Age of Discovery Summary and Review

by Ian Goldin, Chris Kutarna
Has Age of Discovery by Ian Goldin, Chris Kutarna been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.

Have you been feeling disoriented, stressed, and overwhelmed? That might be due to the fact that we are now living in one of the most intense periods of change experienced in the past 500 years by human civilization. 

The original Renaissance, lasting from 1450 to 1550, was the latest era of great economic and cultural expansion. Ranging from the development of the revolutionary printing press to new forms of art that resulted in the masterpieces of Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, it was a period oamazing discoveries and accomplishment.  We are now experiencing similar phenomena with an unprecedented level of international trade and exchange and the tremendous effects the internet and new media have on the exchange of information.  In this book summary, you’ll learn In this summary of Age of Discovery by Ian Goldin, Chris Kutarna,
  • the changes computer chips are bringing to our world 
  • the true reach of your Facebook persona 
  • why sudden radicalism and violence come from periods of progress  

Age of Discovery Key Idea #1: A Modern Renaissance

Have you heard of Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo? Almost everyone has. Millions stand in line every year to see the work of these famous artists who created some of history’s most iconic masterpieces. These works are landmarks of the marvelous achievements of the Renaissance. But what was the Renaissance? 

It was a period of supreme scientific achievement and artistic genius that lasted from about 1450 to 1550. While this period brought many great advances, it also had a dark side.  Since the term Renaissance suggests something that is universally good it is quite controversial. In reality, the “Renaissance Europe” concept was devised by European historians of the nineteenth century as a way to strengthen the standing of European nations. European imperialism and colonialism across the globe during that time period were then justified by this concept of European cultural superiority.  The Renaissance was a time of great destruction and suffering.  This happened alongside the innovations made by astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, theologian Martin Luther and explorer Christopher Columbus. During this time, diseases such as smallpox spread across oceans, nearly exterminating the Aztecs, Incas and other Native Americans.  Our modern New Renaissance has also been a time of great growth, just like the Renaissance of the fifteenth century. It could be said that the New Renaissance started in 1990 with the fall of the Berlin Wall that signaled the end of the Cold War. This is when China stepped back into the world economy and commercial internet service was born.  Suddenly, the world felt very different and that sensation is backed up by historical data. Formed in 1995, the World Trade Organization or WTOhas become a powerful symbol of international economic advancement and cooperation and signals a radically different historical period. Today its 161 members represent every major economy in the world.  However, this progress comes with a hefty toll, just like the Renaissance of centuries past. Thirty years of unprecedented growth have had catastrophic consequences to the natural environment. 

Age of Discovery Key Idea #2:

Age of Discovery Key Idea #3: New Technology – Changing the World in Past and Present

If you could travel forward in time from 25 years ago, you would find our world practically unrecognizable. In a stunning parallel between this modern transformation and the one that took place in the fifteenth century, politics, the economy, and society have all transformed dramatically.  

During the last Renaissance, communication was revolutionized over the period of just a single lifetime by the printing press. German entrepreneur Johann Gutenberg (1395–1468) invented movable type around 1450 He used his invention to create the world’s first major printed book, Gutenberg’s Bible.  This breakthrough meant that a person born in the 1450s could see that 15 to 20 million books had been printed when she turned 50, a number that easily surpassed the number of books that were written since ancient Roman times by all European scribes combined.  This hypothetical person might even have a difficult time imagining a world without lots of books, even though the generation before hers relied solely on handwritten manuscripts and face-to-face conversations for information.  In a similar way, the internet has transformed the way modern people interact with one another and the world at an incredible speed. The number of users connected to thinternet has grown more than seven-fold since 1988 when the first intercontinental fiber-optic cables were installed400 million in 2000in 2005, it was one billion, and it had reached three billion by 2015.  The internet age radically connected all of humanity and marked the fastest mass adoption of technology in the whole of human history.  What if Facebook were a country?  It would be the largest nation on Earth with a population of 1.5 billion. Even more remarkable; two average users on this social network are less than four degrees of separation apart. This means you probably know someone who knows someone who knows one of your friends. 

