How Information-Freeing Innovation Shapes Society
This is the story of two disruptive innovations, which arrived several centuries apart with remarkable similarities. It’s about the largely invisible technological forces that alter incentives of obedience and steer the evolution of how societies are organized.
The Mistrust Of Institutions
Trust is the key ingredient that enables us to cooperate and trade. The greater our access to information, the greater our ability to assess reputation and therefore trustworthiness. When it becomes easier to establish trust through verifying truth, those who benefited most from the previous opacity are often the first, and the loudest, critics.
Making promises that are known to be outside of your control or powers is a sure fire way to degrade trust. That’s why large institutions, dependent on a mass audience for survival, make promises in ways that are difficult to measure over loosely-defined timelines. This is often combined with actively limiting access to the very information needed to make such an assessment.
But this is largely a story about innovation and the institutions that derive power as gatekeepers for the flow of information.
The Great Famine And The Black Death
Innovation, by definition, must be useful to society. So, it’s no surprise that it explodes onto the scene at precisely the time it is demanded. In the Middle Ages, Western Europe was under control of the Roman Catholic Church — the primary institution seen as responsible for people’s wellbeing. It held an undisputed level of influence and moral authority. However, two crucial events would cause people to question what seemed an unshakable level of devotion.
Between 1315 and 1322, famine struck Europe, reducing the population of towns and cities by an estimated 10 percent to 25 percent. Bad weather caused flooding, which caused crop failures, which led to cattle starvation, and a downward…