The Atrium of thought

50 Ideas That Shaped the World (1911 – 2011)

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26. Non-Violence

The Power of Peace

If Hitler epitomises racial hatred, the 20th century has an even more compelling counterpoint — Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps the most singular man to have emerged in the last century, became the first to demonstrate that the world’s most powerful empire could be brought down without lifting a gun. Satyagraha – or non-violent protest – earned India an entirely bloodless independence. Martin Luther King Jr followed in Gandhi’s footsteps to become a game-changer in the American civil rights movement; doubters have once again been silenced by the almost completely non-violent protests that led to the deposing of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and the Liberian peace movement that eventually led to dictator Charles Taylor being overthrown.

27. Durable Materials

Altered the Realm of Physical Products

They’re so ubiquitous, we almost don’t notice them anymore, and yet stainless steel and plastic are the twin foundations on which much of the developed world is constructed. There’s good reason for that. Stainless steel is corrosion-resistant, 100% recyclable and, as the name suggests, stain resistant. And, with over 150 grades available, it can be milled into any shape you choose, from sheets and plates to coils, wires and tubes. That’s also what makes plastic so seductive, despite its terrible environmental footprint – it frees us from ‘material’ constraints. With synthetic versions like nylon, Teflon, polypropylene, polyester and acrylic to choose from, there’s virtually nothing that can’t be crafted out of these two game-changing materials.

28. Outsourcing

Closing the Gap

It’s a business in which everyone’s a John Doe. Millions of college graduates across countries like India and China take on a new identity every day as they solve customer service complaints from the other side of the globe, a surreal reality made possible by the massive leaps in communications technology. Cheaper labour and land costs, a surfeit of graduates and few labour laws have caused back-end operations to be outsourced across the planet, creating millions of jobs in the developing world even as protests rise in the West. The movement owes a lot to KP Singh, head of DLF Industries, who influenced GE CEO Jack Welch to use Gurgaon, a New Delhi suburb, for back-end operations for his company.

29. Microfinance

Funding the Dreams of the Poor

A revolutionary financing system that makes money available to those who need it most – the poorest of the poor, who have no access to conventional banking systems and typically borrow from village moneylenders at prohibitive, destructive terms. Via microfinance, loans of small amounts are offered to groups of people at a collective interest rate; non-payment by one member increases the interest rate for all, ensuring peer pressure on the defaulter. Microfinance has already revolutionised the lives of millions in Africa, India and Bangladesh, releasing them from a cycle of debt and bondage for the first time in generations. But ominously now, the ills of conventional banking have begun to set in here too.

30. Conservation

Rescuing Life and History

Progress does not necessarily have to be at odds with preservation. Over the last century though, we have revelled in wiping out the old to make way for the new. This has manifested itself most in the shrinking of our natural resources, in the near-extinction of animal species vital to our planet; in the depleting rainforests and natural habitats these animals need to survive. But we have wiped out more than natural resources – historic art and architecture have suffered the same fate. In a slow but firm movement, ‘conservationists’ – a new, committed breed of professionals – have come together to protect what the world stands to lose. From environmental conservation efforts to the creation of World Heritage Sites under the protection of UNESCO, we’re finally learning to strengthen our links to the past instead of destroying them.

31. Special Needs

Destigmatised Millions of People

For centuries, they were harshly rejected as ‘handicapped’. Or worse. It has taken decades to create an attitudinal shift. Today, children afflicted by learning or physical disabilities are considered as having ‘special needs’, an attitude that makes a subtle but powerful distinction between defects and differences. This has powered a change in education patterns, societal acceptance and support, and in driving scientific research. It has moved the cheese from shame to celebration. You only have to think of South African double amputee Oscar Pistorious, “the fastest man on no legs”, to understand how game-changing that can be.

32. Sex Change Operations

The Ultimate Liberation

Imagine being born male – but identifying all your life with how women feel. Imagine looking like a woman but not thinking like one. Imagine going through life with the emotions and needs of one gender with the form of the other. Now imagine the freedom to change that. Sex-change operations may matter to only a fraction of us but they offer a freedom unparallelled in science: to change a fundamental fact of human existence. For the transgender community, it isn’t a ‘cosmetic’ procedure – it’s freedom from a life of angst, subterfuge and distress. For the first time in history, gender is a choice. Many may not need that choice, but it’s the existence of the choice itself that marks the incredible nature of the achievement.

33. Green Revolution

Engineering Food Security

In the early 1960s, the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines released a semi-dwarf, high-yield variety of rice that, in conjunction with high-yield wheat, ushered in the Green Revolution worldwide, saving a potential one billion people from starvation by increasing yields per hectare of land. The idea of hybrid seeds, irrigation canals, chemical fertilisers and pesticides transformed agriculture the world over. For some decades, it was seen as a miracle. Now the costs have kicked in: salinated lands, spiralling input costs, diminishing yields and health side-effects. The argument over genetically modified crops is still to play itself out.

