Category Archives: Innovation

Richard L. Currier – Unbound: How Eight Technologies Made Us Human, Transformed Society, and Brought Our World to the Brink

Richard L. Currier – Unbound: How Eight Technologies Made Us Human, Transformed Society, and Brought Our World to the Brink

I hastily bought this book on sale thinking it was a yet another Schumpeter-inspired history of technology by an economist. I was pleasantly surprised to find it is written from an anthropologist’s perspective, and most of the book has little to do with economics or markets. Moreover, it is excellently done.

Currier has packed Unbound with evolutionary, biological, social, and behavioral insights into how technology has influenced the human condition, and vice versa. Causality’s arrow points in both directions, with massive implications for everything from our anatomy to gender roles, sexual behavior, and even our species’ geographic range. Bipedalism freed up our hands to use weapons and tools. The extra food provided calories for larger brains to use and improve these tools. Larger brains meant longer gestations and tougher childbirths, which effectively made hunting a men-only activity; this is the origin of gender roles that are unique to our species, though obviously this dynamic does not apply as it once did. To tease out these insights, Currier ranges all the way back to our Australopithecine and Homo habilis ancestors, as well as other primates such as chimpanzees and bonobos.

Among the other things the reader learns is that our species’ relative hairlessness was a direct result of our taming fire. This had obvious safety benefits, and I was probably not the only reader to have a Gary Larson-inspired chuckle at how this may have affected some of our more hirsute ancestors as natural selection did its work.

Chapters on tools, fire, clothing, and language give way to agriculture, transportation and eventually industrial production, around which point the book changes tone. By the 19th century or so the book begins to read less like an anthropology story and more like a history of business and technology, along the lines of Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators. The eighth and final technology is the emerging digital age, which is still maturing as we speak. Even at this early stage, Currier is correct about how the Internet, digitalization, and rapid globalization are having a transformative impact on par with the other great technologies.

There is another abrupt change in the final chapter, which is mostly paint-by-numbers hysterics over mass extinction and environmental apocalypse. This is alluded to in the book’s subtitle, though mostly absent until this point. Here, Currier shows that he has not often ventured outside his disciplinary home of anthropology. He would have benefited from an understanding of more diverse thinkers such as Julian Simon, Hans Rosling, Johan Norberg, Deirdre McCloskey, Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, Joel Mokyr, Bjorn Lomborg, and other scholars from a range of disciplines from statistics to economic history to psychology, who are more adept in the study of progress.

Unlike the rest of an otherwise carefully written book, this final chapter reads like it was written in a single caffeinated cram session. Cautious words like “could” and “might” gradually morph into more certain proclamations such as “will” and “have” as the chapter proceeds. The very end also oddly mentions the 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariffs, but Currier correctly identifies tariffs as harmful policies, and his emotions carry him in favor of international openness and inclusion. At the very end, Currier suddenly goes through another mood swing and ends on an optimistic note about. Unlike just a few pages before, Currier now argues that dynamism and progress might forestall the coming environmental apocalypse after all. Before he can change his mind again, the book ends. In all, that odd journey reminded me of the occasional all-nighter I pulled back in undergrad trying to finish term papers on time.

Despite the weird rollercoaster ending, Unbound was one of my better reads of the year. It is almost like a wider-ranging sequel to Richard Wrangham’s excellent Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, which Currier cites liberally in his early chapter about fire. It also pairs well with Arthur Diamond’s Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism, though that book’s Pollyanna-ish tone is a bit much even for this optimist.

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Walter Isaacson – The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

Walter Isaacson – The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

Think Joseph Schumpeter’s ethos of creative destruction mixed with economic historian Joel Mokyr’s emphasis on technology and how culture enables it, as told by a tech journalist, and you have this book. It’s essentially a history of great personalities of the digital age, with the broader aim of identifying cultural factors that aid innovation. While Isaacson’s arguments are nothing groundbreaking, he is a compelling biographer, and he ties together some wildly disparate personalities into a cohesive narrative of computer history.

One of the first great personalities behind the computer was the mathematician Ada Lovelace, who of all things was the daughter of the Romantic-era poet Lord Byron. Lovelace’s work with Charles Babbage would go on to influence Alan Turing, and when their efforts combined with the invention of the transistor, the cascading effect led to the emergence of numerous other innovations and innovators, who are all more interconnected than most of them realized.

