Big History from 2300 AD

My three things worth remembering from 1700-2300 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.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

20 thoughts on “Big History from 2300 AD”

  1. Hi James

    I like your idea of the end of language multiplicity. I will add two more: The rise of mass-scale gene-edited humans and the onset of nuclear and atomic explosions by terrorist organizations. One change I will not predict: The end of people predicting the end of capitalism — it's one of those things which is truly eternal.

    1. The gene-editing (KH1) is likely. But will it count as a big change? Editing against congenital defects like Down's would only be incremental progress (though some worry about the loss of deaf culture). Editing for desired characteristics like intelligence or attractiveness is much iffier (unintended consequences). The impact depends on the limitations of the procedure. My guess is that the gain in IQ you could get from expensive gene manipulation will be less than you can get from providing school meals.

      Terrorist nukes (KH2): remember that Stross' challenge rules out catastrophe. So we can as with my JW3 work back from the preconditions for the survival of civilisation. So the problem will either not occur or have been solved well before 2300. By the same reasoning, there won't be any nuclear weapons around.

      The end of capitalism (JW2): not, I concede, in my lifetime anyway. Stross allows me 300 years! The great-children will have a clearer view. Note that my argument is quite different from Marx' tricky and dubious economic models, or the Bolshevik voluntarism that the Mensheviks rejected as infantile, and only requires the continuation of the current trajectory of technology. We have computer processors at 75 cents already.

      BTW, the conservative opponents of ACA are right to see it as a (modest) socialist victory. And it reflected the deep logic of the situation: as Paul Krugman says, “nothing else works”.

      1. Of course, school meals, (More realistic would be better maternal nutrition, but who am I kidding, in some places that does mean school meals…) raises the bottom, while genetic engineering has the potential to raise the top. There are a lot of professions, STEM mostly, where the average person simply isn't capable of doing them. The routine work in those professions is done by people who are 1-2 SD out from the mean, the important work takes people 3 or more out.

        Genetic engineering has the potential to increase the number of those people, especially the real outliers, many fold.

        By contrast school lunches will mostly increase the number of people who can do well on video games while remaining unemployed. A worthy cause, to be sure, but not a game changer.

        1. Is there any evidence that geniuses are particularly intelligent? IIRC a study on members of the British Royal Society (the top natural scientists in the country) found that they had IQs over 120, but above that achievement wasn't correlated with higher IQ. Late in life, Charles Darwin modestly wondered how he had managed to achieve what he had, with fairly ordinary natural talents. (I put it down to seventh-son receptivity and hard work, plus a private income).

          I notice you fail to engage with my warning about unintended consequences. You think that gene-manipulated increases in IQ will come free in terms of other and possibly useful capabilities?

          1. Geniuses are, tautologically, particularly intelligent. That doesn't mean they're necessarily high achievers. A basic problem with having a particularly high IQ, is that you are very unlikely to have had any peers growing up, or to have been routinely challenged. The result is that a lot of people with very high IQs are, to put it bluntly, slackers. No discipline, poor study habits, that sort of thing.

            They don't look like slackers, because they're very high achieving slackers, but they're slackers relative to their potential. (Self-critique here, by the way. 150 IQ, and no Nobel prize to my name… I'm just an average engineer.)

            If there were considerably more very high IQ people around, we might expect this to change. It would be more common for geniuses to have the advantage of having to compete with intellectual peers during their formative years. So 10 times as many geniuses would be worth a LOT more than ten times as much as our current supply.

            High IQ's are actually associated with better than average health, rather than health problems. The only problem which is noticeably correlated with intelligence is Asperger's syndrome. Which if combined with a high IQ might make you socially inept, but still likely to be a productive member of society. (Think Dilbert.)

            So, no, I don't think there's any great reason to expect a significant downside, so long as the IQs produced are within the normal range of human variability. Try to push beyond that, and all bets are off.

          2. "Geniuses are, tautologically, particularly intelligent. That doesn't mean they're necessarily high achievers." We are not working with the same dictionary. To me, geniuses are tautologically high achievers: Shakespeare, Newton, Leonardo, Mozart, Bernini, Archimedes … The misuse of the label for merely very high IQ was a scientific claim, for which I see little evidence.

