Indicators for human advancement [Part 1]

❝My exploration and re-envisioning of a core idea from ‟The Third Industrial Revolution” by Jeremy Rifkin❞

TL;DR I propose a different triple. One that matches closer with human progression: any kind of handling of energy, information, physicals. The pattern itself is trivial and broad. Things become more interesting when considering how these classes interoperate. The triple energy-communication-infrastructure (by Jeremy Rifkin) can be used to select, together with knowledge of real-world events, the right combination of developments as they are happening.

“Shifts in human conciousness happen when new energy revolutions converge with communication revolution. They not only change the paradigm, but they actually change conciousness, …” – Jeremy Rifkin

Now finally we get to the main topic of this series. I needed to get some other concerns out of the way, to be able to focus on the main topic without constant side-tracking. In the post on the imploded industrial revolution, we discussed the triple energy-communications-infrastructure to classify industrial revolutions (and other disruptive events). I briefly mentioned another mechanism derived from the triple, with which I identified the recent 20-year time-period as potential industrial revolution. In this post, I will go into details on what that pattern is and the rationale for it.

Deriving the pattern

note this chapter explains the thought process: it is safe to skip. It is based (mostly) off intuition and my personal reasoning process as I was trying to comprehend.

The triple that Jeremy Rifkin uses/proposes is energy-communication-infrastructure. In his presentation he was quick to point out that the third industrial revolution is yet to come. However, this one statement itself is not the issue. Over the course of the talk, he mentioned a few other things that by themselves are harmless, but when considered together gave me a reason to reconsider/evaluate what this triple was really about.

The triple vs. my understanding

The statements that got me interested were the following. I have added remarks to explain why they caught my attention.

  1. in his explanation of matching the triple on some technologies, it did not seem to fully match
    An example classified electricity as communication but not power. Electricity as information carrier was critical, but not as energy carrier? Somehow this seemed confusing, given the way we (or at least I) think of electricity. This was the primary reason to investigate: it felt like I did not fully comprehend the way the triple classified technologies.

  2. the internet is not a big deal
    This one is especially interesting as I am well familiar with the internet. My reflex is to immediately contradict this. However, upon consideration I do agree that the internet itself isn’t a big deal. However, the internet is (almost) ubiquitous, and it seemed too trivial to dismiss this (aspect of) technology in its entirety.

  3. new technologies were emphasized to fit the triple
    This seemed wrong, because so many developments build on earlier progress. Is it really the case that for each industrial revolution, we would need – for example – a new energy source? ("energy revolution" more accurately represent the original statement) Or are other qualities also sufficient? Or is “energy” entirely optional?

  4. nuclear (fission) energy is outdated, instead “green energy” sources are the way forward
    There are various reasons for this statement: nuclear energy as a source is significantly different from fossil fuels, so really a new arena with different rules. Some small progressive companies were – at that time – investigating modern variations of nuclear fission reactors that would solve a number of current problems: using different fuels that are less polluting, using current waste products as fuel, etc. Furthermore, there were investigations into small(er) reactors, and finally, NASA was one of few institutes/companies to point out that nuclear power would be valuable for more exotic use cases of power generation: in space for larger distances from the sun. (The energy produced from solar radiation decreases quadratically with distance.)

  5. there hasn’t been a third industrial revolution yet
    Our lives are significantly different from 20 years ago. Somehow, it does not make sense to completely dismiss that there has been significant progress.

And on further consideration, I am left with questions such as:

et cetera.

My “gut feeling” was to not dismiss his claims, but instead to figure out what this nuance was that lead me into a different direction of thinking.

Disclaimer I need to point out that in his talks he uses multiple different choices of words to introduce the triple: “emerging technologies”, “new technologies/sources”, “revolutions”, among maybe even more phrasings. This means that it is unclear exactly when something qualifies to be part of the triple. I assume that this is intentionally unclear. However, I have not read his book (yet), so this assumption may be rooted in ignorance.

Exploring the reach and restrictions

Upon exploring these questions, it seemed more and more like the triple would be unable to find all significant events. In my attempts to understand his examples, like the printing press, and to match my other ideas such as earlier developments in writing systems, it continued to seem somewhat arbitrary. However, in formulating the same idea with different terms, “information” stood out. In particular, in relation to communication (part of the triple).

Energy” seemed to work well as a category, but missed an opportunity in identifying the nuclear (fission) reactor developments. Similarly, as I was wondering why the internet was “not a big deal”, I also noticed that a corresponding “new energy development” was nowhere to be found. Note that it is interesting that your gut feeling may very well be wrong, and then it is nice that there are concrete checks to work with.

