The Atrium of Thought

50 Ideas That Shaped The World (1911 – 2011)

Not all ideas are big. Or feasible. Or game-changing. Or memorable. Or, for that matter, good. The ones that are, though, change the world. Sometimes immediately, sometimes not for decades after their inception.

The last century has been a pretty remarkable one on the ideas front – in many ways, it has been one of the more eventful centuries in recorded human existence. We’ve invented tools to make our lives easier and ideologies that complicate it. We’ve made leaps in our understanding of ourselves – and thrown it away with destructive intent. We’ve explored a world beyond our own – but routinely disregarded what we have here. We’ve created technologies that unite – and philosophies that divide. In each of these cases. there was an idea – intelligent, futile or audacious even – that kicked off the process and eventually, shaped the world as we know it today.

THINK is about ideas – we start by celebrating 50 of the past century’s most remarkable ones.
Enjoy the ride.

1. Human Genome

The Potential to Remould Human Life Itself 

DNA structures, mapping of the human genome and cloning are different stages, and manifestations, of a single compelling question: how do we become who we are? The study of genetics has brought us closer to answering baffling questions of creation. Why is this important? Gene studies has the potential to replicate life and cure previously incurable diseases by altering ‘defective’ genes; while understanding traits of heredity and inheritance has a far-reaching impact on understanding the human mind. Together, they can transform our physical and mental health like nothing else.

2. Reproductive Control

Giving Women Their Bodies Back

The social impact of the Pill is probably as significant, if not more, as giving women the vote: it kicked the women’s sexual liberation movement into high gear and changed the way they perceive their bodies – and their equation with men, forever. The expanding reach of abortion – however contentious an issue between pro-life and pro-choice activists – undeniably did the same, giving women control over child-bearing and therefore over their place in the social structure. It also left the ball of sexual pleasure in the women’s court.

3. World Wide Web

The Web That Binds

If the airplane shrank distances from days to hours, the Internet has made the concept of distance itself meaningless. Uniting the world under an invisible web, it has virtually limitless power, limited only by our imagination. It started out as a productivity tool but today, everything from trade to sex to revolution relies on the Internet for reach. Above all, it is arguably the world’s greatest weapon of freedom – giving you access to everything you want, legal or illegal, provocative or prudish, utilitarian or useless, with a few effortless clicks.

4. Globalisation

Creating Opportunity, Accentuating Loss

When communications, transport, economics and culture all collude to diffuse boundaries, you end up with the 20th century’s seemingly favourite word: globalisation. The dominant form of globalisation has been economic, with transformative growth in international trade and manufacturing – think Made in China on your Apple iPod and Made in India on your Banana Republic sweatshirt – and it has created a class of world citizens. On the flipside, it has also vastly amplified the numbers of the dispossessed. An interesting cultural side-effect has been fusion. Ironically, we’re drawing stronger physical boundaries around nations than ever before even as we show rare cultural flexibility, with language, films, art, fashion, design and architecture blending influences from across the world to create whole new paradigms.

5. Solar Energy

Selling Sunshine Might Finally Save the World

It is sustainable, renewable, and has no adverse environmental impact. That alone makes three compelling reasons for its advancement. But solar energy has a wealth of other advantages: it has no ongoing maintenance or production costs, is entirely silent and unobtrusive, and if you’re using thermal solar power producers, it allows you to even store the electricity generated for use later. We’re hardly the first century to discover the sun’s energy potential. We’re not even the first to harness it. But with the spread of solar technology and reduced costs of installation, this is the first century when it has started to seem a truly viable – and liberating – option for residential and commercial use.

6. Cellular Phones

Connectivity on the Run, in 10 Digits

Barely three decades ago, it was the stuff of sci-fi. Now, 28 years after the first mobile phone was made commercially available, there are 4.6 billion of them in use on the planet. The most disconnected ends of the earth are now linked; being alone is now a luxury rather than compulsion, and across the world, we can now make friends, break up, cheat, love, work, play, fight, report, eavesdrop and inform at the push of a few buttons. Productivity has gone up – or down — depending on what you use your cellphone for; mobiles can accommodate needs as critical as disaster management and relief, and as trivial as solitaire while you wait for your flight.

7. Universal Franchise

The Acceptance of Equality

The right of all citizens of a country above a certain age, irrespective of gender, caste, colour or religion, to vote is a right we take for granted in contemporary democracies but is one that was a bitterly fought battle. The 20th century saw the movement make quantum leaps, with women among the last to get the vote in most parts of the world. This marked the end of traditional social hierarchies globally – with far-reaching impact. The universal right to vote has churned societies; pulled many voiceless communities out of victimhood and placed them in seats of power themselves. While, in practice, power may remain with a small elite, the vote is the most powerful check invented by man.

8. Antibiotics

Taming Infection

Today, we can’t imagine bacterial infections leading to death except in a freak, horrifying case. Back in 1928, though, there was nothing freakish about death by infection – it was, more or less, the norm. Enter Alexander Fleming and his discovery of penicillin and diseases that had seemed a scourge in the past now became entirely curable. Smallpox, which killed 500 million people in the 20th century alone, was entirely eradicated. Immense advancements have been made in medical science since, but antibiotics continue to hold a hallowed place in the treatment of everyday infection and preventing wasteful deaths.

