Category Archives: Technology

Simon Winchester – The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

Simon Winchester – The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

After a brief appreciation of the notion of precision and how it differs from accuracy, Winchester begins with the story of longitude and John Harrison’s precision clocks. The general organizational theme of the book is chronological, with engineers’ precision capabilities increasing over time.

Winchester is at his best in the lengthier middle chapters. In one, he compares two different kinds of precision—those espoused by Henry Ford and by Rolls Royce. In a Ford assembly line, workers needed almost no skill to fit the precision-made interchangeable parts together in mass quantity on the precisely designed assembly line. The handmade Rolls Royce instead emphasized that every aspect of the car must be hand-made to the most exacting precision by the world’s most skilled craftsmen, to the point that its factory could muster just two cars per day, compared to a new Model T every 40 seconds at Ford’s factory.

His chapter about the birth of the jet engine and the mind-boggling precision needed for its fan blades and other parts is similarly excellent. And the chapter on optics, beginning with how lenses are made and climaxing with the story of the Hubble Space Telescope, its initial blurry pictures due an almost unthinkably small mistake, and its 1993 repair done in space, is also a tour de force.

From there, Winchester goes into the history of the transistor, which nowadays requires atomic precision. Before too long, quantum computers may bring precision requirements down to the quantum realm. The book ends by returning to timekeeping. John Harrison’s famous H-4 clock has since been surpassed by atomic clocks and time-based GPS systems so precise they must take the theory of relativity into account.

Kim Stanley Robinson – Blue Mars

Kim Stanley Robinson – Blue Mars (Mars Trilogy, Book 3)

The conclusion to the trilogy. With Mars now politically independent and boasting a population of about 12 million, Robinson devotes substantial time to constitutional design and how to design a political system from scratch. Politics and economics are clearly not his expertise, but just going through the exercise with him and his characters is a lot of fun. About a quarter of the way through, some of the characters take a trip to Earth for diplomatic purposes. A few of them are among the Earth-born First Hundred to go Mars, and they don’t feel as though they’ve returned home. Nirgal, a second-generation Martian, has his own troubles adapting to Earth’s gravity and open atmosphere.

Robinson also devotes a lot of time to aging. Most of the characters take longevity treatments, and members of the First Hundred are a good 140-150 years old at the beginning of the book, with their apparent physiological ages topping out at about 70. Some of them make it well past 200. But there are tradeoffs to longevity that affect their memories, both short-term and long-term, as well as a number of sudden deaths.

There are also points where beauty and science mix. Descriptions of imported and genetically engineered Earth and plant wildlife are surprising and comforting at the same time. As far as sunsets go, Mars’ atmosphere extends much higher than Earth’s due to low gravity, and has lots of light-reflecting dust. Combined with atmospheric thickening from terraforming, and the characters get to admire sunsets that linger far longer than they do on Earth.

Steven Levy – In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives

Steven Levy – In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives

A corporate history of Google from its founding up until 2011 or so. This book was written with the cooperation of Google’s founders, so it is not an objective history, nor should it be treated as such. It is still useful. A sequel may also be in order before too long. Since this book was published, Google has created its own parent company, Alphabet, and diversified into areas from video to maps to driverless cars. It is also undergoing multiple antitrust investigations, and growing ire from right and left populists could have massive consequences for consumer welfare, innovation, and for competition policy going forward.

Google has changed quite a bit since its early days, but anything violating the consumer welfare standard is difficult to find in here—though, again, this book is not an objective history. If anything, fear of regulatory reprisal put a damper on some of Google’s innovative ideas almost as soon as they realized the company would be a success. That, as opposed to market share for searches or advertising, is evidence of consumer harm.

Some of Google’s early mistakes and learning experiences still loom large today, such as its acquiescence to Chinese censorship.

Levy also has a forthcoming book on Facebook out in January 2020.

