The Human Journey
The Axemaker's Gift

Turning Points in the Development of Contemporary Society

A report on The Axemaker’s Gift
Technology’s Capture and Control of Our Minds and Culture

Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1997

Pages 1234

Chapter 10: Journey's end

The gifts of the axemakers conferred power on those few among us who were able to use them to command the community through myth and magic, or their later equivalent, science and technology. Because of this, through history, axemakers have been encouraged by those in power to innovate for them, unhindered. In particular, the gifts make it easier for leaders to extend their power to shape and direct their communities through the increasing command of information. Those who knew how to use the Montgaudier baton, the commodity tokens of the Iranian mountains, the cuneiform of Mesopotamia, the alphabet of Greece, the moveable type of Gutenberg, or the symbols of math, medicine, and science were generally free to act as if the Earth were still as limitless as it had been for the ancient axemakers of Africa.

In virtually every case, though, their use of axemaker knowledge brought immediate benefit to the community, which in turn abdicated responsibility and power to them so long as immediate survival and a rising standard of living were assured in return. However, these attractive, short-term gifts have generated unattractive, long-term problems because of the way, as innovations proliferate, they interact and cause unexpected effects. Acceptance of each gift changed the way humans saw their relationship with each other and with nature.

The development of agriculture led to the innovations of Egyptian irrigation, Roman wheeled plows, the fodder crops of 17th century Holland, and 18th century fertilizers. This string of gifts has culminated in what has been called the Green Revolution. New strains of food crops were developed in the 1950s which had huge gains in yield. The catch was the dependence of these strains on chemical fertilizers, increased water irrigation, and farm machinery. The situation today is that the Third World has undertaken enormous debt to accept these crops (forced on them by the developed nations). Most of the world’s food comes from just a few species, a very precarious position. The genetic base from which future alternate food sources might come has been drastically reduced, as has the traditional knowledge-base that might have provided alternative techniques on a rainy day.

irrigating a field

Five thousand years ago another life-saving gift that changed our attitudes was the technique of irrigation. Subsequent innovations including Egyptian “shadufs”, medieval dams and channeling, and Renaissance suction pumps have led to today’s carborundum drill bits, enormous reservoirs, and river diversion. By now, water supplies are being depleted faster than they can be replenished. Water scarcity is now common in 26 countries, including Russia, the Middle East, and the Southwestern United States.

More than 70,000 years ago specialist axemaker gifts ensured the survival of those who lived on coastlines with harpoons, hooks, and nets for fishing. Over the centuries since then we have taken food from the sea in ever-greater amounts, thanks to better ships, safer navigation, weather forecasting, radar, and the many other industrial innovations, which have made it easier to plough the oceans for their rich harvests.

Today, fish harvests are failing and the oceans are dying. Four of the world’s seventeen fishing zones are already overexploited. Contamination is also causing major salt- and fresh-water problems. The southeastern Mediterranean fisheries and the oyster-beds of Chesapeake Bay have been especially devastated. The coral reefs of the world, a reservoir of genetic diversity, are being wiped out by a phenomenon known as “bleaching”.

fire burning in a fireplace

The gift of fire 600,000 years ago provided heat in the winter, and introduced the magic of cooked food. But the scarcity of wood by the middle ages led to the search for alternate fuels. In the 19th century, electric generators and petroleum seemed to save the day. But today, the fossil fuels are being depleted, and ever more land is being scarred to procure them. The United States is particularly wasteful of these. Air and water pollution from overuse of these products is threatening the health of people all over the world. Russia is in particularly bad shape. Studies in 1993 stated that as many as 1 in 10 Russian infants suffered from birth defects. The industrialization of the world has resulted in widespread airborne pollution. This has been linked to increases in lung and heart disease in industrialized areas. Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Mexico City regularly exceed four times WHO guidelines for air quality. In 1988, over half of all newborn babies in Mexico City had enough lead in their bloodstream to cause neurological and motor impairment.

Local defects, axe marks, resulting from the use of the axemakers gifts, have always been present. But today, these local marks are coalescing into global patterns of mass destruction. The land is depleted. Erosion and soil degradation occur mainly because of the effect of wind on land after ploughing, mining, or the flooding that follows removal of forest cover. This is now affecting up to half of all land on Earth. One-fifth of all cropland has been irretrievably lost through degradation. Topsoil and arable land are being lost forty times faster than natural processes can replace it.

