Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

The Human Web

This weekend I picked up John and William McNeill’s The Human Web. (John McNeill is an environmental historian and author of Something New Under the Sun, a history of environmental change in the 20th century; his father William is the dean of world history. Full disclosure: I vaguely know both: I corresponded occasionally with William during my tenure at Britannica, and spent two weeks in Korea with John.) The book’s big idea is that

Today… everyone lives inside a single global web, a unitary maelstrom of cooperation and competition. The career of these webs of communication and interaction constitute the overarching structure of human history.

We think of communications webs as being relatively new things– think the World Wide Web– but the Human Web makes the case that what we’re living through now is a supercharging of a global web that has existed since the 16th century. Thousands of years ago technological and cultural innovations were capable of moving across the globe– bows and arrows are everywhere, and song and dance are ubiquitous– and we’ve only gotten better at diffusing innovations. As they note, agriculture was invented in a number of places, but the steam engine only had to be invented once.

Some of the book has more of an old-fashioned, world history overview tone, but the idea of thinking of human history in terms of a history of webs, cooperation and competition strikes me as one that has a lot of promise. You can fold lots of familiar stuff into that framework, but also see some new things.

[To the tune of Sting, “The Pirate’s Bride,” from the album You Still Touch Me.]

1 Comment

  1. A few months ago I read an essay by William McNeill called “The Rise of the West After Twenty-Five Years,” that was published in the “Journal of World History.” This is all I have ever read by McNeill, but I found him to be one of the most readable historians I have ever come across. He seems to pay more attention than most to the art of writing, crafting prose that is both informative and entertaining. In any case, the reason I am posting this here is not to commend his writing style, but rather because in this essay he discusses his personal shift from a eurocentric view of history to a global perspective. It seems as though when he wrote this he had become aware of the need to study world systems, but was not exactly sure how to adequately do so. I believe this article is available on JSTOR if you have access and interest.

    If I may be so bold, I also have a few more recommendations of people to check out for those interested in world systems and their value.

    Micheal Geyer
    Charles Bright (Geyer and Bright published and article, “World History in a Global Age,” in the AHR that I found absolutely fantastic. This one is guaranteed to be on JSTOR.)
    Jerry H. Bentley
    David Christian

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