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The Axemaker's Gift: A Doubled-Edged History of Human Culture

The Axemaker's Gift: A Doubled-Edged History of Human Culture by James Burke and Robert Ornstein, 1995.
four out of five

People have changed the world ever since they figured out how to bash on things with sharpened rocks. This book covers the evolution of our tools over the eons, from the simple tools of our ancient ancestors to the sophistication of our scientific technique today. The bulk of the book is a fascinating tour of surprising revelations and connections between technological, political and sociological changes.

The best set of surprises comes as the authors discuss the middle ages and the changes engendered by Guttenberg's moveable type press. For example, codification of vernacular languages was made possible by the desire to print in the common tongue, rather than Latin. This then led to the definition of nations, primarily based on a common tongue. It also led to the loss of smaller languages and dialects. Creation of the nation led to the reduced power of the Roman Catholic church. And the connections continued into development of entities like the various Royal Societies in the U.K.

The authors even make some explanation of why the major innovations that affect society came out of Europe, instead of the Middle East or the East. They talk about the way the three societies worked during the era after the fall of the Roman Empire. Asian and Middle Eastern society were far ahead of European society for a couple centuries, but the authors claim that Europe's social design led to direct application of discoveries that were made elsewhere. Something with which these other large cultures could not or did not succeed.

At the outset of the book, it warns that while Axemakers have created the technologies that have made our world what it is, they worked out of expediency and serendipity without consideration of the long term effects. The penultimate chapter jumps from the industrial revolution to the troubles we see today with lack of resources and the potential for ecological disaster due to the unthinking use of newer and better tools.

The final chapter tells us that all is not lost. It even suggests that out favorite two tools might be able to help us solve some of the more persistent problems. One is our favorite: the human brain. People are infinitely adaptable, as evidenced by the variety of axemakers and our ability to live and succeed in nearly every area of the planet.

The other tool for positive change is the internet, or rather, the capability of people to network and share their ideas and knowledge with anyone around the world who is also connected to this network. Never before has this capability been as strong as it has with the capabilities represented in the internet. Interestingly, the book was published in 1995 when the mainstream media was just beginning to understand the potential value of the network. Some of what the authors suggest is coming to life in the network today with worldwide action being organized via the net; people sharing ideas; candidates with websites that solicit voters to talk and think. Very interesting.

I thought James Burke was the public face of The Secret History of Machines, the intriguing TV show that shows how modern gizmos evolved from earlier inventions and ideas. I was wrong, he was the face on the BBC programme Connections. The writing style at many times reflects the style of both shows.

K-Collector, that's what it is

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