He wrote, as we approach the centenary of The War To End All Wars.
No one with an appreciation of human history would write such a thing. Nor would they imagine that the technological innovations between us and that war have been marginally more important than those in the century proceeding WW I. The Green Revolution is fine, but it seems hard to believe its productivity improvements outstrip those from the mechanization of agriculture, or the use of railroads to move grain. Polio prevention is awesome, but its gains pale before those from imposing simple sanitation codes and providing clean water.
And perhaps the "salvation through technology" set should reflect on the impact of the addition of mobilization by railroad to the diplomatic problems following the assassination of Ferdinand. Or on the confusion, to horrifying cost, of military and grand strategy by the introduction of the machine gun. The unintended consequences of those innovations, and the complete failure of technology to solve them, made for the costliest and stupidest war to its date.
By all means, pursue better and better technology. But the world's deepest and most serious problems have always been political, and always will be, and will always be beyond resolution by better gadgets.
Even when we include the horrors of the world wars, the 20th century had fewer per-capita battle deaths (both civilian and military) than the centuries before it.
The same trend is detectable at decade timescales, and shows that we are still improving since the world wars.
Stephen Pinker's book "The Better Angels of our Nature" goes into the underlying statistics to support these assertions.
There are plenty more if you search in
reddit.com/r/askhistorians and reddit.com/r/Anthropology
So i'm not sure this debate is settled yet.
The second takes issue with his use of per-capita comparisons and suggests that an absolute rate may be a better measure. This is extremely silly and Pinker spends very little time discussing it because it really is absurd to entertain. For one, it implies the only true solution to any violence is massive population control. And two, it negates any comparison to cultural or behavioral change by simply pointing to the population size of the planet. Think of the statement, "Modern medicine has not advanced from the hunter gather days because more people under the age of 40 die every year than did 5000 years ago."
Edit: The second comment brings up a third point that the lower rate of violence does not imply we are better off, and is therefore questioning what we should define as violence. Pinker again readily addresses this issue by explicitly defining the type of violence he is analyzing, physical, and repeatedly stating that these issues are outside the scope of his book.
For example, in the first link the author summarizes his long comment: " In short, he's extremely sloppy with his numbers and relies on almost no scholarly sources. I would not accept the type of work he puts in from an undergraduate.". So maybe Pinker does jump to conclusions that not necessary result from the data.
The third point , about how do we define violence is crucially important. I wonder if you counted the homicide rate in nazi germany before wwii or in soviet russia after wwii , you've get much lower numbers than pre-history(per capita). But it's hard to tell with a strait face those are "better" or less violent than pre history.
Is he forgetting that Pinker writes mass-market books, not journal articles?
Here is a direct answer to the question. There's a ton more info on the topic and a huge portion of his book is dedicated to it:
*Wasn’t the 20th century the most violent in history?
Probably not; see chapter 5, especially pp. 189–200. Historical data from past centuries are far less complete, but the existing estimates of death tolls, when calculated as a proportion of the world’s population at the time, show at least nine atrocities before the 20th century (that we know of) which may have been worse than World War II. They arose from collapsing empires, horse tribe invasions, the slave trade, and the annihilation of native peoples, with wars of religion close behind. World War I doesn’t even make the top ten.
Also, a century comprises a hundred years, not just fifty, and the second half of the 20th century was host to a Long Peace (chapter 5) and a New Peace (chapter 6) with unusually low rates of death in warfare.
I don't pretend to know if it is the correct measure, but it is at least an interesting measure of the human resources being put to war.
Others have cited Pinker's Better Angels of our Nature, so I won't rehash.
But I couldn't disgree more with your comment that "the world's deepest and most serious problems have always been political, and always will be, and will always be beyond resolution by better gadgets." Technology CAN help. It can't help everything, and I don't think he was claiming that. But if you think your live would have been better in the 14th century, you're insane.
My favourite example is Finland v. Allies in WW2.
The spirit of the argument "there is no(t much) war between democracies" is that "when everyone gets a say, they generally don't choose to march off to war". Given the spirit of the argument, to then define democracy as forms of government with quite limited voter eligibility, is somewhat intentionally missing the point.
> He wrote, as we approach the centenary of The War To End All Wars.
The diminishing in size and frequency of armed conflict is either evidence that we'll have less destruction due to war in the future, or more destruction due to war in the future. It's not clear to me what model predicts more war, when observing less war--can you explain under what circumstances your model would predict less war?
Good luck solving the political problems of our day without technology to help.
I don't think anyone is arguing that technology alone will solve our most pressing problems, but you seem to take offense in that straw man. Do note that BMG is also focused on education (which to many is a good way to solve many political problems) and talks about influencing political decisions (noting that politicians are often risk averse, so that showing the way and reducing the risk with intelligent investments is another way to help).
Here's the funny part: your claim may even have some validity. But increased mobility is a very good thing, in the long run. I would argue that we need much more of it. I acknowledge it can cause problems in the short term, especially when there are very large differences in living conditions. But as the poverty rates in different areas slowly converge, I think this will become less of a problem.
Yes, the issues of the world are political. But demonizing technology doesn't help. Pointing out that technology didn't fix the problem would be a more reasonable way to make your point than "look how technology was used to make things worse".