In turn, what has happened since 1970 sheds a lot of light on this shift. The move from modernism to post-modernist philosophy was probably an attempt to accommodate this giant shift where overnight the classical teachings that formed the cultural framework became obsolete. Indeed, more humans have read the classics, listened to classical music alone in the last 111years, while things like cinema as a form of expression grew into maturity and needed to be discussed. Pop music of various shades supplanted the ‘importance’ of classical music and contemporary art keeps on rewriting the frontiers of expression at an ever more frantic pace.
The best book that in fact offers an insight into this might be ‘Future Shock’ by Alvin Toffler, because what is described in that book is precisely what this chart has shown, and the implications keep reaching out. I don’t mean to praise the book, but rereading it today would offer confirmation that indeed the future is not only now, so is history.
One of the important take away messages from the chart is that what we are doing right now, is just as important as what happened before. Your poem, your short story, your film, your song is no less important than anything that preceded it. It’s just that nobody has had the time to find your work unless you have become a celebrity. Not being famous and best-selling does not preclude you from being a valued contributor to the human experience. Be encouraged in knowing that what you are doing is meaningful. Go forth and create, secure in the knowledge that what you are doing is just as important as what came before. It’s counter-intuitive, but history is in the making, right now as we speak, and you are doing it.