The Human Web: A Bird's-eye View of World History

Summary of: The Human Web: A Bird's-eye View of World History

Author(s) / Editor(s)

This synthesis of world history from the days of isolated hunter-gatherer communities to the present electronically connected cosmopolitan, interconnected world shows that all of humanity today lives in a "unitary maelstrom of cooperation and competition," and that the global spread of ideas, information, and experience "constitute[s] the overarching structure of human history."


Publication Reference

Published in/by
W.W. Norton, New York


  • Throughout their history, humans used symbols to create webs that communicated agreed upon meanings and so, as time went by, sustained cooperation and conflict among larger and larger groups of people. Inventions that enlarged individual and collective wealth and power spread through these webs, often inequitably and with unintended consequences to the shared environment.
  • Communication technologies, including the invention of alphabetic writing, moveable type, and the electronic media from the telegraph to the telephone, radio, television, and networked personal computer have increased the unification of the world into a cosmopolitan web of competition and cooperation. The velocity of diffusion of both good and bad technologies has increased to the point that it is almost instantaneous.

The spread of ideas, information, and experience in ever tightening webs of interaction describes the history of the world. The inventions of bureaucratic government (to enforce defense against competing groups); alphabetic writing (to communicate at distances greater than a village or metropolis through the use of symbols); and "portable, congregational, non-local religions"(to assuage the inequalities created by the development of more complex societies by offering the promise of a better life in the hereafter and a moral code for peoples more loosely connected than they would have been in smaller, isolated villages) resulted in the creation of metropolitan webs in the earliest civilizations in Southwest Asia and Egypt, China, and what has become India and Pakistan. Connections of separate webs by traders lead to innovation diffusion, albeit at a slower pace. Disease and economic connections also resulted from these inter-web connections. Later elaborations of these developments over millennia thickened the webs of communication and increased the velocity of information leading to the rapid diffusion of innovation: while agriculture was invented in several isolated places, the steam engine only had to be developed once. The current cosmopolitan web of cooperation and competition was accelerated by the exploitation of inventions like large ships and navigation systems, moveable type, the exploitation of energy from fossil fuels, the scientific method and its association with technology developments, and more recently, electronic communication. The complexity of society has increased along with social inequalities at the same time that cheap information technologies make those inequalities evident to all creating a “combustible mix.”