Placed within the dynamic realms of the modern world, where technological and scientific advancement is proceeding at a scale and pace that is arguably unprecedented, it would seem ambitious, perhaps even quixotic, to imagine that one could condense the building blocks of such a multifarious planet to just 50 ‘things’, 50 objects that have determined and shape the complex society within which we live. However, Tim Harford has boldly attempted to confront such a challenge in his most recent publication “50 Things That Made the Modern Economy”.

Mr Harford, The Undercover Economist, columnist at the Financial Times and presenter of ‘BBC More or Less’, has become accustomed to investigating and commenting upon the unfamiliar aspects of our society and interrogating the statistical claims in the age of information that saturates our cultures in the twenty-first century. Yet in this analysis, he examines in detail the skeletal structure of our society, shining a light on antecedents that are perhaps undervalued or viewed as banal in the modern world, especially when epiphenomenon supersede their importance in the realms of commerce, industry or politics.

Whilst attempting to distinguish one key invention would be chimeric, the panoply of fifty things is remarkably sufficient in documenting and defining how the modern economy has been constructed. The assemblage is multifarious in its composition – orthodox ideas of revolutionary technologies should be abandoned at the door of the book as, although Harford does examine some groundbreaking and celebrated inventions such as the Haber-Bosch process, the added value of the book is the way in which one is directed to reflect on the accepted and thus sometimes invisible aspects of society that are themselves inventions that have had transformative effects on our lives. For instance, paper, concrete, the clock or plastic. Plastic, moreover, highlights another vital message that Harford is keen to emphasise during the book – each invention has its benefits and costs, beneficiaries and victims. Take barbed wire – invented as a means of fencing land on the American prairie to enable farmers to protect and fence cattle as well as protect their property rights and could perhaps be seen as a cornerstone of society in the American mid-west, it has since developed into a violent means of control and authority. Ideas and inventions can quickly escape the purview of their original purpose.

I asked Tim Harford a few questions about his book as well as a couple of added insights into statistics and his broad outlook on the current situation of the economy.

On Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy:

What was the most valuable and surprising lesson that you learnt from writing the book?

That telling short stories can be a delightful experience.

Are there patterns to how society develops or adapts to new technologies? Is the economy ‘made’ in a similar fashion with each new development?

There are no easy generalisations, partly because the innovations vary a lot from general-purpose technologies, such as electricity or the diesel engine to fascinating curiosities such as the Ikea Billy Bookcase.

But one thing is obvious: technologies have their biggest effect when we adapt to fit around them, introducing complementary technologies or changing our way of working. The skyscraper, for example, really works when you combine the elevator, steel and concrete, air conditioning and mass transit systems. Without each element, the whole package works much less well.

Does technology shape us or do we shape the technology?

Both.

Do you subscribe to the Boserup school of thought that necessity is the mother of invention or that society naturally hinges towards the inventions that are most appropriate or feasible at that time?

It varies a lot. A clear example of necessity driving invention is the development of barbed wire – desperately needed as a fencing material in the late 19th century, there was a period of about a decade of furious experimentation and patenting as inventors scrambling to fill the obvious need. The winner – J F Glidden of De Kalb, Illinois – produced barbed wire that’s recognizably modern.

But a counter-example is public key cryptography. Some of the early work on prime numbers is two thousand years old, and they’ve been studied intensively by mathematicians for centuries. But only in the 1970s did it become apparent that they could be used for a clever kind of cryptographic system that used a public key rather than a secret one – and only in the 1990s did the commercial applications (sending credit card details over the World Wide Web) become important. So the invention happened and the necessity came much later.

Would it be foolhardy to attempt to predict what will ‘make the future economy’? Can it be predicted?

I certainly can’t, and many earlier forecasts have been badly awry (with flashes of brilliance).

My suggestion is to pay attention to inventions that become very cheap thanks to technical progress. We focus on the spectacular stuff but being cheap has an important quality too – the Gutenberg press gets the plaudits but it would have been economically useless without paper.

Are there any inventions of the past/present/future that potentially serve to hinder/damage rather than make the economy?

Of course. I don’t have much affection for the land mine, for example. But most inventions aren’t simply good or bad; they solve problems for some people and create problems for others, and the aim of technology policy and other regulation should be to maximize the gains and minimize the harms. Not easy.

On Statistics:

Do you think statistics are increasingly used as political ballast rather than accurate evidence to properly reinforce reasoned arguments?

Yes – and not just political ballast. You see them used a lot by charities, NGOs, campaigning groups, too – the thinking is that if the statistic calls attention to a good cause, that’s sufficient. But I think the long-term pollution of public trust is very damaging.

Are statistics the lifeblood of society or dangerous numbers that can be too easily misinterpreted and/or manipulated?

Statistics are tools to help us understand the world- like telescopes and microscopes. Of course people misuse them but they misuse words too, but we don’t ban speaking.

Do statistics have a credible future in an era of information saturation?

Of course, but we need to be savvier, more skeptical and above all more curious about the world – less keen to simply have our existing beliefs backed up.

On the Future:

Are you optimistic about 2018 and beyond?

Despite everything, I am optimistic. If you look at the twentieth century it was full of the most appalling catastrophes, yet at the end of that century the great-great-grandchildren of the people one hundred years earlier were incomparably better off. There is always room for things to go very wrong but the long arc of history is pointing in an encouraging direction.

The optimistic tone that Harford expounds should not be dismissed, particularly when one considers the progress that has been achieved through the developments detailed within the book. There are dangers littering the economic, political, social and environmental world in the twenty-first century, each requiring a distinct approach and policy to resolve and each potentially serving to shroud our current state in pessimism and uncertainty. Whilst we should not be complacent about the threats that we face in the twenty first century, based on how resourceful and inventive humanity has thus far been, we should be optimistic that the future can yield similarly transformative developments. That said, we should be mindful of demanding certainty over our future, without first grasping the validity of the present. Political uncertainty has proliferated in recent years and perhaps the greatest invention of the next century will be universal political cooperation – we can hope.

* *** *** *** *

There is an extremely helpful podcast series where each of the 50 inventions are explained in convenient, manageable 10 minute excerpts. All the episodes, including the 51st Invention voted for by the public, can be found on the BBC World Service website.

Tim Harford’s website/blog and Twitter feed are both valuable sources of insights and recommendations

Tim Harford’s book can be purchased from Amazon.

All the source information that was used is also provided on the BBC website. As a recommendation, The Box by Mark Levinson is an excellent and revealing account of how the shipping container has transformed trade and industry around the world (I know it might sound dull but trust me, it’s fascinating!).

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