For a species that still in many ways acts like it still roams and hunts on the African savannah, we have gotten used to modern life. It seems like a month without achievements such as water and electricity on demand is the dividing line between order and catastrophe. People today have the luxury of being able to spend more time choosing a show on Netflix than deciding how to acquire food, medicine and other basic essentials. In fact, in Western countries this wealth is so ubiquitous that it blends into the background of ordinary life, woven into the fabric of society in a way that makes it indistinguishable from our natural environment.
We can therefore take a step back and observe how, especially since the Industrial Revolution, technology has been one of, if not the, determining factors concerning how most ordinary people live on a daily basis. How long do people spend on certain tasks? How far must they travel for certain goods and services, and how often? From the historical perspective of popular culture and the general public, these technological and economic developments have been largely ignored and underestimated.
History is generally an attempt to explain why people live or lived the way they do today and in the past, manifesting in a series of narratives, or coherent, constantly overlapping stories. Traditionally, the stories of political developments have been the ones which have dominated discussion and media: events such as the Wars of the Roses or the Norman Conquest which involve the transfer and use of power by certain groups are now known by and taught to all.
These shifts of political control are the historical events that have often been best documented- slow, gradual changes in quality and standards of living for most people take place over generations, and are consequently ignored by the traditional processes of historical recording, either the writing-down of important events as they happen by clerics, monks and scribes, or the collation of news stories and personal records, such as diaries. The story of human politics and international relations is largely a story of conflict, death and destruction. The razor-sharp focus on these events fails to consider that human ingenuity and labour, in between vast, supposedly earth-shattering catastrophes such as the collapse of empires has never failed to make progress.
In this way, our understanding of history revolves around large, relatively quick, political shifts, as opposed to long-term economic policy and technological development. Events such as the invention of the standardised shipping container, which reduced the price of transporting goods by a factor of up to 38, revolutionizing the global economy by allowing mass trading across oceans, similarly affecting consumer culture and transnational geopolitics, often make the difference in modern life between abundance and poverty.
The gradual adoption and implementation of the shipping container slipped past many in the face of other events, such as the various proxy conflicts of the Cold War. The slow increases in agricultural productivity after the policy of Enclosure are overshadowed by the far more noticeable events of regime change. However, not only were they more important for the average man, over time they too shaped cultural and political conditions.
Entire governments, such as that of Guatemala, have been toppled in Latin America because of American involvement, motivated by a thirst for free trade only made possible by technology. The invention of available contraception for women, which is now rapidly spreading around the world, changes social dynamics by allowing women to have fewer children and giving them the option to pursue a career without forgoing sex. The invention of fracking, which dramatically is increasing American oil independence, could radically affect Middle Eastern geopolitics as the incentive of the United States to keep export-friendly regimes in power decreases. The argument can be made that technological developments are only possible under certain political conditions. But the reality is far more complex, as both affect each other in the interconnected web of the human story.
The wars, coups and revolutions are shocking, sudden and dramatic. These are the events which, if you ask most people, are predominantly responsible for shaping modern life and interactions. In the background of the bigger picture, the economic and technological cogs turn, slowly but surely. As the clock of human existence ticks by, it is these mechanisms which guarantee progress and growth.