9. GPS

Merging Surveillance and Survival

The Global Positioning System was clever enough as a military technology, but when GPS became available to the rest of us it changed the way we navigate – and probably made a lot of mapmakers redundant. Its utility goes way beyond finding your way around town; think location tracking, disaster relief and emergency services, marine navigation, animal tracking, weather- data, earthquake-monitoring, navigation and cellphone technology, apart from its multiple military uses. Thanks to GPS, we’re faster, safer, quicker, more responsive, less accident-prone and, hopefully, better drivers than we’ve ever been in history.

10. Jet Engine

Transforming Travel, Collapsing Time

It’s essentially an internal combustion engine with a rotary air compressor powered by a turbine. While various permutations of a jet engine have existed from previous centuries, the first successful attempts to use gas turbines to power jet engines were made in the 1920s, making long-distance travel a reality. Today, 1.5 billion people fly each year. Advanced versions of the jet engine are now at the heart of cruise missiles, unmanned aircraft, and even space flights. Above all, though, they’ve transformed our notions of distance, shrinking the world in the most tangible way possible.

11. X-Rays

Critical Diagnostic Tool that’s Transformed Medicine

The X-ray was discovered entirely by accident by German scientist Wilhelm Roentgen in 1895 but it wasn’t until 1913 that the first X-ray tube was designed specifically for medical purposes by American chemist William Coolidge. It was a discovery that transformed medical science and how internal ailments were diagnosed, and though incredible advancements have since been made in internal medicine, the X-ray remains a critical diagnostic tool. It allows you a look inside the human body without having to cut it open, radically minimising invasive surgery and resulting complications. Uses today go way beyond medicine, to safety equipment, archaeology and astronomy but nowhere is the X-ray more compelling than in a doctor’s able hands.

12. Cinema

The ‘Talkies’ Reinvented Culture

This is the century of the ‘talkies’, where moving pictures and sound married to create magic on screen, and a whole new way for the world to interact with each other. The movies are not just entertainment though. They’re escape and information all at once. They reflect culture and shape it. In fact, they’ve been key to the overwhelming cultural cross-pollination of this century, spreading ideas and merging influences from across the world, allowing for a new, often shared, culture to emerge where previously only very distinct ones existed. Think AR Rahman singing Jai Ho on the Oscars stage and you’ll know exactly what we mean.

13. Leisure/Pleasure

Pursuing Pleasure

Emperors may have kept harems and scarfed champagne, but for the rest of mankind, pleasure has conventionally been a dish too pricey to order. No longer. For the first time in recent history, the middle class is celebrating doing nothing. Leisure is an idea that has changed modern commerce. Spaces, events, services, products, technologies – a host of things that never existed before – are now at work to help us put our feet up. Spa breaks, weekend getaways, retail therapy, lounge bars, fine-dining, cruises, adventure trips, martinis on the beach and villa rentals, vacation homes and massage chairs, hedonism has become our defining pursuit and a key economic driver.

14. Xenophobia

The Century’s Greatest Shame

History is replete with destructive ideas. But none, perhaps, has been as devastating as xenophobia, the most shattering example of which was the Holocaust and the extermination of 6 million Jews. It’s not an isolated example. The genocide in Rwanda and Darfur and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia show that implacable hatred of communities by dictatorial forces continues to exist, and has the power to bring the world to the brink of devastation more easily than we imagine.

15. New-Age Spirituality

Band-aid for the Modern Soul

It’s a bit of everything – eastern and western religious tenets, psychology, holistic health, metaphysics, and more. Gone are the traditional ‘saints’. The new evangelists of our time are self-help pros – they’re geared to help an anxietal age stress-bust and feel calmer. New-Age Spirituality began as an amalgam of the best from Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Chinese folk philosophies, Islam and Sikhism – minus the rituals. Its first movements had roots in the esoteric writings of writers like DH Lawrence and WB Yeats, psychologist Carl Jung, theologian Edgar Cayce and philosopher Walter Russell. But somewhere along the way, it’s been leached of some of its deeper impulses and become merely soul-comfort movements, spawning massive and financially rich spiritual corporations around one central charismatic figure.

16. Personal Computing

The Electronic Miracle

Today, we can’t imagine life without it. Whether in its smartphone avatar, as the ubiquitous laptop, the cutting-edge tablet, or the humble desktop, personal computers tie the complicated threads of our lives together. They’re tools of work and play, creativity and organisation, storage and communication; they help store mountains of data that earlier required physical space, and have changed the way we live more comprehensively than most other innovations of this century. The new talk is about ‘Singularity’ when Artificial Intelligence will outstrip biological intelligence, putting evolution on a whole new track.

