Remaking the World

It’s not often I read a book that I genuinely enjoy. I tend to read for information, certainly not for fun. But Andrew Wilson’s ‘Remaking the World’ really was fun! It focuses on the year 1776 – indeed it’s subtitle is ‘How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West’. Wilson noted the sheer number of history defining and shaping events which occurred in this single year, across the world, but especially in Western Europe and North America.

It’s fun, because it’s full of life, curiosity, little known facts about well-known people and you sense that Wilson had lots of fun researching and writing this book. The book weaves its way through the contours of Enlightenment, Exploration and Invention, considering history, geography, culture, philosophy and religion. Wilson approaches big questions and sensitive topics in a spirit of humility and thoughtful enquiry, not settling for simple answers, while helpfully distilling and summarising bigger arguments.

In the context of thinking through technological ethics, I was especially drawn to his chapter entitled ‘Machines’. As you walk through the Science Museum (London or Manchester) or perhaps the National Railway Museum in York, you don’t really experience how world changing these steam engines or cotton mill machines were. Wilson shares vivid descriptions of a newly industrialised North of England – “For every Paris… there was a Manchester”. He quotes from the travel writer Alexis de Tocqueville with this damning verdict:

humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish; here civilisation works its miracles, and civilised man is turned back almost into a savage.

Here he captures perfectly the progress and regression, the blessing and the curse of technology. Wilson concludes the chapter with that both/and conclusion of technology, using Shelley’s Frankenstein to illustrate:

Today, for every mile of railway track in the world, there are a hundred AK-47s… industrialization (like fire) is a Promethean triumph as well as a Frankensteinian monster. Which of the two metaphors predominates – whether running water compensates for Hiroshima, or antibiotics for the Somme, or the growth in wealth for the overweening pride that accompanies it – probably depends on where you are sitting.

There is a pointed thought here for those developing new technologies. Do the benefits outweigh the curse? Triumph or Monster? And who gets to decide which it is?

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