I recently completed a summer term history course. The title of the course was Europe 1715 to present. Wow, I actually thought I had a clue about European history before this course. Was I ever wrong. The amazing mess that was Europe in the 1800s brings the current problems in other areas of the world into perspective. I think it’s a little too easy for people who grew up in ‘modern’ countries to think that our society has always been as stable and sane as now (or at least as stable as we think it is). This course showed me that this is certainly not true.
Also, I found the Enlightenment to be particularly interesting. The fact that ideas that we now take for granted such as people should be ruled by laws not rulers, equality of all people and the concept of individual identity come from only ~225 years ago (1750->1800 mostly) is amazing to me. These are just a few examples of Enlightenment ideas that are now central to our liberal (in a classical sense) societies.
The French revolutions of 1789 were the first major political events that centered around Enlightenment ideas. The backlash against this revolution resulted in the European Congress system that was designed to put the lid back on and restore Europe to pre-1789. That it took until the end of World War I for the ideas of the Enlightenment to come to the forefront of European politics is very alarming.
I can’t stop myself from seeing similarities between the Enlightenment and the current conversations about intellectual property. There were many entrenched interests who did their best to stop the ideas of the Enlightenment. These ideas were so powerful that even a hundred years of crushing attempts could not make them go away. The Internet and other digital technologies have fundamentally changed our world. The law hasn’t caught up to this fact yet. Companies and individuals who profit under the old system of scarcity and control are doing their best to make sure the law never does catch up. Sounds a lot like the last major intellectual revolution western society went through. I am pretty confident how this will end. The question is, do we need another century of innocent people getting jailed or worse before we see the end of the tunnel?
I need to be a little careful here. As my history professor said, despite popular belief history does not actually repeat itself. That doesn’t mean there are not any lessons to be learned though.