In looking for the next intellectual/religious revolution, we can search for patterns in those of the past. Here is a summary of the major patterns I see, with the axial age as an example, followed by some musings on how we might fulfill these patterns today.

A Mode and a Sense

Every age has its dominant mode of thinking and a medium that facilitates it, where the medium is anchored in a particular sense -- generally, the medium is one sense or aspect of human psychology transferred into another sense. Each age continues to use what has come before, especially from the previous-most age.

The period of Empire was focused on social hierarchy, and did this by transferring social obligation into objects: monumental architecture, money, and accounting marks. It still rellied heavily on ritual (the prior revolution).

Elaborations on a Medium

Revolutions eventually come. They grow initially from the development of a new medium. But this doesn't come from nowhere: it is usually an elaboration or variation on an existing medium. Usually it is not the dominant medium, but a lesser one, which has in some way been put to a task larger than it: it is stretched to fulfill that task, and so, for very practical purposes, people begin to play around with it; pushing it into doing something new. The very dominant media are usually too extreme, and pushing into a particular direction too much, to allow experimentation.

The axial age saw the development of writing from tally marks. These had been an extension of social transference into objects, but could not quite fulfill their accounting role without some notation for who or what was being delivered and owed to the temple. Thus, practical and small elaborations allowed these marks to denote more -- eventually everything from verbal language.

Transformation of a Medium

The new medium begins to expand as more of a human element is transferred into it. What is this element? It is not the dominant obsession of the day -- that's already being transferred heavily elsewhere. It is also not the previous revolution's invention: because it too is bound up in the dominant paradigm. So a new revolution tends to reach back farther, finding a more remote element (and somewhat less utilized element) to place into the newest medium; along with a new sense.

As writing developed, it did not accomodate all of social obligation (coinage and monuments already existed after all) or ritual, but rather stories. That is, it took on verbal communication -- which was still in use, but not particularly associated with empire and social hierarchy. Eventually all verbalism was transferable into tally marks, which co-evolved into writing, and became visual instead of physical: while still made physically, the elaborated marks could be accessed visually, and had no real presence in space -- in contrast to monuments and coins, which they did not directly compete with.

A Split in Humanity

With some element of humanity transfered into a new medium, that element is accentuated, and a split within humanity is also created. This makes a new kind of reflection and imagination possible, as people look upon themselves in something else. This leads to major new ideas. As the medium develops, it can also become self-referetial, truly exemplifying the mode of thought.

Writing took storytelling from verbal language and transfered it to the page. This allows a conversation to happen between a person and text, and a new kind of self-reflectivity. Robert Bellah says this was "thinking about thinking" though I believe all revolutions involve that, and writing specifically allowed "linguistic thinking about linguistic thinking." Writing also made, for the first time, a split between storyteller and story: the story could exist outside of time and circumstance. This allowed the conception of universals, and abstractions that refer purely to themselves. Thus theoretical thought was born, and along with it, singular universal deities.

Old Tools

An age's most dominant tools and media are not good fodder for revolutions, but may nonetheless be so important that they persist: it is simply too hard to imagine society without them. The immediate revolution will probably use them as a counter-point -- as an example of things gone awry -- but they will persist nonetheless.

The imperial period invented currency: fungible, abstracted sociality. Despite revolutions that in many cases railed against the dominance of money, money has never gone away. And by being so important, it probably aided the mental transition to abstraction, even though it was not the basis for writing; i.e., money was not important as a medium, but as inspiration.

Tangential Change

Dominant modes of thought cannot be fought against directly. As with any idea, attacking them only reinforces the boundaries of discussion. Hence, revolutions take something that already exists and put it to a new, tangential purpose. They leave existing ideas in place, but reinterpret them. And they "split" human existence along a new plane, which simply minimizes older splits, and older ways of doing things.

Writing did not disolve kingship, money, or social hierarchy; neither did theoretical (linguistic) thought. Instead, these things were supplanted in importance by universalism and rationalism. Indeed, in one of the axial revolutions, the idea of a godly king was transferred to an otherworldly deity; in others, kings were merely bound by new laws. Humanity was thus split into the rational agent -- utilizing theory and rules -- and the emotive source of desires. Thus also the split between mind and matter. The older, imperial separation between an individual and his social status remains conceivable, but only in this plane of existence -- its importance is bounded by the idea of universalism.

New Imagination

Revolutions give perspective on the old order, making it no longer seem inevitable. Its ideas are still used in some ways, but can never be taken for granted again. Other possibilities become attainable. This is why every revolution, every mode of thought, can be viewed as a new kind of imagination.

With the internal dialogs allowed by writing, and with abstract theory, social systems could be analyzed, decomposed, and thus seen as arbitrary -- not universal. This allowed alternative systems to be imagined. These were not just rotations of who's in power (in the same old system), but completely different social arrangements -- e.g. radical equality. And by extension, all kinds of other possible worlds can now be imagined.


The split in humanity also sets up an unresolvable tension: one aspect of existence is prioritized and comes to dominate all others. We become exhausted by it, and can no longer find relief from the burdens of the day because they are also framed by the split. Most of all, the rest of our human existence is stiffled; basic drives and needs go unrecognized and unfilfilled.

In the imperial age, formalism and social status overwhelmed all other concerns; people no doubt had some impulse to live more by impulse, and to decide things without an emperor; and yet they could only dimply feel that these were even possible -- within the patterns of life at the time, they really were not. We can also be very sure that we suffer under the same cloak of invisible needs today. Parts of our humanity have been cut off, and can hardly even be dreamed of.

Resolution can only come with a new society; the old one is fundamentally incapable of addressing the tension, and indeed actively perpetuates it, subtly and unconscously. A society will suffer turmoil and turpitude as the issues are tucked under the rug, or internal answers are vainly sought. Only a revolution in thinking will succed: it will split humanity in a new way, and the old problem will finally be seen clearly, and be dispelled.

Where to Look

While the tensions and contradictions of an age are inevitably a motivation for welcoming change, they do not actually point the way directly to reform. For instance, you cannot look at the problems of the empires and say what needs to be done: you would be likely to say that a new emporer is needed, because you are still trapped in the thought of the day. Instead, a better place to start may be the media that develop in the present age, and which may evolve and bring about a new way of thinking.

Today's New Medium

The medium we want is unlikely to be the one that created our age, writing. Mathematical notation is too old, and too central to theorical thinking -- as are other formalisms like semiotics.

Television is an interesting case, indeed being a somewhat peripheral but original development of our period. But I would rule television out because it embodies too well the secondary features of our age, visuality and storytelling, rather than the primary ones. The same applies to the internet: it is simply our age recreating sociality, often through visualized speech or storytelling -- which is not what the next revolution will be about.


The most intriguing prospect is computer programming, as it hits many of the points we've touched on. It is not for mass communications, but still a language of sorts. It is very much a logical extension of theoretical abstraction, but is not central to our culture. It consists roughly in transferring logical thinking to physical devices; placing visuality into materiality. Programs already already have a certain self-referential nature, justifying themselves beyond being mere tools.

These are all things we should look for. I hesitate, however, because programming is so much in service of abstraction that radical experimentation might not be possible. Its popularity, with calls to teach every child to program, also give pause: if the current form of this potentially radical medium are well-adapted to today's culture, how radical can it be, or even become?