So what about transport? Locomotives, cars, trucks, etc. But is it really about the vehicles, the mechanism, themselves? A lot of these examples exist to transport goods or people. If the people and goods, rather than the machine, are the subject, then what makes something “new” (or at least progress) for the goods/people?

I noticed that, in this triple, there are common factors of a more elementary nature. And, more importantly, factors that have a far broader reach. These factors are:

Notice that infrastructure is about the medium for transporting physical objects and people: both are applicable. Communication is about transferring information, but information can accomplish more and we can do more with information. And energy is about moving the goal post for what can be achieved at all.

At this point, having played around with these “alternative terms”, I figured that these (unintentional?) restrictions of the triple may be due only to the choice of words. Another restriction is in the search for new developments. However, I suspect that an added quality is sufficient. So, we broaden the scope significantly, and relax the restriction to require something new.

Obviously, we are no longer working with the same triple, i.e. we are changing semantics. I cannot determine/decide whether the chosen restrictions are intentional or unintentional. I found them too restrictive for the purpose I had in mind, and decided to work with these alternative terms to explore what developments and inventions could be identified (in advance).


In the previous section, I tried to illustrate some of the throught process that led me to these alternative terms. The goal is to have:

  1. a way to identify new developments,
  2. for a single class (to recognize even before critical developments have naturally matched up)
  3. to identify developments early,
  4. to have a way to rate them objectively, i.e. to have matching categories instead of based on a marketing-stories, intuition or gut feeling,
  5. having a clear improvement, i.e. a qualitative benefit (or reduced cost).

First, to explain the various terms. These are broad classifications that are intended to identify potential developments. Whether or not potentials are novel, depends on their goals, sequencing.

The idea is to match any new developments based on one of three classes. To comprehend the classes, evaluate in which ways the class contributes.

Note that handling of physical (objects) and information are able to complement each-other: improving on handling of physical (objects) through (temporarily) “transitioning to” (making use of) information (or vice-versa). This is where the interplay of the classes comes in.

The idea

Now that individual terms have been explained, let’s continue with the idea itself. To find developments early, a single interesting development may not satisfy the energy-communication-infrastructure triple immediately. That is also the reason why this triple makes it easier to find the core of a disruption after the fact. Instead, my proposal takes the reverse approach: identifying potentials early, possibly with how they stand out, and having a way to somewhat qualify their contribution. Then we need to find if one development suffices or whether multiple developments have to converge to be impactful.

A development would either be a significant advancement in a single class, or – more likely nowadays – a subtle interplay (a specific sequencing) of multiple classes. A clever way of handling information and physicals, enabled by a supply of energy when and where it counts, can circumvent limits previously thought insurpassable.

Information has significant benefits over physicals. That is, whatever parts of the solution may be realized as information will be bound “only” by the limits of information: information can be sent at (close to) light-speed, is efficient, compact, duplicable, etc. Existing solutions can, and will, be revisited to evaluate how we can incorporate information-handling to improve the over-all solution.

Example: Telegraph

The telegraph was an early mechanism for communication using electricity that existed around 1900. Electrical pulses, sent over electrical wire by the source, were received and converted into sounds, beeps, at the destination. Suddenly, the world moves from communication of information by physical means to communication by streams of information, in a form not known before. A piece of paper cannot be pushed through a tube and propagated for this distance the way electrical pulses can. Physical limits that had existed had been shattered.

Example: 3D-printed homes

Nowadays, experiments are ongoing where a computer-modeled home can be printed by a large 3D-printer. One can shop for and “order” a home of chosen design and have it sent to a 3D-printer in seconds, and then we can initiate printing. A house would always be designed on paper and constructed “on-the-spot”, but now we can have it (pre-)designed anywhere and partially constructed (“prefab”) mostly in automated fashion. If you think: sure but that’s obvious, because you send only the design. That is true. It is obvious, exactly because we are familiar with and accustomed to current technology, but the limits of physical objects are such that speed is severely limited and duplication is a slow and costly effort.

It is not merely the ability to speed up construction. Assuming we have the right information available, we are able to check a large number of properties to make sure the design makes sense mathematically (i.e. including properties related to physics). We can find mistakes before a single nail was taken from its packaging, and we can verify repeatedly, as to ensure that any mistakes are fixed correctly. Even if there are limits to the types of mistakes we can detect this way, speed and roundtrips for corrections are many times better.

Historic developments

NOTE this section contains a number of listings. These are not exhaustive. They exist to give you an idea of the breadth.

Let’s go through a few historic developments. Now the list might seem endless, which makes sense if you think about it. Looking back to past developments, there are many. However, in looking back we can better understand the three classes, and in looking forward, we have to realize that all of these developments have already occurred. Future developments will be more sparse, more elaborate, and (probably) more intricate.