Age of Discovery Key Idea #4: New Renaissance – Better Health and More Wealth than Ever Before

You may not be able to read the news today without getting a seriously dreary picture of the world, but is it really all doom and gloom?  The truth is, the quality of global health and wealth today are at their highest level ever, even considering the most disadvantaged populations on earth.  Climbing from 52 to 71 years, average life expectancy has risen by almost two decades since 1960.  To understand what this really means, the last 20-year improvement in life expectancy took 1,000 years to achieve. We’ve done it in 50. A baby born today in practically any country can expect to live longer than at any previous point in that country’s history.  Over the last 25 years, crushing poverty has also seen a dramatic improvement.  An estimated two billion people lived below the World Bank’s international poverty line in 1990; despite the fact that the human population had grown by two billion, by 2015 the total number of people living in extreme poverty on less than $1.25 per day had dropped by over half to just 900 million.  Interconnected economies and improved medical created this positive progress. The incomes of impoverished people have been raised by the expansion of trade and the jobs it has created.  Competition has also increased lowering the prices of goods and services and boosting their quality. Small businesses and households on a budget have been empowered as a result of this.  During this time disease has been combated with growing public budgets and technological advancements that have resulted in better practices in public sanitation, clean water, hygiene, pest control, vaccines, and drugs. In 1990, infectious diseases like pneumonia, tuberculosis, and measles killed 13 million children under the age of five. Only 5.9 million children died from the same infections in 2015. 

Age of Discovery Key Idea #5: Progress – Rapid but Not Equal

While incredible accomplishments actualized during the first Renaissance makes it seem like a magnificent cornucopia of progresswe now know that wasn’t the case. 

There is substantial evidence that the progress attained during this period had disparate outcomes. Even though average fortunes improved during much of the period, the wealth gap between rich and poor grew dramatically.

Exact data from the first Renaissance is incomplete, but all the information that’s available indicates there was a rise in income inequality along with the expansion of manufacturing and trade. The top 5 to 10 percent of residents owned between 40 and 50 percent of the town’s total wealth in practically every Western European town of any decent size in by 1550, while the bottom half owned little more than their own labor.  Falling wages on the lower half of the income scale precipitated this phenomenon. Women were particularly exposed to such cuts. Even though the cost of her daily necessities rose by 150 percenta nanny’s wages did not increase at all between 1480 and 1562.  Matters were far worse outside Europe. European Age of Discovery spelled the total destruction of entire civilizations in the Americas and at least 150,000 Africans were enslaved between 1450 and 1550.  It’s hardly surprising that such a polarity between rich and poor is also part of our current Renaissance. The extremes have grown even more distant even while average global welfare is improving.  The 388 richest people in the world controlled more wealth than the poorest 50 percent of the population in 2010This number dropped dramatically by 2015 when just 62 people controlled more wealth than the bottom half.  Meanwhile, some 3.6 billion people globally subsist on an average of just a few dollars per day. 

Age of Discovery Key Idea #6: Looking at the Past – Problems Caused by Renaissances

In 1495, Italians began to succumb to a mystery disease. The victims of this ailment experienced horrific symptoms such as spitting up blood and breakfast roll sized boils, oozing dark green pus. People infected by the disease were sick for months and sometimes years - if they lived at all.  What was this horrible monster?  Spreading rampantly during the Renaissance, we now know this particular affliction as syphilis. This sexually transmitted disease had spread all over Europe within four years of its emergence and menaced the entire globe a mere five years later.  Populations concentrated in urban centers facilitated the advance of the deadly diseaseWhile urbanization created mutual interdependence, wonderful for creativity and cultural exchange, it also produced ideal conditions in which disease could spread.  Can you see the similarities between then and now?  The modern world’s concentrated yet mobile populations result in comparable risks, for health and also in other aspects of life. The population mobility and economic exchange that enabled syphilis to spread throughout Europe and throughout the world are neatly mimicked by the massive rise in air travel today.  The West African Ebola epidemic that broke out in December 2013 is a good example of this.  In March of 2014, it had claimed just 60 lives in Liberia and Sierra Leone.  Only one year later, by mid-2015, over 28,000 cases had been reported, along with 11,300 deaths.  You might think this was just a coincidenceBut such massive drawbacks often present as side-effects of positive phenomena such as rising financial investments on a global scale and the intricate construction of the infrastructure behind the internet. The fact is, in the interconnected modern worldwhen something happens far away, it can quickly become a problem at home.  One such event was the 2008 financial crisis. While it began in the United States it swiftly became a global issue. Or take cyber-attacks as an example: these data crimes can be committed anywhere in the world and prey on anybody connected to the internet. 

