Credit where credit is due, both the major ideas in this post come from Fareed Zakaria on his CNN Sunday program, GPS. If you follow TV news at all, you know Sunday mornings have such long-running standards as Meet the Press (on NBC since 1947!) and Face the Nation (on CBS since 1954). (Or was it Meet the Nation and Face the Press?)
Zakaria is one of the good ones: very intelligent, highly educated, calm and measured. He’s well worth listening to. (I’ve realized one attraction to TV news is the chance to — at least sometimes — hear educated, intelligent talk. It’s a nice respite from most TV entertainment.)
Two things on Zakaria’s last episode really rang a bell with me.
The first shall be last here even though it came from his opening piece, which is always a monologue expressing some view or idea of his. I’ll end with it. The second actually comes from something one of his guests said:
The last trillion-dollar industry: computer code.
The next trillion-dollar industry: genetic code.
That’s [a] likely entirely correct and  a pretty cute way to say it.
Biologists already have access to genetic toolkits that allow genetic experimentation without much of the prep work.
DNA analysis is well-established in law enforcement, and is now available online!
It wasn’t the genetic code part that rang my bell. (Biology was never one of my stronger sciences, and I never really cared all that much about it.) What got me thinking was that, yeah, the rise of computer code changed everything (again)!
It was a true revolution on par with the discovery of fire.
Which got me wondering what other milestones in human history were that much of a game changer for us naked apes…
¶ Fire is the cornerstone of this whole essay, and it’s arguably the first major game-changer in our history (although see the next one).
Fire gave us safety from cold and fire-fearing animals, and it allowed us to heat our food (mmm, BBQ). More than that, it gave us access to ceramics and metals. It gave us access to other chemical processes that require heat (such as distilling oil).
Fire is a tool that began to let us truly shape our tools and manipulate our world.
¶ Language may have come earlier or later than fire, but it certainly comes from about as far back in our history (and our command of both grew over time).
It’s a game-changer in allowing us to communicate — and record — ideas and discoveries. Combined with the next game-changer, it leads inevitably to the printing press.
Many feel the printing press itself was a game-changer on par with fire, but here I’m treating it as the inevitable byproduct of language and…
¶ Simple Mechanical Physics: the wheel and axle, the lever and fulcrum, the screw, the pulley, and the wedge and inclined plane.
These discoveries gave us machines. And those led to buildings (ever tried to build a hut with just your bare hands?) and vehicles (other than horses). And roads and bridges for those vehicles (and gas stations).
(And before you peace-loving liberals wrinkle your nose at “weapons” just remember they’re important for food and self-defense, too. Or would you rather be eaten by a bear?)
¶ Farming was another game-changer for us.
The stability it provided led directly to having more time, more possessions, and more society. Farming leads directly to cities. And, of course, it leverages the discoveries so far, especially mechanics.
On the flip side, the change in diet nearly killed us off. Many still suffer today from gluten allergies (which can be very, very serious, even life-threatening).
¶ The Electron. This one is at least as big as fire. It may, in some ways be bigger.
Harnessing the electron began changes we’re still experiencing over 100 years after its official discovery! It’s impossible to overestimate the impact the electron has had on human society.
The combination of the electron, a bit of mechanics, and language, leads inevitably to the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, the television, the internet, the interweb, cable TV, and cell phones.
¶ Computer Code. Algorithms (Computer Science). For the first time, we break the direct connection between mechanics or electronics and the effect they produce.
Now, rather than needing a rod to push on a valve, or a voltage to control an output, we can use process and calculation to produce physical effects.
The ideas behind algorithms lead to Turing Machines, Universal Turing Machines, and then, combined with electrons, inevitably to the computers we all know and love (and carry in our pockets or wear on our wrists).
Computer code is fascinating in how it disconnects physical cause and effect! It leads us into the era of data and information processing! We begin to see the world in terms of its information content in addition to its physical content!
¶ Genetics. One more step along the path of controlling our environment and ourselves.
This game-changer has occurred, and we’re in the process of seeing what it leads to. Early days, but no doubt a trillion-dollar industry lies ahead.
Well, this is where I came in. What will be the next game-changers after that? What will be the next discovery of fire (or the electron)?
¶ AI and Robotics seems a natural place where the right sort of advances would be major game-changers for humans (especially if the robots kill us all).
It certainly seems like cracking the hard problem of consciousness would open a lot of doors.
If software AI is possible, it could lead to uploading our minds into machines and living forever (I’m skeptical it will ever happen, but if it does it’s likely many, many decades away).
¶ Quantum Physics and Gravity. I can’t help but wonder two things:  Have we gotten something really bass-ackward with regard to quantum physics and its seeming complete disconnect with gravity?  Would getting it right change our whole approach to small-scale physics?
¶ Alien Life (especially intelligent alien life) would be a pretty big game-changer as far as our view of ourselves in the universe. It’s still possible to believe there’s no one else out there.
I’ll leave you with a thought from Zakaria’s opening monologue.
It was basically a riff on why America (the USA) is seen as “the world’s greatest country.”
He noted that there are other countries that are more democratic, so it’s not our democracy. Likewise, there are other countries with more freedoms, so it’s not our freedoms.
What he pointed out is something that is being talked about due to the sudden death of US Supreme Court Justice Anthonin Scalia.
America is a land of ideas.
And not just these days. It was founded on deliberate, considered ideas (and some damned good ideas they were). It may be the only country in the world created by an act of political will and political science.
Which they largely, brilliantly, invented on the spot.
A fundamental principle here is that ideas are open to all, even kooks. (As Charlie Pierce points out in his book, Idiot America, even kooks often are 1% great ideas lurking in the 99% crazy. We have done very well, and benefited from, paying attention to that particular 1%!)
Our love of ideas sometimes does us badly (not all ideas are equal, after all), but it’s made us a leader in STEM fields as well as in higher education (pity we suck at lower education, though).
We are a world leader in ideas. It shows up in our art, which is the most dynamic in the world. Our TV shows, our movies, our music; these things are loved world-wide.
Our current politics, on the other hand, not so much. And some of the ways we behave are… discouraging to others who expect more sense from a world leader (why we don’t seem to expect it of ourselves, I just can’t fathom).
But that is a topic for other posts.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.