The Industrial revolution has released large amounts of CO2 and other gases which act to trap solar energy in the atmosphere. This causes the atmosphere to warm up in what is known as the “Greenhouse Effect”. Changes to the Earth’s temperature of just a few degrees could have profound effects. Past changes due to temperature variations of just 7 degrees F include the last Ice Age, the drying of the Sahara and the rise of Civilization itself in the Middle East, India, and China. A rise in temperature could have a number of consequences, such as a rise in sea level, dying out of major forests, frequent storms across the world, and a dieback of the oceanic phytoplankton. A rise in sea level could cause major death and displacement among the two-thirds of the world’s population that live on low coastal land.

Map of world population

Population growth is a constant factor making all of these problems worse. The rise in the number of humans was until recently considered to be the greatest of all successes because it signaled more and more effective ways to combat death by starvation and disease. Larger, healthier populations were the most convincing argument for taking everything the axemakers offered.

However, today the human race crowds in ever larger groups. Mexico City has grown six fold since 1950, and Calcutta has more than doubled. Most Asian countries expect a doubling of urban populations between 1985 and 2010. By 2025 there will be 486 cities in the Third World with populations greater than 1million – with none of them capable of providing for adequate water, sewage, or garbage disposal. 100 million people on the planet today are homeless, 490 million are severely malnourished, and 360 million have no jobs. Population forecasts are catastrophic because even if the world’s birth rates have indeed slowed in recent years, the one billion humans still under fifteen years old who will grow up and have children means that the population will likely more than double to 11 billion by the year 2060.

Chapter 11: Forward to the past

The future faces us with serious difficulties we have inherited from the distant past. Humanity is no longer made up of a few scattered bands of people spread out thinly on the planet. Because our lives have changed since those primeval times, it is imperative above all that we revise our out-of-date perception of the world, so that our ancient, small-scale, small-time mind can be expanded to consider more distant horizons and more frequent changes. And we have been mentally so separated from the natural world around us by the axemaker gifts that both the gifts themselves as well as a change of consciousness need to be parts of the resolution. We are not in a position to throw away all modern technology and return to a simpler, Arcadian life, if such a world ever existed.

There is a gift which may help. It may change our mind back to where it was before the axemakers’ gifts. Ironically, it is one of the axemakers’ latest gifts. It is the computer.

Herman Hollerith
Herman Hollerith
Jacquard loom
Jacquard loom

Herman Hollerith, working in Baltimore in 1888, adapted techniques in use in the textile industry to his work on the US census. He developed a technique for the automatic recording of census data using holes in paper. After the census was done, he took his work to some investors, and IBM was born.

In the few decades since its invention, the computer has brought change to almost every aspect of modern life and has made society so complex and interdependent as to make the old cut-and-control, reductionist way of thinking too hazardous to operate in its previously isolated and unaccountable way.

NASA Supercomputer
NASA supercomputer

The networking of computers began as a linking of North American radar stations- the “Dewline” defense system. This technology was then adapted to become the basis for an airline reservation system known as SABER. This new tool made air travel easier, dramatically changing the nature of business. The computer has also compounded its influence by developing faster than any other innovation in history, so it has also altered our time perception regarding how fast rates of change can themselves change. Computer power has increased a million-fold since 1965, and is still increasing.

Milstar Satellite
Milstar satellite

In parallel with these developments have come innovations in communications technologies that have produced high-speed data networks, making information more generally accessible, and its physical location irrelevant. The US “Score” satellite demonstrated in 1958 that voice signals could be broadcast from an orbital transmitter. Networks of such satellites have enabled transnational corporations to centralize operations more easily than ever before. They have also enabled electronic fund transfers, which have undermined the ability of governments to impose effective exchange control regulations on these corporations. Such networks could make possible highly centralized social management because they could radically increase the manufacture of specialist knowledge to enable cut and control on an unprecedented scale.

This cut and control scenario has always depended on the control of information, and specialists to guard and use that information. Two new developments may change this situation. First is the electronic “agent”, a software program that can act on behalf of the systems user to search for required data, manipulate that data, and extract the required information. The other is the “knowledge-base system”, or “expert system”. These systems work by simulating some aspects of human reasoning and deduction. Use of these technologies can give the “man in the street” the ability to extract, and to put to use, information which previously had been the exclusive domain of increasingly esoteric specialists and their societies.

