For the majority of the 11,000 years since we discovered agriculture, about 80% of all people spent their time working on a farm to maintain the population. While a ton of very interesting history occurred during this period, people continued to live their lives in roughly the same way. To give some perspective, that 80% shrunk to less than 1% in the span of around 150 years. So, yeah, this is a pretty big change.
During the 19th century, scientists discovered the link between electricity and magnetism: two effects of the same force that have always been together. They discovered that a coiled wire would generate an electric current when moved in a magnetic field. In other words, they developed the first electric generator!
We could now generate and manipulate the movement of electrons. However, the electrons would not move unless the wire was moving through the field. This meant that the generator would only work if we could keep the magnet moving. Scientists of the day realized that a magnet spinning had the same effect and could therefore think of methods to spin a magnet.
They used a recently invented device called a steam engine that burned coal in order to evaporate water, allowing it to break free of gravity’s hold and rise up. The energy from the rising gas molecules would be converted to spin a turbine overhead and, in effect, spin the magnet in the coiled wire.
This was a huge accomplishment! Humans could now use electricity to create machines that could replace workers in factories. At the time of its invention, human labor was much more expensive than coal so businesses decided to invest in the technology to save costs.
The work became more efficient, though it did not mean that the people had to work less. Instead, business owners saw the more efficient production as a way to produce more and maximize their profits. This process is called industrialization and it has taken over much of the world due to capitalism and the new technologies.
The harnessing of electricity also opened up a ton of new niches for technology and businesses to explore. The question became: how else can I make energy work for me? The exploration allowed for new technology to inspire even newer technology in a positive feedback loop. The businesses that supplied the electricity couldn’t have possibly known what they were signing up for.
Nothing in our long history to that point had ever spread as quickly as electricity. It became a requirement for daily life. The businesses distributing and using electricity were able to skyrocket in value and influence to become some of the most powerful companies that have ever existed. Take a moment and think about all of the things you use daily that require electricity. Now imagine that none of those existed; this is how the vast majority of humans lived their lives.
The money was now flowing around in the cities and people living on the farms chose to move into the cities to look for work. Over a short time, people became habituated to city life where food is purchased from a grocery store or restaurant instead of grown. The homes they rented cost money so jobs became a requirement. The people forgot about the ways of the pre-industrial world astonishingly quickly; after all, they were living in a new world.
Our lack of memory of the pre-industrial world came at a price. Instead of watching food grow from the Earth for free, people began to form the idea that food and shelter must be traded for money. A few steps of rationalization shows that if you need food to survive and money to get food, you must need money to survive.
The industrial revolution changed the world in a larger way than ever before. The speed of progress shot up to give rise to the world many of us live in today. At the same time, humans adapting to this new lifestyle are conditioned to believe that they must stay productive and that money is the supreme power in their society. Throw in the negative effects of burning all that coal to supply the electricity to a growing population living longer than ever before and you have yourself quite a few debate topics. Decide for yourself, is industrialization good, bad, or somewhere in between?