34. Americana

The Empire Built on Soft Power

Americana, not English, is the dominant language of the world today – our movies, slang, food, TV shows, magazines, authors, celebrities, products, apparel, sport – are almost all obsessively American. We know the minutae of Brangelina’s lives, are hooked onto Dexter and How I Met Your Mother, eat cheeseburgers, listen to Lady Gaga, read the New York Times online, love Star Trek and Superman, are addicted to Apple, drink Coke, wear Nikes, and probably have a Hard Rock Café T-shirt in the closet. It’s been called Cultural Imperialism and perhaps it is, having spread as inexorably as any land domination ever has, influencing ideas, events, technologies, retail and consumption in the remotest corners of the world.

35. Multi-Culturalism

The New World Religion

It emerged from de-colonisation but has become a force in its own right. The end of the World Wars saw the break-up of all the old colonising empires –  British, Dutch, French, Italian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian. What emerged in its place were cultures suffused with the spirit of other places. Countries opened themselves to people from other races, religions, ethnicities and sexual orientations to create a truly heterogeneous mix. It’s multi-culturalism that allows a Chinatown to exist in every major city; that makes Raj Kapoor one of Russia’s most celebrated icons; and that explains why chicken tikka masala is a British dish, not an Indian one.

36. 24/7 News Media

Magnifying Reality Like Never Before

Being bombarded with news every minute of every day is altering the world in ways we do not fully understand yet. 24/7 news doesn’t just report happenings, it magnifies it. It offers rumour, debate, fact, analysis, comment and reportage as an often-indistinguishable mix. Critics argue it fuels hysteria and lends weight to trivialities; advocates believe it is a potent conscience-keeper. What is unarguable is that it has changed the information landscape of this century — ironically making news both more urgent and transient; and our responses both more immediate and deadened with the sheer information overload.

37. Age of Shakti

The Rise of Women in Public Life 

The era of women is well and truly here. They have always been wives, sisters, daughters, mothers; now, they’re also employees, consultants, bosses, partners, decision-makers, opinion-shapers, earners, spenders. The resulting flux has altered our society fundamentally – when women go out to work and have the financial means to take their own decisions, the power balance shifts. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the multi-dimensional woman has created an unusual offshoot – the Diaper Dad, who shares domestic chores, runs errands, and fields a laptop and ladle with equal competence, if not enthusiasm.

38. Space Travel

Dismantled the Idea of Limits

Our understanding of the world has been shaped significantly by the exploration of one beyond it. The most spectacular success came when man landed on the moon. It was more than a metaphorical moment of success though – space travel has spurred some of the most useful inventions of our time. We owe to space research more efficient ways to cool and heat our homes; advances in solar power; batteries and power transmission systems; unprecedented medical advances, and above all, major advances in aviation safety. Now with commercial travel to space ready to take off, the boundaries have been pushed once more.

39. Beauty Industry

Skin Deep

The US spends more on the beauty business each year than it does on education. There are more ‘Avon ladies’ in Brazil than there are military officers. And worldwide, beauty is no longer an ephemeral quality, it is a $330 billion industry. Research proves babies respond better to prettier faces, teachers to more attractive students, and better-looking employees earn higher salaries. That explains why so much science is devoted to combating ageing, correcting ‘flaws’ – and creating a battery of products to conceal what can’t be corrected. You can shape, sculpt, highlight, or simply fake anything these days. This has both liberated women and engendered a new kind of tyranny of market-dictated beauty.

40. Consumer Technologies

The Pursuit of Convenience

This is the century that gave us sliced bread, the remote control, microwave ovens, automobiles, washing machines, the zipper, ball-point pens, photocopiers, transistor radios, pocket calculators, fax machines and arguably most important, indoor plumbing – none of them truly fundamental to human existence, yet central to making our lives smoother. The housewife took centrestage, with much of the focus on technologies that made running her home quicker, handier, cleaner, while consumption patterns changed dramatically, going from need-based to greed-based.

41. Multi-national companies

The New Kingdoms 

It has its combatants, but free-market trade is the dominant system in the world today, creating a new, powerful, boundary-less entity: the multinational corporation. Controlling billions of dollars in trade, hundreds of thousands of jobs, and often core sectors like energy, transport and communications, they dictate public policy, international equations and economic decisions. It’s CEOs and industrialists, not diplomats and politicians, who are the new influencers; their corporations, the new global royalty.

