Around 8,000 BC—give or take a millennium—people were finally being allowed think less about one of the most nagging and day-to-day life-governing questions of their world: “Where's the next meal coming from?” The Neolithic Revolution was defined by the advent of mass agriculture, a remarkable tipping point in human civilization. It was truly life-altering because individual people suddenly had to spend less time fending for themselves. That meant time for other things.
With food far more abundant, it became less important for everyone to know how to trap a rabbit and stalk a deer. New occupations like carpentry emerged. The specialist—a required citizen in any advanced civilization—was born.
With less need for vast hunting expanses per capita, cities naturally began to emerge. More sophisticated economies began to gel. Life was getting so much better.
Except for one thing.
People got sicker. Since people were spending less time physically looking for food, they were sitting more. On top of that, the Neolithic diet—made possible by mass agriculture—was less nutritious, less balanced. People were making a timeless human trade: quantity over quality.
Poorer diets combined with denser populations welcomed a host of new diseases, including many perennial enemies we fight to this day—like influenza.
10,000 years later: the 21st century
The trigger for the Neolithic Revolution was mass agriculture. Today, we may be participants in a no less remarkable revolution enabled by mass information. The similarities, to me, are striking. And the effects of mass information are likely to be just as civilization-altering—and unfortunately, no more healthy.
Instead of walking to a book shelf to look up a word in a dictionary, we look it up online. Instead of physically traveling to a movie rental store, we click a few buttons online. Instead of walking three cubes down to ask a question, we send an email or IM.
We are no longer hunter-gatherers of information. In the 21st century, we’ve managed to replace the little bits physical activity left in our lives with sitting.
We’ve become sedentary all over again—and on a scale that would have been unimaginable to anyone even twenty years ago.
The health effects of our neosedentism are only now coming into focus. Scientific American:
There is a rapidly accumulating body of evidence which suggests that prolonged sitting is very bad for our health, even for lean and otherwise physically active individuals.
It doesn’t matter that you hit the gym after work. If you’re sitting all day—everyday—that just ain’t good. Sorry. It’s a fact. Our bodies simply were not designed for prolonged states of stillness, no more than a car was built to stay in a garage.
Physical (un)health is only one negative consequence of mass information. Though mass agriculture introduced unbalanced diets, at least it embraced the vegetable. Mass information has introduced an infinitely long buffet of empty mental calories.
Not only do we spend an inordinate amount of time reading and consuming “information” online that does nothing to advance our understanding of the world, the internet is encouraging it through a seemingly useful, but in all likelihood, insidious thing called algorithmic curation.
Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble, rightly observes that we’re moving closer and closer to a world where
… the internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see.
Facebook’s social black box might decide that I don’t need to see my aunt’s status update today but you do. Google might think that if I search for Hilton, I’m looking for hotels, but it might think you’re looking for Paris of the same last name.
A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant than your interests right now than people dying in Africa. –Mark Zuckerbergg
If only Aldous Huxley could see us now.
Bon (vice) voyage
Most kids would like to eat ice cream for dinner instead of veggies. But fortunately, they have parents that won’t let them. But what about the parents? How will their dessert taste in a world without vegetables? What does rest feel like at the end of a day devoid of physical movement?
Can we expect non-human curators to act ethically?
If increased sedentism is an unavoidable consequence of each tipping point in human civilization, are the benefits really offsetting the costs?
Is the ultimate destiny of humanity stillness?