The Legacy of the Industrial Revolution

Overwhelmed consumer passed out in a supermarket shopping aisle

We live in a post-industrial age which has been fundamentally shaped by the Industrial Revolution of the centuries previous:

The Industrial Revolution … was the transition to new manufacturing processes in Europe and the United States, in the period from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840. This transition included going from hand production methods to machines, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, the increasing use of steam power and water power, the development of machine tools and the rise of the mechanized factory system. The Industrial Revolution also led to an unprecedented rise in the rate of population growth.

Wikipedia entry on “Industrial Revolution”

The Industrial Revolution, which began in Great Britain and quickly spread to the colonies of the globally prevalent British Empire, led to fundamental changes in every aspect of the human experience. It resulted in an abundance of manufactured commodities that were produced at scale – mass production and manufacturing. The economies of scale that kicked in resulted in a plenitude of cheaply manufactured goods. It resulted in the ready availability of rapid new modes of transportation and communication – railway steam engines, which subsequently gave way to gasoline-powered automotive internal combustion engines; steamships, which subsequently gave way to aircraft; telegraphy, which subsequently gave way to telephony, wireless radio, television, and internet and cellular communication systems; hand calculators, which subsequently gave way to sophisticated computers, mobile phones, tablets, and so forth.

Factory workers during the early Industrial Age

Needless to say, the Industrial Revolution has deeply influenced every aspect of our day-to-day lives:

The Industrial Revolution marks a major turning point in history; almost every aspect of daily life was influenced in some way. In particular, average income and population began to exhibit unprecedented sustained growth. Some economists say that the major effect of the Industrial Revolution was that the standard of living for the general population in the western world began to increase consistently for the first time in history, …

Ibid.

Much more significantly, however, is how the Industrial Revolution has shaped our thinking in various ways. Whether we acknowledge it or not, it has resulted in a fundamental shift in the way we think about everything. Initially, this shift in mindset was probably perceived as refreshing and enlightening, especially when one considers that it came rapidly at the heels of the so-called Age of Reason or Enlightenment – a time when rational discourse became pre-eminent over the benighted superstition, mythologies and religious dogma of prior centuries. However, while the Age of Reason may have been enlightening and uplifting, the Industrial Revolution appears to have resulted in what may be termed as being an Age of Conformity.

One of the most significant ways the Industrial Revolution shaped our lives is in the way it shaped education. Across the world, educational institutions were set up at the behest of and heavily funded by corporate entities, ostensibly to educate the public and lift them out of poverty. In actual fact, however, the idea was to educate the masses only enough to create an exploitable skilled labor force for industrial skilled labor requirements. In the British colonies, the East India Company set up a number of educational institutions to mass produce generations of skilled bureaucrats to manage the lower echelons of power in its sprawling overseas interests. In the United States, the Rockefellers, Carnegies and other corporate tycoons invested in education in order to spawn new generations of labor and management to run their factories, and so forth. 

A classroom in an early twentieth-century school house

The key point to consider is that education was provided to the public primarily to train an exploitable force of skilled workers, not necessarily to inspire any sort of awakening, enlightenment or shift in consciousness. As such, conformity was encouraged and the educational systems of the industrial and post-industrial age resembled forms of mass-indoctrination more than anything else. Those whose speculations went beyond the scope of what could be exploited as a source of revenue for the corporate elite were often savagely marginalized from society and academia. A classic example of this was the fate of the legendary Serbian-American inventor and scientific genius, Nikola Tesla — a man having more scientific patents to his name than possibly anyone else in history. He was, initially, heavily backed by financiers like George Westinghouse and J.P. Morgan, when his research produced such remarkable innovations as alternating current electricity and radio controlled machines. However, when his ambitions went too far, in the estimation of his financial backers – when he failed to conform to the conceptual boxes determined by an Industrial Age educational system, he was abandoned and left to die alone and impoverished in a New York city hotel room.

Nikola Tesla’s death announced in a newspaper

It is important, in my estimation, to come to a clear understanding of the many ways that the Industrial Age and its educational systems have limited and constrained our thinking – creating boxes around our minds where, previously, there were none – indoctrinating us to serve the pervasive corporate and state machinery. Without such an understanding of the limitations and pressures that continue to be placed on our thinking, there is no way we can meaningfully expand our minds and grow individually and as a species.

Some of the many ways that the Industrial Revolution and Age have influenced our thinking at a deep, fundamental level include the following:

It has produced a consumerist mindset in the public, with the commodification of everything, including, in many cases, human beings, to various degrees – even going so far as perpetuating a global industry in human trafficking and child enslavement. It has, as I previously mentioned, reshaped education, which has come to be perceived as a process of manufacturing skilled professionals to fit various roles in society, not as a lifelong process of growth and discovery, which is how many of the great thinkers of the past understood education.