Thomas Edison, Music Critic

Thomas Edison not only invented the phonograph, he was one of the first to mass-market recorded music, along with his competitor Victor’s Victrola player. Edison also curated the music his company, Thomas Alva Edison, Inc. (TAE), released. His notebooks contain some surprisingly funny negative reviews, such as this gem from during World War I, shared on p. 39 of Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sounds Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music:

“If anything would make the Germans quit their trenches it is this…”

Henri Pirenne – Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade

Henri Pirenne – Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade

Of Pirenne’s three best-known books, also including Mohammed and Charlemagne and Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe, this one, from 1925, is probably the strongest on its analysis of institutions and how they changed over time. The Pirenne Thesis is essentially that economic isolation caused the downfall of Roman civilization. Not barbarians, or Christianity, or decadence, as many other historians argue. It was a combination of economics and closed cultural attitudes among Europe’s Mediterranean neighbors. Centuries later, a gradual return to economic and cultural openness led to the high medieval ages, and eventually the Renaissance. Pirenne’s line of thought can easily be extended to the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the Information Age, and today’s debates over trade and immigration, where Pirenne has most influenced this writer.

This book focuses on the rise of the city. Cities require a lot of support, and do not emerge fully formed out of a vacuum. They have numerous economic and cultural preconditions. One of the major ones was shaking off feudal shackles. This was a long, gradual process with many degrees. It was a spectrum, not an on/off switch. City residents were often former serfs; remember the famous saying, “city air makes one fee.” This was a legal concept, not just an attitude. An escaped serf who lived a year and a day without being captured was legally freed.

City residents answered to neither king nor lord, at least during the period Pirenne studies in this book. But there was more to the story of cities than a simple rejection of feudal authority. City workers did not grow their own food. They relied on specialized work and trade with outside farmers to put food on the table. This was not possible without requisite population density, infrastructure, and a cultural openness to commerce and technology.

Most societies are neophobic; city life required almost a neophilia. Once this happened to a small degree, a virtuous circle emerged. Improved productivity made people more prosperous and more accepting of bourgeois social norms. This further reinforced the process, and so on. This mishmash of factors, with arrows of causality pointing every which way, are why people began to live in cities rather than farms and villages, eventually paving the way for modernity.

John Tamny – The End of Work

John Tamny – The End of Work

John is a friend, former colleague, and occasional editor of mine. His enthusiasm and optimism are infectious. Rather than pushing papers across a desk or standing at an assembly line, every year there are more and more careers opening up for people passionate about sports, cooking, writing, the arts, and even video games. This is because growing mass prosperity makes such jobs possible. So long as government uses a relatively light approach to taxation and regulation, this process will continue. As general prosperity grows, so will the number of possible “passion jobs” that pay well enough to put food on the table.

Brad Stone – The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon

Brad Stone – The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon

More Amazon’s corporate history than Bezos’ biography, though it does discuss his life story and how he came to his approach to business and management, and what he hopes to do with his wealth. As an avid sci-fi fan, his interest in space exploration is more than skin deep, though his plans for his Deep Blue company are still unclear.

Lots of good stuff in here about innovation, competition, and the pluses and minuses of Bezos’ severe office culture and his unusual, and refreshing, emphasis on the very long term. Students of Schumpeterian creative destruction will find this book to be almost a case study.

Joseph Schumpeter – Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy

Joseph Schumpeter – Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy

Schumpeter was famously pessimistic about capitalism’s long-term prospects. But he was equally dismissive of Marxian socialism as a viable replacement. He instead foresaw a long slide into Fabian-style socialism-lite. Such a system is benign and boring for the most part, which seems harmless enough.

The trouble is that prosperity comes from taking risks–starting a business, inventing new products or business models, and displacing the old and replacing it with something better. People seem to prefer safe mediocrity to risking excellence, and in the long run, Schumpeter thinks that is what people will get.

A lot of people hope Schumpeter was wrong. He seems to have hoped so, at least.

Schumpeter also outlines his famous theory of creative destruction, which is easily his most influential idea.

Haughty in tone with occasional flashes of wit, this 1942 book is a classic for a reason, though I can only hope its flaws are deeper than I suspect they actually are.