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Network: Wealth of information

Chris Gulker Information has the property of not being reduced by sharing
THINK, PLEASE, about the world and its technology 1,000 years ago, at the turn of the last millennium.

In 999, Norse adventurers were prowling and plundering the North Sea, and Europe was just emerging from the mire of the Dark Ages. What was it that made 999 so different from our own era? It really comes down to one big difference, and that one difference explains everything else.

The world is a very, very different place in 1999 from what it was in 999. In my last column, I argued that technology has driven the gap between rich and poor unmercifully wide. Even if today's poor are better off than the poor of the past, the distance between haves and have-nots is huge and growing.

I've done a little reading since that column appeared, especially as it provoked such an outpouring of e-mail. The very nature of poverty has changed profoundly in my lifetime, not to mention since 999. The Stanford University historian David Kennedy, quoted recently in The Wall Street Journal, says: "For most of mankind's history, the poor were a vast majority, and only a tiny elite enjoyed wealth and comfort."

Colonial Americans, well off for their time, were wretches compared with residents of even relatively poor countries today. An American of 1799 had only a one in two chance of becoming an adult, and, averaged out, he could expect to live for only 35 years. Today, by contrast, a resident of Mexico, a relatively poor country, has a life expectancy of 76 years, and infant mortality is 28 per 100,000 - not greatly different from its neighbour the US.

In 1500 Europeans spent 80 per cent of their disposable income on a mere 2,700 daily calories, which allowed few people to grow taller than 5ft. Today, 4,000 calories cost maybe 25 per cent of an EU citizen's disposable income, and many of them grow to almost 6ft.

In 999, more than 99 per cent of the world was poor. Today, the World Bank puts the figure at 27 per cent - "poor" being defined as living on $1.60 or less per day. When compared with, say, the median Silicon Valley income of around $50,000 (around $137 a day), the gap between the haves and the have-nots becomes clear.

So we've gone from a world where we were all poor and likely to lead short, hard lives, to one where most of us are far better off, if unequal.

But what's made this so? From a geological perspective, not much has changed since 999. Even humanity has changed little in many respects - the human genome has changed only a few of its trillion bits in that time.

All the materials for creating every technological marvel today was present in 1000 in abundance. The same copper and silicon in the computer in front of me were in the earth a millennium ago, as was the Tarmac in the road in front of my house, the steel in the car in my drive.

Everything that makes my world today was lying around 1,000 years ago. So why did generations of humanity live in wretched poverty all those years? Because they didn't know how not to. They lacked one thing: information.

The difference between 999 and 1999 boils down to knowledge. Centuries of human misery could have been avoided if people had just known how, and known it sooner.

All of the wealth created in the last 1,000 years can be attributed to just possessing information. One estimate is that information in the world increased a million times in the 100 years following the Western invention of movable type. Thinkers such as Hobbes, Descartes and Galileo read the same books, a legacy of Gutenberg's press.

It's no wonder that the new millennium is being called the dawn of the Information Age. After millennia of getting it wrong, we're now focused on the single commodity that benefits us most, even if we're doing it imperfectly. cg@gulker.com