          3. Yup, we're not working from the same dictionary. I have no problem if you want to say that 150 IQ DNE "genius". IQ is intellectual potential. Most of the time that potential is wasted in high IQ people, for the reasons I stated above. If you want to call "genius" potential that's been fulfilled, that wouldn't be a bad way to put it.

            But you can't fulfill potential that wasn't present to begin with. Genetic engineering might increase the number of high potential people, it won't guarantee that potential gets used. THAT requires education.

            My thesis is that there are reasons to expect that, if you had more people with high IQ around, you'd probably end up with less of that potential wasted, so the payoff would be exponential, not linear.

            And I'm unaware of any reason to expect much downside from increasing IQs, so long as we're talking in the normal human range.

          4. IQ tests measure the ability to solve simple puzzles quickly. It appears to be correlated with some other handy things like verbal fluency. We usually call the kind of people who do well on IQ tests – people like you and me – "clever". This is useful in life, but not overwhelmingly so, compared to say obstinacy. I've not heard that it has much correlation with creativity, the ability to solve complicated and difficult problems, read social situations, or persuade other people to do what you want, which really are useful. I don't see the point of pushing up IQ particularly, assuming it's possible at no cost, which I still doubt on no-free-lunch grounds.

    2. Agreed. People under-estimate the durability and flexibility of capitalistic market economies – capitalism in the 21st century is not capitalism from the 17th century, and so forth. It will be something else entirely in 2300, especially since we're not positing a collapse.

      Of course, it will get very strange with automation. I imagine that most of the economy will effectively be "submerged" from the view of the people living in it, being run entirely by machines from source-to-product with only occasional involvement by human beings. That's already happening a little if you work on a job involving a computer (ask a cashier about all the processes happening inside the computer they're using as a terminal for payment). People might even call it Robot Socialism, especially if society at some point decides to pay a Basic Income Stipend drawn from transaction fees and taxes on rents*.

      * Speaking of which, I think there will be a revolt against the current expansion of rent-seeking at some point.

    3. About capitalism: This depends on how you define the term. In its pure form, it is arguably already dead. Outside the US and the UK (and even for them, calling them capitalist can be a bit of a stretch at times), the most successful countries seem to be moving towards a model of social democracy plus cooperative capitalism.

  2. 1.) Massive expansion of the public sphere (industrial revolution removing production out of the home; germ theory allowing huge public health initiatives; communism; socialism; global capitalism). Battles focus on who controls this public sphere. Huge cities lead to the beginning of anonymity for most of humanity (who had previously lived in small communities where everyone knew each other). Consumerism.
    2.) equal rights movements writ large – class, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, and so on…. but also animal rights, environmentalism – science
    3.) religious fundamentalism
    4.) Turning inward as high tech/solar/wind bring production back into the home and people with different views increasingly are not required to interact – while, paradoxically, effectively ending anonymity. Ultimately leading to the formation of myriad micro-communities, not bound by geography – fundamentalist, egalitarian, consumerist of various strains of purity, in various (sometimes contradictory) combinations. Some actively cultivating different language traditions. Constant tension, small scale terrorist actions, treaties & truces made only to be broken over and over again.
    5.) Geographic separation, as space exploration allows these communities to move far enough apart so that direct conflict is (temporarily) not a option.

    [eta] Told from the perspective of the victors in the interstellar conflicts between 2300 and 3000, of course.

    1. 5. I think the first space colonies will be attempted (perhaps not successfully) in the 22nd or 23rd centuries – maybe the late 21st century if robotics advances faster than expected. It's an open question to me of whether they'll succeed or not, because ultimately you need enough people to successfully self-propagate the colony, and we have no idea what that number is.

      One big driver for that might be the discovery of extreme longevity treatment, or even full-blown medical immortality. It's going to be very tempting for what passes for the undying elites on Earth to encourage restless younger folks to form communities off world, where they can set their own rules.

  3. Assume you are a blogger in the eleventh century, asking your readers to imagine themselves as 21st century historians to summarize the principal developments between 900 and 1600 AD. What are their chances of summarizing those developments?