17. IVF

Beating Biology

Not too long ago, having a child was considered a miracle; the inability to conceive, a curse. Today? You can choose in-vitro fertilisation, have your eggs frozen to put off procreation for a later date, use a sperm donor or a surrogate mother, and generally confound nature in a dozen ways. It’s not easy, it’s not cheap, but it is, finally, possible. When Louise Brown, the world’s first test-tube baby gave birth to her own child in 2006, medical science passed its final test of intervention. Even with the most cutting-edge scientific advancements, childbirth is still a miracle – but we can now nudge the miracle along just a little. For the almost 150 million estimated infertile couples worldwide, that’s as godlike as medicine can get.

18. Tetrapack

Freed Food to Travel Lite 

It doesn’t sound like much but when Swedish company Tetra Pak unveiled its cartons for storing and transporting milk, it was an act of genius. Tetra Pak is now the default term for all such packaging and you have only to walk down a supermarket aisle – or open your refrigerator – to recognise the scale of this achievement. Tetra Pak provided the first viable substitute to traditional glass or tin packaging, being food-safe, cheaper, lighter, safer to produce, and transport without breakage. And as an entirely accidental by-product, it transformed disaster-relief, making airdropping food in remote corners of the world a reality that saves lives every single day.

19. Nuclear Energy

The Force That Controls Us

Game-changing, life-altering, potentially the force that can destroy the world as we know it – or transform it, with its ability to generate clean, efficient, practically unlimited power. In its most destructive avatar, as at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and more recently, at Chernobyl, it is a weapon of devastation on a previously unknown scale. But its potential for ‘mutual devastation’ may well be the reality that has prevented the world from facing a third world war – no mean achievement in itself.

20. Barcode

The Efficiency Tool that Transformed Retail

Those ubiquitous black-and-white stripes may be no more than a patch on your packaged goods but for the retail trade, they changed the dynamics forever. Access product details, pricing, stock availability, special deals and more at the sweep of a laser over this tiny strip, making it possible to shop swiftly and now – thanks to augmented reality and virtual stores – without even physically being at a store. It made possible large-format retailing with thousands of people being served at a fraction of the time needed to do it manually. And today, with 10 billion scans of a barcode around the world daily, it’s about much more than shopping – barcodes help you board planes and track packages, help researchers collect data and diabetics calibrate their glucose meters, and do a dozen other things we totally take for granted.

21. Refrigeration

The Door to Food Durability. And Comfort

Imagine a world without refrigerators, frozen food, and produce that can be stored for months. Imagine a world without leftover pizza the morning after. Imagine a world without refrigeration in other forms – no refrigerated trucks to transport milk and dairy; no cooling systems for air conditioners; no ice. While commercial refrigeration was available in the latter part of the previous century, it was in 1922 that the first absorption refrigerator for home use was invented, and set the foundation for an appliance so fundamental to our lives, the urban world can’t imagine a time without it.

22. Subconscious

New Paradigm for Mental Health & Human Behaviour

When Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, suggested our behaviour is not always ruled by our conscious thoughts, he founded the idea that individuals can make a study of their own minds. He also made it possible to understand mental disease – an irrevocable stigma till then – and take the first steps towards its cure. Freud believed people could inadvertently let out ideas from their unconscious in dreams or through slips of the tongue – hence the term “Freudian slip”. His ideas have permeated pop culture so widely that much of what we understand about the sexes, relationships and ourselves can be seen as reflected through a Freudian mirror.

23. Climate Change

The Fight to Save the Earth

Forests are depleting, animal habitats being destroyed, indigenous communities forced out of their homes, sea-levels rising, marine life shrinking. Manifestations of climate change have already started to appear – floods, droughts, earthquakes, melting glaciers, heatwaves, extraordinary rain… This has sparked off a massive global effort to find cheap, non-polluting sources of energy: Geo-thermal, biomass, wind, clean coal, nuclear energy, nanotechnology. Human intervention in the natural order created the crisis. It now seeks creative solutions; one of the most compelling needs driving scientific research around the world today.

24. Consumerism

You Are What You Buy

It sounds like a fancy name for compulsive shopping but consumerism isn’t about what you buy, it’s about the belief that consuming more, and producing more, are the best indicators of personal success and economic progress. This idea has accelerated the pace of life unrecognisably as people and governments chase after newer and newer goalposts of material success. It has catalysed unprecedented individualism, displaced old value systems and triggered hectic international trade — our apples are now from New Zealand, cars from Germany, tea from China. Shipping these goods across the planet is seen as a positive, increasingly dissolving boundaries. But consumerism is leaving an unsustainable footprint on the world, impacting it in all sorts of challenging ways.

25. Terrorism

Making Fear Our Default Setting

If air travel and the Internet have reduced distances, terrorism has caused the world to put up new barriers and changed our urban landscapes forever. Madrid and London, New York and Mumbai, the world’s most diverse nations have been at the receiving end of terror and made suspicion our default setting. Metal detectors and sniffer dogs are de rigeur in the world’s busiest hubs, and taking off your shoes, having your privacy invaded with full body scans and your carryalls examined under x-rays, are all just tangible manifestations of the games extremism plays with our minds. Terrorism has also sucked up more global financial resources than the world can afford.


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