“Renaissance” is a renewed or heightened interest in something previously known but forgotten or ignored. It usually refers to the European cultural and creative revolution that took place from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century and was based on Greek and Roman themes. Most of us know the Renaissance through popular movies and TV series, such as Romeo and Juliet, A Man for All Seasons, Medici, and The Borgias, and through artists like Michelangelo’s David and Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The conditions that led to the European Renaissance are somewhat similar to the present day. Is a twenty-first century renaissance possible?
Similarities Between Conditions that Led to the European Renaissance and Present Day
An elite that disregarded public well-being
The centuries leading up to the European Renaissance were ruled by an autocratic and self-serving elite within the church and the nobility with little concern for the public. They fought bitterly amongst themselves for power but cooperated to stop any threat from the general populace.
Today, a similar elite controls China, Iran, Russia, Belarus, North Korea, and Venezuela. But such an elite exists even in representative democracies among some leaders in politics, labor unions, giant companies, education, social media, and news media. These leaders seem to be deaf to stakeholder complaints and blind to falling market shares or the reckoning ahead with the forces of democratization and deinstitutionalization. We have already witnessed the disruptive effects of these forces in retail, book publishing, taxis, automobiles, space, music, movies, and television.
Repression of Free Speech, Innovative Thinking, and Peaceful Dissent
Pre-Renaissance religious leaders and nobility decided what could be written or spoken, scientifically researched, invented, and the art that could be created and displayed. Violations were often punishable by imprisonment or death.
Today, a culture of dogma-based intolerance uses public humiliation, economic boycotts, and vocabulary hypersensitivity to impose its will. Intolerance has led to political and social polarization that limits free-flowing intelligent discussion. Without public mandate or legal authority, social media leaders decide what and who will be heard. Today, many universities that were founded to promote free speech and unfettered scientific inquiry are controlled by close-minded ideological sects. Leaders repressing free expression demonstrate a shocking lack of wisdom; their actions intensify the will to overcome.
The bubonic plague, peaking from 1347 to 1351, ravaged Italy, Europe, and ultimately the world, as international trade unwittingly ferried plague-carrying rats, lice, and fleas. One-third to one-half of Europe’s population perished in just five years. Smaller outbreaks continued until a cure was discovered five centuries later. Confidence in the church and nobility declined. Before the plague, people accepted life’s suffering as the price of a heavenly reward. Plague survivors sought beauty, enjoyment, and meaning during life instead of waiting for the afterlife. They found it in sophisticated Greek and Roman cultures that had been forgotten or ignored for centuries.
The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 should not have been a surprise. Experts warned of pandemics for decades, and several epidemics were pandemic near misses. As with the bubonic plague, people relied upon unprepared institutions to protect them. Airlines and cruise ships spread the coronavirus rapidly, just as merchant ships and trade caravans spread the bubonic plague. Thankfully, the coronavirus cause, life-saving vaccines, and therapeutics were discovered in a year instead of 500 years, as with the Black Death. Tens of millions of lives were saved as a result. The COVID-19 pandemic caused or accelerated many social and technological changes whose full effect may not be appreciated for years.
Declining population and worker shortages
The bubonic plague led to the first-ever recorded population decline. It caused a workforce shortage that improved wages and living conditions through the fifteenth century until the population rebounded. A worker shortage appeared during the COVID-19 pandemic as well. People are rejecting work that they find materially or aesthetically unrewarding, resulting in what is referred to as “The Great Resignation.”
Population decline may also be a factor in worker shortages. Overpopulation has been feared by many people, economists, and scientists since the late 1800s. A new reality has replaced those fears: population is declining and aging in developed countries due to falling birth rates and expanding life expectancy. The trend will be worldwide after 2160. No country has successfully reversed declining birth rates. After 2160 most young people will live throughout Africa and the Middle East instead of in countries needing young workers. The aging population’s pension and healthcare costs will become unaffordable without increased subsidies from fewer younger people. It is also unclear how economies that have always depended upon population growth for expansion will adjust to declining and aging populations. Concern with falling birth rates recently led Pope Francis to encourage people to have more children.
Banking and finance
Before the European Renaissance, prosperity, trade, and innovation were constrained by the absence of banks, monetary exchanges, and modern trade practices. A mercantile class emerged in Italy that professionalized banking and trade practices and created enormous wealth for the founding families and their cities.
Today, the economic system that began in Renaissance times is being challenged by new economic concepts made possible by digital currencies and blockchain technology. The economic system of the future is unlikely to look like the one we know. Cash and banks could likely be casualties.