Joel Mokyr – A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy

Joel Mokyr – A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy

Mokyr’s larger thesis is that technology is the most important driving engine of growth. It’s not the only factor, but the most important one–and it isn’t the direct factor. Lurking one level beneath technology are cultural attitudes about technology and progress. This, to Mokyr, is where the real explanation lies for the origins of the modern economy. The Romans had the technology for the steam engine. But Roman culture wasn’t interested in applying technology to improving production processes the way the 18th-century Britain was when James Watt was a young man. So steam power remained a novelty toy for the wealthy, and was soon forgotten.

Technophobic and neophobic cultures tend to have less technological progress. As such, they tend to be less prosperous and grow more slowly—and even then, much of the growth is “catch-up growth” when technologies long established elsewhere reluctantly enter through osmosis. There is a good deal of intersection here with Deirdre McCloskey’s work, which focuses more on wider bourgeois values. But Mokyr confines himself for the most part to technological norms rather than wider arguments about attitudes about letting people have a go, whether through commerce or life’s many other worthwhile aspects.

Mokyr has written several books applying his technology-and-culture thesis to different historical periods. His thinking has evolved over time, though the general framework has proved sturdy enough to pass the test of time. A Culture of Growth focuses mostly on Europe from 1500-1700, from roughly the end of the Renaissance, through the Scientific Revolution, up to the Enlightenment’s earliest stirrings. Essentially, these two centuries laid the cultural ground the Industrial Revolution needed before it could stand on its own.

See also Pierre Lemieux’s review, which goes into much more detail than this one.

Arthur Diamond – Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism

Arthur Diamond – Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism

This book reminded me a bit of Wired cofounder Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants in its tech- and innovation-centric hyper-optimism. His optimism isn’t quite as sober as the Julian Simon, Deirdre McCloskey, or Hans Rosling variety, but Diamond’s enthusiasm is contagious. Readers interested in this subgenre might also like John Tamny’s The End of Work and Diamandis and Kotler’s Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think.

One useful contribution Diamond makes is a deep dive into just how disruptive new technologies are. For workers, the changes are often less severe than commonly thought. When cars replaced buggies, they still needed wheels, frames, and upholsteries, for example. Those workers’ skills did not become obsolete, though they did have to evolve. Many disruptive technologies take years or even decades for widespread adoption.

Ultimately, Diamond makes a culture-based argument for explaining technological progress. It takes more than research and development, or available capital for entrepreneurs. It takes a culture that approves of such things. People need to be willing to try something new and see if they like it or not. They need to have a certain audacity, or at least a positive view of it. People aren’t likely to give it a go if it makes them a pariah. Though Diamond openly admires Schumpeter—hence the phrase “creative destruction” in the title—ultimately his argument owes more to Joel Mokyr and Deirdre McCloskey.

John Steele Gordon – A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable

John Steele Gordon – A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable

The story of Cyrus Fields, a 19th century entrepreneur who laid the first transatlantic cable. Fields was a man of rare persistence. As Gordon puts it on page 12, “But it was Cyrus Fields alone who made it happen, for he served the same function in the enterprise of the Atlantic cable that a producer serves in a theatrical production. A producer does not act or direct or design scenery. But without him, neither does anyone else.” Fields was around at the right time—but he also the right person.

Telegraphy had been around for a bit by the time Fields got started, and people had also figured out that it was possible to lay cable underwater. Earlier initiatives had crossed the English channel, and of course the U.S. had a transcontinental cable over land. But Fields’ grand project required a new suite of innovations everywhere from sea exploration, knowledge of water physics, electric conductivity, cable insulation, ballast and weight for ships, diplomacy, and international finance. Fields, often through sheer force of will and personality, headed up a multi-year effort using  massive amounts of capital to successfully finish the project. There were numerous setbacks, and the on-the-ground (water?) problem-solving his ships’ crewmembers were able to improvise, at times during hostile weather, are both impressive and inspiring.

Fields paved the way for today’s transoceanic cables capable of carrying not just phone calls, but Internet traffic, video communications, and more around the world. As heroes of invention go, Fields deserves a much more prominent place on the list.

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.