Age of Discovery Key Idea #7: Rapid Changes – Fear and Doubt Spark Radicalism

People often experienced fear, doubt, and insecurities during the rapid evolution of the first Renaissance. The uncertain and ever-changing climate provides fertile ground for radical messages proclaiming doom and a need for extreme action. 

In 1497, Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar, reacted to this fear by inciting his fanatical followers to gather up all evidence they could find of their strange new age. They searched for immoral books, nude paintings and sculptures, perfumes, heretical texts, and exotic musical instruments.  Then, in what has become known as the Bonfire of the Vanities, they piled these articles in Florence’s central piazza and set them ablaze.  The friar became the most powerful figure in Florentine politics within a year of this spectacle by launching a campaign based on moral purification.  This campaign called for draconian laws prohibiting vice. It is believed that since he was preaching his apocalyptic message as the year 1500 drew neara year many Christians believed would bring the Last Judgment, his rapid ascent was mostly a product of good timing.  Radical messages of hate and extremism pose a threat today. Consider the resurgence of neo-Nazi groupsOrthodox Israeli Jews who assault gay people at pride parades and conceive plots to bomb Arab girls’ schools the rise of Islamic State, and fringe Christian denominations that preach Islamophobia and homophobia.  rapidly changing world marked by deepening inequality and general disorientation provides the fuel needed to spawn and feed all of these hate groups. Maybe the Renaissance wasn’t all hearts and flowers then and things are pretty tenuous now. Does that mean the future looks grimNot necessarily, in fact, we have good reason to think the opposite. 

Age of Discovery Key Idea #8: Innovation and Genius – Paving the Way to a Better Future

There’s still potential for tremendous good even with this comparison of ugly histories and current situations. While it can be a bit frightening, it’s important to understand that even though the world as we know it might vanish, there are positive aspects to the upheaval.  There’s great progress being made today, despite all the worrying developments.  Extremism and fear can make it easy to be skeptical about the helpfulness of scientific and artistic advances in improving the world, there are solid reasons to believe in them.  Since the gains produced by acts of genius are often unmeasurable, it can be very difficult to measure this type of progress. New technologies are dramatically transforming the way we understand the world and the value of innovations in the creation of wealth, health, art and justice is extremely hard to measure in numbers.  While a mere 20 years ago we thought Earth-like planets were rare, with better telescopes, computers, and thousands of astronomers who are linked together through the internet, today we know that there are at least 10 billion other planets that are of the appropriate size, temperature, and orbit to support life in the Milky Way alone. With this discovery, the possibility of alien life has been upgraded from remote to virtually certain.  Intangible goods like those in the digital realm must also be considered. If the Encyclopedia Britannica, at $1,000 each, was sold to one million people, it would add $1 billion to GDP. In contrast, when one million users log on to Wikipedia, no money is produced – but immeasurable good is still provided.  Humanity is much better off in terms of time and money saved, thanks to phenomena like Wikipediaeven though GDP isn’t directly affected.  Without spending a penny, tremendous wealth of education and entertainment that can be attained from the internet. 

In Review

The key message in this book: 

  While it was a period of tremendous creativity and innovation, the first Renaissance was also one of profound destruction and suffering. Since today’s world is in many ways similar to the Renaissance of 500 years ago, a historical perspective can shine a light on its promise and pitfalls.