The next Axial Age ?

I think we might be starting the next Axial Age.

German philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the term Axial Age to describe similar revolutionary thinking which appeared in China, India and what we now call the middle east. My understanding of the period running from 800 BCE to 200 BCE is shaped entirely by Karen Armstrong‘s incredible book The Great Transformation. As I read Armstrong’s book Buddhism I wonder if we could be at the start of another Axial Age bolstered and supported by the Internet and other forms of technology.

Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Small Change Why the revolution will not be tweeted’ article shows that revolutionary thinking isn’t a product of the Internet and he of course is right. Platonism, Buddhism, Confucianism were all revolutionary and all formed key stones of the Axial Age. However Gladwell concludes that a “networked, weak-tie world” will mean “more of the same”.

I disagree.

There are non religious ideas and human organisation that arose through the Axial Age and as these break down with the advent of the Internet it will be anything but the same going forward.  Technology has already pummeled, shaped and reinvented key systems of human and idea management. Many of which were created well after the Axial Age ended. We, humanity, are rethinking books, libraries, agriculture, banking, music, news dissemination, film and television to name a few. However it is the things that have been left unscathed so far that worry, scare and excite me. These were the bedrock of the Axial Age and if these change, we may see a complete change in the direction of humanity. Evolution perhaps ?  I am thinking about such diverse trends as story telling, trade and governance.

Let me take trade as an example (not least because e-commerce is currently my stock in trade). Trade can be traced back to prehistory. Hammond in his book Smart Retail explains simply, that once man has taken care of his family and community, and had surplus produce, he would then embark on trading what was left. From this activity markets and merchants were born. Producers sold what they produced and peddlers “a chancery bunch’  would purchase goods that they could resell at a profit. Markets become permanent shops. By the end of the Axial Age shop chains were formed. A lack of trusted workers and long-distance travel maintained the shape of this kind of retail till the 19th century. However excellently simple Hammond’s history of retail, his statement that “the Internet is just a development of catalogue-based mail order and don’t kid yourself that it isn’t” is hilarious. Websites that allow customers to search product catalogs might indeed make Hammond’s point. Companies that provide markets online such as eBay and Amazon have done really well. Virtual worlds that copy real world practice have also done well. However this surely is just a starting point. The Economist explained how Robert Jensen a development economist at Harvard University surveyed the price of sardines along Kerala’s coast before and after the introduction of the mobile phone. Free flowing information about price and availability from the market out to sea allowed the fishing community to meet supply and demand more effectively raising their profits but reducing the cost to the consumer.

Could the future of the Internet be the development of transparent and fair market places ? Certainly it will become more than products in database. If so, is that revolutionary thinking in itself ? Or will that lead to more revolutionary thinking which will change the way we organise ourselves ?  If is difficult to know, this is just a single blog piece and we are very much inside the eye of the storm. Well maybe to the left of center of the storm.  Also Armstrong introduction in The Great Transformation should give this dreamy question a realistic kick. “Perhaps every generation believes that it has reached a turning point in history”.

Perhaps. However we are in a transformative age. That maybe this transformative age may mimic the original Axial Age.


Kavita is an advisor to Micro:Bit Educational Foundation and Tido. She writes about technology and business. She is mostly based in London. You can contact her directly or via twitter (kavitakapoor)