The Industrial Revolution has reshaped medicine, enabling the Big Pharma takeover of the medical system worldwide and the corresponding marginalization of holistic and alternative health practitioners. It has reshaped food production and the production of agro-chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides. It has given us GMOs, synthetic fast foods, frozen dinners (laced with preservatives and sugar), factory farming with its attendant abuse of livestock, and so forth. The sugar industry and its lobby have pushed for the inclusion of “added refined sugar” in everything, resulting in the global obesity epidemic.

Most significantly, especially to the current discourse of “global warming” and “climate change,” the Industrial Revolution gave us the phenomenon of industrial pollution at a scale previously unheard of and unimagined. Mass industrialization has given us Chernobyl, Fukushima and every oil spill, radioactive hazard and toxic chemical dump in history. It has given us the hole in the ozone layer, industrial smog, elevated levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, the pacific garbage patch, sea turtles stuck inside disposable plastic six-pack rings and beached whales with bellies full of plastic waste.

A deformed sea turtle stuck in a plastic six-pack ring

Even more insidiously than all of that, however, the Industrial Revolution has given us mass media, resulting in the indoctrination of the masses at an industrial scale and the perpetuation of all manner of agendas – ultimately, limited modes of thinking and limitations placed on innovation and imagination. The proliferation of mass media has perpetuated, and continues to perpetuate, a monolithic cultural establishment with a conformist mindset. This cultural establishment actively discourages and marginalizes all dissent, originality, individuality and innovativeness, even though, paradoxically, scientific innovation is the very backbone of the industrial engine.

Thus we see the ultimate paradox of the Industrial Age – the very scientific innovative spirit that made it possible, originally, is being progressively stifled out of existence by the cultural establishment it has created – until, at this point, it is hard to find anywhere, even in academic and research circles.

The consequences of this trend are numerous – it has produced the widespread loss of individuality and originality and a pervasive “groupthink” and spirit of conformity. It has resulted in a society of self-regulating “sheeple” who are afraid to step out of line for fear of being punished. Or, is it more accurate to describe our society as lemmings going off a cliff? The public is now easily manipulated by unscrupulous “elites” and political leaders because of its failure to question authority in a meaningful way even when it is deliberately misled, kept in the dark and lied to by political and cultural leaders. The public is increasingly willing to acquiesce to invasive surveillance imposed by the state and corporate bodies in the interest, supposedly, of “security.” Alternative thinkers are widely ridiculed, marginalized and labeled as “conspiracy theorists” because their ideas are perceived as being far-fetched, incomprehensible and unbelievable. There is no general objection even when such personalities are censored from social media platforms and have their rights stripped from their persons.

Groupthink and conformity tend to stifle originality and innovation

Thanks to this pervasive Industrial Age culture of conformity and acquiescence, the public does not object even to the general rollout of demonstrably hazardous technologies such as 5G cellular towers and influenza vaccines. Instead, the public is easily distracted and kept preoccupied and in the dark by shallow media spectacle – spectator sports and television sitcoms – the “bread and circuses” of our time. Furthermore, we see the elevation in status of corporate CEOs and entrepreneurs, who are often perceived as mythic figures – highly paid and widely revered. Simultaneously, thanks to mass media, we see the elevation in status of media personalities – television anchors, film actors, stand-up comedians and other performers – who are regarded as superhuman, larger-than-life celebrities, though this is obviously no more than an illusion perpetuated by the media machine.

Ultimately, one has to come to realize how deeply the Industrial Revolution, and the subsequent industrial and post-industrial ages, have shaped our lives and our thinking – often beyond our ability to even recognize it. So much of what we take for granted in this modern, twenty-first century age of convenience and abundance has been made possible thanks to the Industrial Revolution. But though it has made life much easier in a number of ways – for example, in the creation of the experience of leisure, which was previously hard to come by – it has, nevertheless, constrained, limited and boxed-in our thinking and our experience of life in a number of crucial ways, and continues to do so to this day.

It is only when we collectively experience something like the global shutdown caused by the recent Coronavirus outbreak, which has resulted in a pause in the perpetually running engine of the global economic system, that we are able to stop and take a moment to appreciate and understand the impact that the Industrial Revolution has had – and continues to have – on our lives. And we can begin to question whether or not it is a positive, healthy trend and whether we can or should change things in some way going forward – whether or not we can think outside the box and question our reality in fundamental ways with an eye towards improving our circumstances for future generations.


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