Could the Industrial Revolution have Happened Today?

I read an interesting article about Uber recently – regarding some of the growing pains that company is having and how they’re trying to deal with them. The history-less, context-less analysis is par for the course in today’s 24 hour news cycle when a blog about misogyny (certainly something for a professional HR department to investigate) or a video of one of Uber’s CEO’s being mean (let he who has never ‘lost it’ cast the first stone) threaten an $80 billion company.

And I wonder if the Industrial Revolution would have survived these days?

The Industrial Revolution was a mess. Historians divide the revolution into two phases – or maybe two revolutions. The first was roughly from 1760 to 1850 and the second from 1850 to 1910. These two periods could not have been more different. The first phase of revolution was brutal, harsh – bitter; especially for those living in the cities. Introduction of machines had not yet increased productivity and wages, conditions in factories were complicated and sad. As measured by height (a good indicator of nutrition and lifestyle) – as measured by life expectancy there weren’t many improvements – at first. But then came the second, the machines were improved – made to work more efficiently and safely and productivity exploded. From the 1850s the well-being of the British citizens as measured by almost every indicator; from life expectancy to per capita income to family size and height dramatically increased. Deflation and purchasing power – the costs of goods that the ordinary people could previously only dream about was now within their reach!

Of course – imagine if we’d had twitter and Facebook and pundits and blogs and 24 hour news cycles and reactionary politicians during the first half of the 1800s. Would they have shuttered the factories? Would they have jettisoned the machines and returned people to the fields – or to the tremendously labor intensive jobs such as blacksmiths or tailors, taking them days or weeks to make what the machines could in minutes or hours? Probably – there’s no outrage in a 20 hour day pounding metal over a hot flame – that had been done for millennia; it was misery understood. But this new misery – oh that is certainly an abomination.


Does anybody remember Napster? I do – that first, nascent attempt to break the back of the CD/Music Store monopoly on music. 1999 was the year – and we were partying like, well like it was 1999. Y2K was going to destroy the world. The digital revolution was beginning! Sure, it wasn’t exactly legal – and was eventually shut down. And fair enough – musicians, artists need to be compensated for their labor if they are to continue to write the songs that give meaning to the turbulence. Imagine how the world is changing – over the last 18 years since Napster. When I went to Congo for the first time (in 1999) – at the beginning of the civil war – there were no cell phones. We were connected by a Motorola Radio to a base station as the only lifeline to protection. There was no internet. Email was done through a weird unit on our Codan base station that received the emails (no attachments please!) over VHF (took 8 hours, if it didn’t timeout in which case we had to start all over again). Fast forward – I’m back in Africa, sitting here with my smart phone with all its apps connecting me in real time to the world.

Turbulence is a good word. Will Uber survive its human resource challenges? Who knows; but like Napster which gave way to iTunes and Amazon video and streaming – the technology is here to stay. We aren’t yet into the second part of our digital revolution (if we assume it started in 1999, we have a long way to go) – and things are still messy and stressful. But the world has already changed – the old ways are not coming back. Driverless cars; drone delivered packages; private space travel – it’s all on the horizon. We can just as soon shut off streaming video as we can return the blacksmiths to their forge. Anyways, would you really want to?

Back to the article. The author towards the end takes a funny little turn, linking the Silicon Valley revolution to a well-known 20th century novelist; claiming Uber was only one of many companies that adopted “ideals popularized by Atlas Shrugged author Ayn Rand — that greed, selfishness, and winning at all costs are okay as long as they’re put toward the goal of changing society.”

Sure, it was an insult, but Rand is applauding in her grave. Being given credit for the digital revolution? She would never have imagined that. And isn’t that really the point of her novels in the first place?

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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2 Responses to Could the Industrial Revolution have Happened Today?

  1. Industrial Revolution 2.0 is happening right now. If we sit back for long enough it may be that we’re still in the first one!

    “Greed, selfishness, and winning at all costs are okay as long as they’re put toward the goal of changing society”. Idiotic summary of AR’s views. The whole point is that she rejected the very collectivist idea of a ‘goal of changing society’.


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