During the Renaissance, scientific discoveries overcame centuries-old religious and superstitious taboos. Findings included the scientific method and the origins of modern biology, chemistry, medicine, and astronomy. The discovery of the New World in 1492 and skyward discoveries of galaxies, elliptical orbits, gravity, and the earth’s orbit around the sun changed public perspective. They saw the world, the universe, and their place in it differently and became more receptive to innovation and less to superstition.
Scientific breakthroughs in the next thirty years will be far more profound. They will challenge today’s perceptions of the world and the universe. But this time, changes will affect every person and redefine life and humanity itself. Possible discoveries include the universe’s origins, the existence of other life forms in space, virtually unlimited computing power through quantum computers, environmentally friendly energy, new sources of fresh water and food production, extended longevity, seamless interaction with automation and the Cloud, and automation so humanized that it is almost indistinguishable from humans.
The Pace of Innovation and Invention
The European Renaissance’s most significant contribution was its miraculous creative output in all fields, especially democratizing innovations and art. Inventions included the printing press, mechanical clocks and watches, scales, eyeglasses, telescopes, microscopes, barometers, thermometers, flush toilets (thank you very much), slide rules and adding machines, compasses and reliable maps, whiskey, and bottled beer (thanks again), muskets and cannons, parachutes and submarines, wrenches and screwdrivers, and many more.
The creative output of the next thirty years will far exceed the impressive two hundred years of the European Renaissance. Most innovation, until recent decades, was capital, labor, and time-intensive to develop and propagate. Think steam, electricity, steel, textiles, oil, automobiles, etc. Most future innovations will arise from medical research, artificial intelligence, software, or circuitry developed or supported in the Cloud at a fraction of the time and cost. The public will adopt innovations much faster. Recent examples include the iPhone, Apple Watch, Uber, Tesla, Netflix, videoconferencing, COVID-19 vaccines, and therapeutics.
It is conceivable that innovation and creativity could become mass-produced through an innovation infrastructure, vast expansion in the number and power of innovators, reduced development cost and time, and accelerated adoption into daily use.
The innovation infrastructure will include worldwide high-speed data transmission, the advanced Cloud of the metaverse and the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, voice-and-thought-controlled brain-to-computer interfaces, advanced data storage, blockchain security, and widely available low-cost innovation financing.
The infrastructure expands the entrepreneurs, inventors, designers, and creative artists from millions today, mostly in developed countries, to billions worldwide. Automation will assume dangerous, repetitive, and physically demanding industrial age work, freeing humans for New Work that is creative, problem-solving, or that requires complex human relationship skills. Innovators will collaborate as if part of a single mind, simultaneously creating or sharing experiences. Each new innovator will operate at near genius levels with fewer physical limitations. The per-person creative output will increase through longer, healthier, more productive work lives.
The seeds that led to parliamentary democracies were sown in the European Renaissance. The control of the church and nobility was challenged by mercantile families and the cities that they developed into city-states. New skilled professional classes were emboldened by high demand and plague-related worker shortages. Universities were formed. Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation.
Accelerating innovation and change in the next three decades will disrupt and deinstitutionalize institutions that fail to democratize their approach to the public. Versions 2.0 of democracy, education, religion, media, and corporations will remake those institutions as Renaissance Europe remade theirs.
Could There Be a Twenty-first Century Renaissance Similar to Europe’s in the Fourteenth to Seventeenth Centuries?
Comparisons to events leading to the European Renaissance and conditions today are imperfect, but striking. The horrors of the plague and pre-Renaissance times led to democratizing innovations, some of history’s greatest creative artists and art, and sweeping cultural changes.
The next three decades could be more revolutionary than the two hundred years of the European Renaissance. For example, the innovation infrastructure described above may become more critical to the quality of life than nations, economic systems, or natural resources. Lifestyles will have many more options driven by work from anywhere (WFA), digital currencies and perhaps digital passports, and citizenships for sale in a free market. Governing the Cloud could evolve to become a type of world government. Institutions will be redesigned to meet people living in these very different times.
What have we forgotten or ignored like people of the European Renaissance that we might relearn? Could we reawaken historical perspectives? Might we be fooled less often by elites as technology levels knowledge, wisdom, and opportunity? Will life become more valued when there are fewer of us? Will we appreciate why ancient societies honored wisdom as the most significant human achievement and celebrated the wisest as their heroes? These questions could be enough for a renaissance of the human spirit.
Ben Lytle has been routinely ahead of the curve in his career as an entrepreneur, CEO, and investor and in how he has chosen to live. For several years, he has been paying close attention to the converging forces of change that few people have recognized. Ben makes a compelling argument in this first book that this convergence will reshape life as we know it and every human being as they know themselves today. Learn more about The Potentialist book here.