We are used to looking at developments from the perspective of science or philosophy. This could be roughly divided as follows:

  1. Developments regarding fundamental constituents, composition, interaction:
    rigid, structured, factual, methodical, falsifiable

    • mathematics
    • physics
      • quantum physics
      • classical physics
    • chemistry
    • biology
    • astronomy
  2. Developments regarding (“reconstruction” of) events:
    less rigid, more philosophical

    • theology
    • archeology
    • geology
    • history

However, let’s now take the view of the three classes: physicals, information, energy. Let’s first look at an incomplete and virtually infinite listing of incremental developments, each contributing a little bit to advance humanity and society. After that, we reduce it back to the three core principles.

Handling physicals

The handling of anything physical: animate (biological: people, animals) and inanimate (such as materials). The physicals are a class of its own, because anything physical is bound by their own set of limitations. Limitations such as being subject to gravity, their scale, or the strength with which the physical object is composed of its elementary parts.

the wheel; primitive tools (hunting, gathering, stone manipulation); agriculture and tools; food storage; food preservation; clay-works (pots, vases, tools); metal tools; metallurgy; transport/logistics: trucks, trains, freighters, planes, etc.; materials suitable for energy storage; materials with conducting or isolating properties; material weaknesses and vulnerabilities; material transformations e.g. by applying heat/cold, electricity, acidic compounds; [..].

Anything from a carved, stone spearhead to a computer chip, from a torch to a helicopter, from a coffee machine to bicycle.

The distinguishing properties of physicals are both beneficial and limiting. Part of human advancement is being able to have more control over physicals: leverage the properties that are beneficial while avoiding, mitigating or canceling out properties that interfere. Converting and leveraging the energy we can output in a form that works for us, in the way we need it. Advancements made here are often possible only after we understand what we can do and how to work with certain materials and constructions.

Handling information

Information is a very different class from the physicals. Information, by its nature, is abstract. It’s the ideas we have, the stories, the things we learn to do, and the data we acquire from (any form of) observation.

Information is abstract, intangible. It also means that information cannot directly influence reality. Information, if captured and represented in some way, can become part of a process. For example, information stored in our brain may become part of the decision-making process. However, note that not the information itself, but merely its representation, influences the process. Information, represented in the wrong format, is useless. Burning wood cannot be put out with a paper drawing of a fire extinguisher: the idea of the fire extinguisher may exist in all necessary details, but the form is useless. For very practical examples, this seems silly. However, consider how downloading music from the internet means that you do not have to invite the artist over every time you want to hear it.

Information seems “limitless” compared to “physicals”. We are currently, and likely forever, bounded by the speed of light for communication of information. However, the ease with which we can achieve this speed for information compared to physicals is astounding. Information has enabled us to communicate, making it possible to share ideas, learn from each other, acquire knowledge and store for later generations. The way we process information has allowed us to derive more information: thinking, discovering, learning.

The triple contains communication, but there are other use cases involved that are part of handling information. It is also important to realize that this is about the representation of information, meaning that information may be represented in one or another physical form, but the information that is carried is key.

  1. Communication expression of information, for (possibly inexact, imprecise, inaccurate, lossy) transferrence
    storytelling; drawings; music/melodies; songs; rhyming / rhymes; theatre plays; poetry; smoke signals; morse code; telegraph; electric signaling; telephone; WiFi; Bluetooth; Fiber-optic connections; [..]

  2. Persistence persistence of information with benefits of reliable, exact commitment, exact transferrence, limited by inaccurate expression, ("communication into the future", “calculation”)
    ideas; cave paintings; early writing systems; cuneiform; clay tablets; papyrus scrolls; hieroglyphics; paper; books; myths; zodiac; signs (mnemonics); proverbs (mnemonic, short-hands to refer to wisdom); Antikythera machine; [..]

  3. Publishing, distribution, (mass-)dissemination duplication of information, mass-exposure, timeliness, time-offset, broadcasting
    news papers; printing; distributing (printed) leaflets (en masse); (scientific) papers; (scientific) journals; radio; television; non-professional/hobby videos and recordings; podcasts; [..]

The three categories above (mostly) express direct handling of information: capture information in some form that suits the intended purpose. However, there is also the processing of said information. We can attribute various properties to data to indicate what we know about the data. Over the years we have become more skillful at handling information and knowing how much and for what purposes to rely on said information.

