What is the difference between the modern world and the traditional world?
We know that the world we live in now is very different from the one our ancestors lived in, but how can we articulate those differences?
For most of human history, the population was relatively stagnant. From 1500 to 1600, the population increased by 92 million. From 1600 to 1700, it increased by 49 million. In stark contrast, during only 50 years from 1700 to 1750, the world population increased by 208 million, and it kept growing faster from there.
You can see that somewhere around 1700, we reached an inflection point where things began to grow at a rapid pace.
The traditional world was very rural and agricultural. For most of human history, no more than 10% to 15% of the population lived in a community of more than 2000 people.
In the modern world, larger percentages of the human population live in densely populated cities. More people than ever before are in the same geographical areas, in close proximity to each other.
Real income refers to the inflation adjusted value of the amount of money that people make. In the traditional world, real income was relatively constant. People were making enough money to survive, and sometimes a little bit more. In the modern world, economic growth is normal, and people have a lot more surplus.
If the population increases, but the amount of available resources for that population doesn’t increase at the same rate, then you end up with a relative resource scarcity. There are more people, but not enough resources for all of them.
This leads to a decline in the population, until it gets low enough that there are extra resources, then the population can begin to grow again. This rise and fall of the population due to resource limitations is called the Malthusian Trap.
The concept of the Malthusian Trap is subtle, and it can be difficult to understand why more population does not automatically mean more resource production. There’s an article on Roots of Progress which goes into this more, but the tl;dr is that people had a bunch of limits on their productivity that were hard to overcome.
What happens around the 1700s is that through the power of technology and cultural changes, humanity finally breaks out of the Malthusian Trap and begins a new phase of exponential growth.
Throughout history, various societies have had a large influence on the world. Alexandria in Ptolemaic Egypt saw the development and discovery of many things including Euclidean Geometry. The Islamic Golden Age saw the development of things like Algebra and Arabic numerals. Various parts of the world have contributed to the pool of human knowledge and development.
That being said, during the modern era, no region had more impact on the world than Europe. European commerce, ideas, and military spread all over the world during the 1700s and beyond.
Up until the 1700s, most of the world was governed by kings, emperors, princes and priests. The democratic revolutions, including the American and French Revolutions, affected the European world at first, then became an important idea all over the world.
Whether people were accepting or rejecting the ideas of democracy, they were forced to react and adapt to it.
In the traditional world, there seemed to be finite limits on everything: how much food could be grown, how much energy was available, how much of the world we could really understand.
With scientific and technological developments in the 1700s and 1800s, we started to move towards human mastery over the environment. This changed people’s beliefs about how the world worked, and their relation to the world.
In the traditional world, people’s lives were very unstable due to plague, war, and famine. However, their communities and ways of life were very stable. Your life was like your parents’ lives, and your children’s lives would be like yours.
In the modern world, people live longer and more stable lives, but communities are more unstable. People don’t have to worry about randomly dying anymore, but their ways of life change rapidly. People move around more, and make money in new and different ways. Your children’s lives will look different from yours.
In the traditional world, religious faith was extremely powerful. People’s lives were filled with uncertainty and mysteries, and they sought solace in their religious beliefs.
In the modern world, there is a fusion and conflict between religious faith and science. There is a sense of human mastery over the environment, as opposed to human submission to the environment.
In the traditional world, almost everyone stayed within a 50 mile radius for their whole lives. It was difficult to travel significant distances, and hard to get news about what was going on in far away places. The king was just an image on a coin. People’s identity, culture, and sense of community, were very local. For example, there were many more languages than the ones we have today.
In the modern world, people can travel more, and get easy access to information from all over the world. People are identified with much larger communities, and are participating in larger cultures.
In the traditional world it seems like there were some powerful states, like the Persian Empire, but these were relatively simple states. They were agrarian empires that took tribute from the people they conquered to fuel their military power. The ability of these states to give an order and have it carried out 300 miles away was fairly weak.
Modern nation states are smaller on paper, but much more powerful than any empire that came before. Because of the technological innovations of the modern world, we have the ability to communicate with each other anywhere in the world, and the military power to cause great destruction.
Why did this happen? What caused this great divide between the modern world and the traditional world? Those are great questions for another post.
This article is based on notes from https://www.coursera.org/learn/modern-world. If you thought this was interesting you should check that course out.