We are currently stuck in short term thinking. An example is air pollution. The long term health costs of the pollution are many times greater than the short term costs of cleaning up the air. In Mexico City, 72 percent of children have brain-damaging lead quantities in their cortex. The limited brain development because of this will perpetuate the cycle of Third World misery.

Map of I.T. spending
IT expenditure in 2005

How can we change the way we think in time? One possible tool for change is the information technology as related above. The other is our brain. Our adaptation to differing environments, diets, and jobs attests to the extraordinary flexibility of the human brain. New research points out how heavily our brains are molded by experience when we are young. This implies that if we do not like the ways our brains operate, we can change them.


The recent research also suggests that our brains do not naturally follow the step-by step syllogisms of Aristotle or reduce problems to their smallest parts in the manner of Descartes. Rather our thoughts flit back and forward across the cortex, in a manner analogous to the process of innovation itself. There seems to be an ‘arational’ element to our natural thought processes.

The reason that the new data-processing systems might bring radical change in our relationship with the axemakers and to the way they have always indirectly organized our society and our thoughts relates to how the brain works. The key lies in how the brain interacts with the ‘web’ of linked computers, communication devices, and information processors. The highly linked nature of the web mimics our brain structure, and allows non-specialists access to unprecedented levels of information. Because of the correspondences of the web to our brain structure, entry into this knowledge pool does not require specialist training.

Of course, the web of information has implications for control and privacy issues due to the extent at which personal information has been placed on it. But it also holds out the hope that truly democratic communication systems can come about. It should become more difficult to propagandize and exclude members of the general public from decision making processes.

The growth ideal has all along ignored the fundamental fact that there is a limit to the extent to which the environment can supply the resources for expansion and absorb its waste products. Historically, authorities, with confidence in the economies of scale, have taken for granted that small social structures are inefficient and have acted against them. The state has erased independent villages, outlawed local guilds, and finally provided all the centralized social services that had become necessary because the state had destroyed them at local level.

An alternative may lie in the political potential of the web. This may require a different attitude towards representative democracy – it may require direct, participatory democracy, based in small-scale communities. The information web, and electronic agents acting on behalf of the members of these communities, may make feasible the kind of debate and consensus needed to operate in this manner. Small communities such as these already exist – eco-villages in Sweden, worker-owned plywood companies in the Pacific Northwest, the solar-powered community of Davis California, Quaker meetings, and others. The key political virtue of smaller-scale, web-supported communities run by direct democracy is that they provide forums for debate lost to us since Greece.

The open social system made possible by small-community participatory democracy is also harder to subvert and control; the structure encourages participation and consensus, and the closer contact between these communities and their environment makes for greater awareness of the need for self-sustaining, non-polluting economies.

The kind of changes proposed here are complex and wide-ranging, but they may not require large amounts of time. The Western world dropped its birth rate in just a few years in response to economic problems, without government pressure. The Southwestern Indian state of Kerala may also provide a model for success in the developing world.

In the 1970s, planners found that Kerala had falling birth and infant mortality rates, average life expectancy was approaching seventy years, and most adults could read and write. These were very exceptional for a tropical region. A study done by the UN concluded that the changes which brought about this situation in Kerala resulted from societal changes in attitude to family size resulting from longer life expectation, reduction in infant and child mortality, and female education. These, in turn, stemmed from substantial government investment in health and education. These advances were also achieved without transitioning Kerala through an industrial phase.

The culture we live in, based on the sequential influence of language on thought and operating according to the rationalist rules of Greek philosophy and reductionist practice, has wielded tremendous power. It has given us the wonders of the modern world on a plate. But is has also fostered beliefs that have tied us to centralized institutions and powerful individuals for centuries, which we must shuck off if we are to adapt to the world we’ve made: that unabated extraction of planetary resources is possible, that the most valuable members of society are specialists, that people cannot survive without leaders, that the body is mechanistic and can only be healed with knives and drugs, that there is only one superior truth, that the only important human abilities lie in the sequential and analytic mode of thought, and that the mind works like an axemaker’s gift.

Our survival may depend on the realization and expression of humanity’s immense diversity. Only if we use what may be the ultimate of the many axemaker’s gifts – the coming information systems – to nurture this individual and cultural diversity, and only if we celebrate our differences rather than suppressing them, will we stand a chance of harnessing the wealth of human talent that has been ignored for millennia and that is now eager, all around the world, to be released.