42. Professional Sport

The New Gladiators

Humankind has always competed for thrill, adventure and testosterone. Now, there’s the added adrenaline of money. From Europe’s cult football clubs to India’s cash-rich cricket league, American baseball to competitive tennis, sport has become a powerful, money-powered spectacle. Selecting an Olympic or football World Cup host involves massive political lobbying, and television rights for sporting events often seems to equal the GDP of several nations. And then there’s merchandising, brand sponsorships, sporting equipment and video-game spin-offs. All icing on a very rich cake.

43. Quantum Theory

Physics Meets Fantasy

The entire architecture of the world as we know it is affected by quantum theory, which deals with the behaviour of the smallest particles of matter and reveals the oddities at work in our physical world. Even physicists as renowned as Richard Feynman have conceded it’s hard to explain quantum theory in any coherent way; the only thing researchers agree on is that without it, we may never have had the Internet, the cellphone, GPS, email or high-definition television, superconductors or bullet trains, among others.

44. Laser Beam

Bending Light Energy to Human Convenience 

Whitens teeth, removes tattoos, corrects vision, scans groceries, tracks missiles. Ironically, given how ubiquitous the laser is today, its inventor – Theodore H Maiman who worked at Hughes Research Laboratories in California – didn’t have the foggiest what they were going to do with it. Lasers are one of the examples of how pure research, unlinked to end use, can change the world. All Maiman knew was that he had something special on his hands. Today, given that the laser is used in everything from DVD players to precision-guided munitions, it’s safe to say he wasn’t wrong.

45. Recycling

A Corrective on Man’s Reckless Consumption

The realisation that our natural resources are not limitless. The fears about the multiple ways in which this could affect life for future generations. The beginnings of a move towards sustainability and the control of wastage. These have all been awakenings of the past century and have taken tangible form with the recycling movement. Not the cure for all ills, recycling is nevertheless a powerful idea in the search for sustainability, one of the key elements of the ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ waste hierarchy.

46. Credit Card

The Reinvention of Money

Paper money may have seemed like the final frontier but recent decades have shown that it is merely an element – and potentially, a dispensable one – in the human evolution story. Money may make the world go round, but it certainly doesn’t have to weigh down your wallet. Credit and debit cards, prepaid/cash cards, wire transfers and Internet banking – you can spend money without ever seeing it these days. But perhaps most transformative of these has been the credit card, enabling a cycle of consumption before earning, for possibly the first time in human history – with both liberating and devastating impacts.

47. Television

Life at the Touch of a Button

Communication, engagement, information, debate, discovery, learning, indulgence, voyeurism – the television is a tool of many traits, and we can’t seem to do without them all. Politicians use it to reach you, entertainers to captivate you, news networks to engage you, sport to absorb you and advertisers to seduce you. With its immense amplifications, it is no longer just a medium but a player itself; with a relentless logic of its own. In the ultimate reckoning, however, the power always lies in the hands of those who hold the remote. That’s what makes it a democratic medium rivalled by few others.

48. Assembly Line

The Start of Automation

Henry Ford took automobiles – a pricey, exclusive luxury available to a few – and transformed them into a mass movement. But he had an even more influential impact in the process: creating the first ever ‘assembly-line’ manufacturing set-up in 1914. For the first time, the engineer stood in place while the product went around the plant on a belt-driven production line, parts being added at every stage – speeding up the manufacturing process and cutting costs dramatically. No one had ever done it before, so there wasn’t even a word for it. It was Ford again, in 1926, who gave it the name it has till date: mass production. Till then, it was simply called Fordism.

49. Human Rights

Acknowledging Human Equality

The formal recognition of ‘human rights’ as something humanity was entitled to was born out of the horrors of World War II, although philosophers had bandied the concept around for centuries previously. The big milestone, though, came when the UN drafted its “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. The movement’s next landmark came in 1961 when British lawyer Peter Benenson wrote a newspaper appeal, “The Forgotten Prisoners”, calling for an international campaign to fight the imprisonment of people for their political and religious beliefs. Responses flooded in, and Amnesty International was born, laying the foundation for future organisations to take up the battle.

50. Social Networking

Revolutionised Human Relations

Around the world, every day, more than three billion minutes are spent on Facebook. News is now routinely broken on Twitter. Following someone is no longer stalking, poking is no longer rude, and to ‘Facebook or troll someone’ is now considered even grammatically acceptable. Social networking has completely revolutionised the way we interact and who we interact with. It allows for emotional expression without responsibility and has nurtured romance, revolution and bigotry in equal measure. It may seem frivolous to some, a passing fancy to others but there is no denying that social networking is shaping our communication patterns more definitively than any other movement in recent history.

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Curated and written by Payal Puri