How Progress Happens

Not long ago, I bought some really old tools. They were made of stone and found in a field in France.


Not long ago, I bought some really old tools. They were made of stone and found in a field in France. (Don’t worry, all the permits and licenses were in place.) These implements might be 40,000 years old. Though the humans who made these tools are long gone, when you hold one of their almond-shaped hand axes or salmon-colored spearpoints in your hand, they fit. Perfectly. I believe anyone alive today could immediately understand how these tools were used.

These people, our ancestors, were identical to us – same bodies, same hands, same brains. But we work in offices, take public transportation to work or hop in our cars to get there. Our forebears attached stone spearpoints to flimsy sticks and chased down 14-foot-tall wooly mammoths or six-ton rhinoceroses. Those were the days.

I put my collection of spearpoints, hand axes and cutting tools on my desk next to my smartphone. The ax, carefully chipped from a piece of flint, is about the same size as the phone. The phone is made of plastic, glass, aluminum, magnesium, rare earth metals and other materials unknown to our prehistoric predecessors. And yet, at one point in time, stone axes were the epitome of our technology and embodied everything we knew.

Looking at these two devices side by side, I couldn’t help but think hand axes, like the one on my desk, were used by humans, virtually unchanged, for at least 100,000 years, whereas my 1-year-old smartphone is already out of date.

How did we go from using the same tools for most of our earthly existence, to the frenzied pace of change we deal with now?

The answer, of course, is we don’t really know. The hockey stick of change shows 100,000-plus years when toolmaking didn’t change, followed by a period of slow improvement, followed by a titanic explosion of change beginning, perhaps, 150 years ago.

The late astrophysicist Carl Sagan wrote a book about science, “Broca’s Brain.” In it, he made a passing remark I still recall. He wrote that 600 years ago something happened. For the first time, more knowledge was contained outside of our brains, in libraries, than inside them. As more people gained access to those libraries, knowledge grew and change followed.

The hand ax on my desk only communicates the knowledge contained within it if you look at it, hold it in your palm, try to copy it, and talk to someone about it. You need to be near a person and an ax to really understand.

By contrast, the smartphone can communicate with almost anyone on the planet and access all but a few off-limits libraries of information. The stone ax may be the work of one genius; the cellphone is the work of thousands.

That means, when it comes to solving problems, it’s not so much what one person thinks, it’s what lots of people think together. That’s why we have phones stuck to our ears. That’s why we’re always talking, texting, accessing information, arguing, doing experiments, refuting them, proposing theories, demolishing them. You might even argue, the noisier things get, the faster things change. That’s what happens when you put down your spear.

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