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.]