    1. You can find an email address for Charles Stross on his site to file your complaints.

      Why do you manipulate the dates? It's a period of 600 years, where we are in the middle. So the European 11th century blogger (say 1015) would be asking for a retrospective from 700 to 1300. Is that so impossible? The establishment of feudalism was done, and obviously a big deal. The trend to stronger and more effective monarchies was already established at the mid-point, and I think you could guess they would come into conflict with the Papacy. Population and towns were recovering slowly, from order rather than technology. and that could be predicted to continue. What he would have missed was the 12th-century recovery of Greek learning, and later the Black Death, though it's outside the frame.

      The detail of his challenge that makes no sense to me is the extra seven centuries between 2300 and 3000. We can know nothing about this period, including the changes in perspective it will bring. In practice the challenge comes to exactly the same thing as looking back from 2300.

  4. I would go with

    1. Global UrbanizationLots of trends will be incorporated under this one, ranging from the development of air conditioning to the creation of computer networks. By 2300, assuming no societal collapse, the trend will be more or less complete.

    2. End of Combustion/Rise of Electrification – I pointed this out at Stross' blog, but I don't think the end of the fossil fuel era would stand out. Future historians will lump it together with the burning wood as part of an era when combustion provided humanity's primary source of energy, and talk about the Rise of Electrification as a major trend during the period in question.

    3. Rise of Robotics/Automation/AI – Doesn't even really need to be explained. They'll be horrified at our willingness to have human beings spend their lives doing endless repetitive, tedious tasks, or extremely dangerous ones like mining. And with extreme automation, the line between "capitalistic market economy" and "robot socialism" gets very thin. I'd also venture this eventually leads to the first attempts at real space colonization in the 22nd and 23rd centuries.

    4. Peaking of Accessible Scientific Inquiry – Stross has talked about Moore's Law, but I think in general the period of 1700-2300 will be seen as the one of near exponential scientific discovery, of revolutionary new advances in our understanding. But by 2300, this will be over. We'll have an incredibly deep and possibly near complete understanding of any biology, physics, or chemistry that we can access without the need for colossal engineering feats (like building a 50,000 kilometer particle accelerator).

    Those are just the trends we'd recognize – 4th Millennium Historians would have other stuff in mind we have no way of foreseeing, like how an 11th century scholar would have never seen the Columbian Exchange in advance.

    Historiography will be really weird for them as well. 4th Millennium Historians will be drowning in all kinds of statistical and scientific data from the past, in the form of centuries of statistics and documentation considered worthy of migrating to new servers over time. But they'll have a paucity of first-hand accounts from the centuries in between, because barring a cultural shift it will all be digital – most or all of it will be lost aside from books and accounts saved and migrated in places like the Library of Congress.

  5. “Beltec, Von zoo zoo feet. Squibno felt gyroglax meeco meet peznez. Straybern shush. Quizit.”
    – Warning from Galactic Captain, Quadrant 7, to get back to the meat pumps immediately or it’s back into the mindbox for all of you.

  6. 1. Cheap travel. Given cheap travel, humans do what humans do, and genetically distinctive isolated groups dissolved into a common humanity as a result. This was mostly finished by the end of the 21st century.

    2. Automation. Automation of physical work, automation of mental work, allowed production far beyond what humans could do on their own.

    3. Genetic technologies, and the artificial womb, leading to massive genetic change, and eventual speciation, as groups with disparate notions of what humanity should be like pursued them. This began in the mid 21st century, and really took off in the 22nd, when exaprocessor arrays and artificial intelligence made genetic engineering almost trivially simple.

    4. Space travel, which further enabled factor 3, by allowing groups to travel far enough away from common humanity that they could pursue their own dreams without getting dragged back into the commonality.

    5. X factor, which I can't think of.

  7. 5: The X-factor would be the capacity to reliably identify and treat sociopaths. This led to a massive conflict between the entrenched sociopathic minority and the normal population, which the latter won. Afterwards rates of all sorts of crimes dropped to negligible levels, due to a combination of people not wanting to do bad things, and government which accepted that not everything was it's business, while large scale organizations became much more efficient.

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