There are many words to express information of different qualities. These qualities in turn help us to properly process information, indicating conceptual limits. The scientific method has greatly helped us to advance our ability to discover, investigate, learn. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that it has greatly increased the efficiency of learning-process. Measuring allows us to convert physical attributes to information. The scientific notation, in turn, imposes practical limits on accuracy when (working with) expressed information.

Selection, verification, validation, qualificiation
metadata (derivations); data vs. information; knowledge vs. insight vs. wisdom; mathematics; mathematical laws; formalizations; proofs, equations; facts; fact-checking; assumptions; measurements; scientific method; reproducibility; falsifiability; hypothesis vs. theory; double-blind trials; scientific notation; simplification; modeling; abstraction; formalizations; [..]

These techniques, among the many not mentioned here, are refined tools for handling information. The earlier listings are purposes for information to accomplish certain tasks, but also show how we have already advanced. As we develop mechanisms to accomplish simpler goals, we tend to look to improve.

Key of the story is in converging developments, which is discussed principally in the next part. Many advancements are made possible because of better use and more control over information. There is an artistic quality in understanding and handling information in exactly the right way, in recognizing, knowing and understanding limitations and boundaries. The artistry is (in part) in playing with information before you fully comprehend the subject. (And then there is the matter of deception using misinformation, which I will not discuss further.)

Handling energy

Significant improvements in handling of energy: satisfying larger energy needs, improving efficiency in transport, conversion, use, new solutions to energy storage for long-term and short-term use, for long storage and/or fast release. Any improvements to the energy-provision system may turn infeasible solutions feasible, make feasible solutions cheaper, more efficient, more reliable, more available. In short, improvements to the energy system means extending reach: extending the range of what is attainable and feasible, adds newly viable use cases, and opens up new economies of scale.

controlling/controlled fire; steam-based power generation; coal-based power generation; gas; oil production; shale gas; electricity; first capacitors; improvements to capacitors; nuclear fission reactors (original designs + later and upcoming generations); efficiency-improvements to transformers (laptops, etc.); batteries; lithium-ion batteries; improved lithium-ion battery to improve efficiency; improve capacity, reduce leakage; improved lithium-ion battery construction in composition; housing to improve fragility; reliability, safety, toughness, etc.; reducing risks such as risk of fire, explosion; Large-scale battery-purposed constructions (e.g. a pool filled with water that makes use of gravity to generate power as the water naturally flows to another reservoir); [..]

The improvements in energy handling are very real. However, as these are in the service of handling information or physicals, we tend to evaluate them based on what they enable. The energy itself, if left unused, offers no benefit.

Convergence, (tentative) conclusion

In previous section we looked at examples in each of three classes. These lists are endless, because any improvement or learned knowledge can be put into one of these categories. The key take-away here is not that we can list “all of history” in these classes. Instead, it is that these are the pools of developments from which advancements are sourced. Many advancements are based on recent developments from each of these pools, and in particular recent developments that provide “game-changing” benefits. This may be something like the transistor for information technologies, or the lithium-ion-based batteries for electric vehicles, and there are countless more examples.

This is not limited to the most recent developments, though. Controlling fire was important to food preparation. Prepared foods are beneficial to the body for they were easier to consume: their energy released more easily. The first engines were a starter for modern forms of propulsion, to convert energy into movement, whether to propell a car or a machine, meaning we suddenly had a whole new way of handling physical objects.

The three classes physical, information and energy seem to capture many important developments. It is possible to create a virtually endless list of developments for each class. However, the point is not to exhaustively evaluate them individually. Instead, some developments have converged. My hypothesis is that significant advancements happen when developments of three classes converge in such a way that significant qualitative improvements are realized:

The triple energy-communication-infrastructure seems to capture a subset of advancements.

.. in part 2 ..

In the larger, full article I intended to immediately take the next step and discuss certain types of advancements. Instead, I leave this to the next part. The three classes physical, information and energy are general on purpose. The idea is to use these classes to identify and categorize current developments, how they are different and what additional benefits they offer. Then consider what developments from different classes may converge by asking questions such as how these might enhance each-other.

Identification is necessary to know which developments exist, then we need to discover which of those to combine to produce new (qualitative) benefits, and – from this convergence – advancements emerge. Timeliness, qualitative improvements, and mutually enhancing benefits ultimately determine such break-through advancements. Later advancements tend to be more complicated, more intricate in nature, such as carefully alternating between handling as information, and handling as physicals to work around limits; and new benefits in energy handling to extend the reach of what is both possible and feasible.

This is part of a larger post. I much prefer to extract a smaller (sub)topic to keep posts manageable in size. However, this post has been on the backburner for way too long and crudely splitting up into parts may help finish it.

This post is part of the Human Advancements series.
Other posts in this series: