Sunday, May 16, 2010

Understanding Tech Progress

I spent almost the entire day today trying to understand one chapter of one book. Covering just 40 pages in a day may sound like a lazy way to spend a Sunday but then the book in my hand was Joel Mokyr's classic, "The Lever of Riches" and the chapter  - Understanding Technological Progress.

The question being discussed was something that intrigues me to no end - How and why did the West come to dominate technological progress for the past two centuries?

 Mokyr starts by rubbishing the old adage - "necessity is the mother of invention" by pointing out that historically, innovation has never been something that could be be turned on or off in a demand-supply scenario. The demand for faster, labor & capital efficient ways of doing things has always been there but that did not lead to a supply or speedy adoption of a technical superior alternative.

 According to Mokyr, invention & innovation is born from a complicated mix of factors that 'on the aggregate level determines the propensity of a member of a society to invent and that makes others want to adopt his inventions'. These are -

  • Life Expectancy: If your life is short (and hard) you are less likely to defer gratification
  • Nutrition: What is often described as "laziness" is really the result and not the cause of poverty and malnutrition. For instance, IPDS (infant protein deficiency syndrome) permanently cripples mental development, especially among the lower ranks of society - slaves, peasants and labourers.
  • Willingness to Bear Risks: If individuals consistently overrate their chances of success (optimistic bias) it offsets the inherent bias to under-produce technological change (because social benefits typically exceed private benefits).
  • Geographical Environment: Abundance or scarcity of natural resources (coal, iron-ore) does not automatically lead to tech creativity.
  • Path Dependency: The view that tech change primarily depends on its own path (David, 1988) works nicely in some case but not in others. In England mining triggered innovations (mining > struggle with water > better pumps > more accurate boring machines & tools > steam/water power ) or the effect of the shipping industry on Holland (ship-building > rope & sail making > wind-driven sawmills > provisioning industry). But, on the other hand, even though the wheel was invented long ago (500BC-100BC) the camel came to replace wheeled transport in Middle East and North Africa.
  • Labor Costs: Availability of cheap labor delays adoption of labor-saving technology but there are numerous examples to the contrary.
  • Science & Technology: science aims at comprehension but tech aims at utilization.Until 1850 technology came first followed by the scientific explanations. Even for the past 150 years the majority of important inventions, from steel converters to cancer chemotherapy, from food-canning to aspartame have been used long before people understood why they worked.
  • Religion: Religion as a socio-political force did seem to have an impact on the incentive to innovate. The Hindu brahminical doctrine "held that promotion to a higher caste was possible through reincarnation if an appropriately resigned and obedient life was led" was a fiendishly clever and almost failure proof incentive to protect status quo. (Here the pathetic story of Ekalavya also comes to mind)
  • Values: In most ancient societies (Greeks, Romans, Jews), it was better to be brave or wise than to be rich. The more wealth is measured in terms of positional goods relative to material goods, the less attractive tech change will look.
  • Institutions and Property Rights: Institutional change is usually at the centre of events. For tech change to be effective and sustainable, the authorities must relinquish their direct control over the innovative process and decentralize creates the opportunity for the innovator to enrich himself through property rights and public recognition.
  • Politics and the State: The dilemma is that `if you want to realize the potential of modern technology you cannot do with the state, but you cannot do without it either`(North, 1884). Only when strong governments realise that technological backwardness itself constituted a threat to the regime, as in the case of Peter the Great`s Russia, post-1867 Japan, and, to a lesser extent, Napoleon`s France, did they decide to intervene directly to encourage tech change. Another reason why politics matters is that tech change is notoriously subject to market system left on its own is unlikely to produce a desirable level of innovation. Tech progress requires above all a tolerance towards the unfamiliar and the eccentric (Goldstone, 1987)....the qualities that make people tolerant also makes them more receptive to new ideas (Cipolla, 1952). The archenemy of tolerance and pluralism is conformism...widely observed phenomena such as tradition and social inertia become understandable if conformism is assumed to be part of human behavior.
  • War: Societies that were creative in making clocks, guns, ploughs and spectacles were also good at making tribuchets, guns and mane-of-war.
  • Openness to New Information: Human history is full of examples of societies holding others in utter contempt and despising people who look different, spoke a different language or believed in a different God....Europeans learnt from the Arabs who did not return the favour...Europeans appreciated knowledge irrespective of source; Asian cultures, with the exception of Japan did not. Typical of the European approach was the great Leibniz, who implored Jesuit traveling to China "not to worry so much about getting things European to the Chinese, but rather about getting remarkable Chinese inventions to us; otherwise little profit will be derived from the China mission". Chinese missions, on the other hand, (which started before the Europeans ventured out) was to demonstrate the wealth & glory of China to the barbarians by means of lavish gifts...
  • Demographic Factors: There is apparently a link here (larger population > larger markets > better division of labour), but then, again, it worked the other way too.
 In India there is still a strong undercurrent of that decadent mindset (some kind post-colonial complex?) which pulls in the opposite direction by chauvinistically insisting that everything worthwhile (literally from "zero") originated in India. However "Openness to New Information" is a factor that seems to be slowly correcting itself in India.

The bigger worry is in the area of  "Values". In most places India continues to be a society in which those who are educated do not work (physical labor) and those who work are not educated. The "inarticulateness of the productive masses will thwart the diffusion and adoption of new technology in the unlikely event that it emerges"...    :(

No comments: