Why, roughly beginning in 1820, did historical economic growth patterns skyrocket?
This is a question of no small import, and one that has occupied economic historians for many decades. We know what some of the major transitions have been in recorded history: the printing press, Renaissance, Age of Reason, Reformation, scientific method, Industrial Revolution, and so forth. But, which of these factors were outcomes, and which were causative?
This is not a new topic for me. Some of my earlier posts have discussed Paul Ormerod's Why Most Things Fail: Evolution, Extinction and Economics, David Warsh's Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations: A Story of Economic Discovery, David M. Levy's Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age, Elizabeth Eisenstein's classic Printing Press, Joel Mokyr’s Gifts of Athena : Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy, Daniel R. Headrick’s When Information Came of Age : Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason and Revolution, 1700-1850, and Yochai Benkler's, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedoms. Thought provoking references, all.
But, in my opinion, none of them posits the central point.
Statistics (originally derived from the concept of information about the state) really only began to be collected in France in the 1700s. For example, the first true population census (as opposed to the enumerations of biblical times) occurred in Spain in that same century, with the United States being the first country to set forth a decennial census beginning around 1790. Pretty much everything of a quantitative historical basis prior to that point is a guesstimate, and often a lousy one to boot.
Because no data was collected — indeed, the idea of data and statistics did not exist — attempts in our modern times to re-create economic and population assessments in earlier centuries are truly a heroic — and an estimation-laden exercise. Nonetheless, the renowned economic historian who has written a number of definitive OECD studies, Angus Maddison, and his team have prepared economic and population growth estimates for the world and various regions going back to AD 1 .
One summary of their results shows:
|Year||Ave Per Capita||Ave Annual||Yrs Required|
|AD||GDP (1990 $)||Growth Rate||for Doubling|
Note that through at least 1000 AD economic growth per capita (as well as population growth) was approximately flat. Indeed, up to the nineteenth century, Maddison estimates that a doubling of economic well-being per capita only occurred every 3000 to 4000 years. But, by 1820 or so onward, this doubling accelerated at warp speed to every 50 years or so.
Looking at a Couple of Historical Breakpoints
The first historical shift in millenial trends occurred roughly about 1000 AD, when flat or negative growth began to accelerate slightly. The growth trend looks comparatively impressive in the figure below, but that is only because the doubling of economic per capita wealth has now dropped to about every 1000 to 2000 years (note the relatively small differences in the income scale). These are annual growth rates about 30 times lower than today, which, with compounding, prove anemic indeed (see estimated rates in the table above).
Nonetheless, at about 1000 AD, however, there is an inflection point, though small. It is also one that corresponds somewhat to the adoption of raw linen paper v. skins and vellum (among other correlations that might be drawn).
When the economic growth scale gets expanded to include today, these optics change considerable. Yes, there was a bit of growth inflection around 1000 AD, but it is almost lost in the noise over the longer historical horizon. The real discontinuity in economic growth appears to have occurred in the early 1800s compared to all previous recorded history. At this major inflection point in the early 1800s, historically flat income averages skyrocketed. Why?
The fact that this inflection point does not correspond to earlier events such as invention of the printing press or Reformation (or other earlier notable transitions) — and does more closely correspond to the era of the Industrial Revolution — has tended to cement in popular histories and the public’s mind that it was machinery and mechanization that was the causative factor creating economic growth.
Had a notable transition occurred in the mid-1400s to 1500s it would have been obvious to ascribe more modern economic growth trends with the availability of information and the printing press. And, while, indeed, the printing press had massive effects, as Elizabeth Eisenstein has shown, the empirical record of changes in economic growth is not directly linked with adoption of the printing press. Moreover, as the graph above shows, something huge did happen in the early 1800s.
In its earliest incarnations, the printing press was an instrument of broader idea dissemination, but still largely to and through a relatively small and elite educated class. That is because books and printed material were still too expensive — I would submit largely due to the exorbitant cost of paper — even though somewhat more available to the wealthy classes. Ideas were fermenting, but the relative percentage of participants in that direct ferment were small. The overall situation was better than monks laboriously scribing manuscripts, but not disruptively so.
However, by the 1800s, those base conditions change, as reflected in the figure above. The combination of mechanical presses and paper production with the innovation of cheaper “pulp” paper were the factors that truly brought information to the “masses.” Yet, some have even taken “mass media” to be its own pejorative. But, look closely as what that term means and its importance to bringing information to the broader populace.
In Paul Starr's Creation of the Media, he notes how in 15 years from 1835 to 1850 the cost of setting up a mass-circulation paper increased from $10,000 to over $2 million (in 2005 dollars). True, mechanization was increasing costs, but from the standpoint of consumers, the cost of information content was dropping to zero and approaching a near-time immediacy. The concept of “news” was coined, delivered by the “press” for a now-emerging “mass media.” Hmmm.
This mass publishing and pulp paper were emerging to bring an increasing storehouse of content and information to the public at levels never before seen. Though mass media may prove to be an historical artifact, its role in bringing literacy and information to the "masses" was generally an unalloyed good and the basis for an improvement in economic well being the likes of which had never been seen.
More recent trends show an upward blip in growth shortly after the turn of the 20th century, corresponding to electrification, but then a much larger discontinuity beginning after World War II:
In keeping with my thesis, I would posit that organizational information efforts and early electromechanical and then electronic computers resulting from the war effort, which in turn led to more efficient processing of information, were possible factors for this post-WWII growth increase.
It is silly, of course, to point to single factors or offer simplistic slogans about why this growth occurred and when. Indeed, the scientific revolution, industrial revolution, increase in literacy, electrification, printing press, Reformation, rise in democracy, and many other plausible and worthy candidates have been brought forward to explain these historical inflections in accelerated growth. For my own lights, I believe each and every one of these factors had its role to play.
But at a more fundamental level, I believe the drivers for this growth change came from the global increase and access to prior human information. Surely, the printing press helped to increase absolute volumes. Declining paper costs (a factor I believe to be greatly overlooked but also conterminous with the growth spurt and the transition from rag to pulp paper in the early 1800s), made information access affordable and universal. With accumulations in information volume came the need for better means to organize and present that information — title pages, tables of contents, indexes, glossaries, encyclopedia, dictionaries, journals, logs, ledgers,etc., all innovations of relatively recent times — that themselves worked to further fuel growth and development.
Of course, were I an economic historian, I would need to argue and document my thesis in a 400-pp book. And, even then, my arguments would appropriately be subject to debate and scrutiny.
Tools and physical artifacts distinguish us from other animals. When we see the lack of a direct correlation of growth changes with the invention of the printing press, or growth changes approximate to the age of machines corresponding to the Industrial Revolution, it is easy and natural for us humans to equate such things to the tangible device. Indeed, our current fixation on technology is in part due to our comfort as tool makers. But, is this association with the technology and the tangible reliable, or (hehe) “artifactual”?
Information, specifically non-biological information passed on through cultural means, is what truly distinguishes us humans from other animals. We have been easily distracted looking at the tangible, when it is the information artifacts (“symbols”) that make us the humans who we truly are.
So, the confluence of cheaper machines (steam printing presses) with cheaper paper (pulp) brought information to the masses. And, in that process, more people learned, more people shared, and more people could innovate. And, yes, folks, we innovated like hell, and continue to do so today.
If the nature of the biological organism is to contain within it genetic information from which adaptations arise that it can pass to offspring via reproduction — an information volume that is inherently limited and only transmittable by single organisms — then the nature of human cultural information is a massive shift to an entirely different plane.
With the fixity and permanence of printing and cheap paper — and now cheap electrons — all prior discovered information across the entire species can now be accumulated and passed on to subsequent generations. Our storehouse of available information is thus accreting in an exponential way, and available to all. These factors make the fitness of our species a truly quantum shift from all prior biological beings, including early humans.
The information by which the means to produce and disseminate information itself is changing and growing. This is an infrastructural innovation that applies multiplier benefits upon the standard multiplier benefit of information. In other words, innovation in the basis of information use and dissemination itself is disruptive. Over history, writing systems, paper, the printing press, mass paper, and electronic information have all had such multiplier effects.
The Internet is but the latest example of such innovations in the infrastructural groundings of information. The Internet will continue to support the inexorable trend to more adaptability, more wealth and more participation. The multiplier effect of information itself will continue to empower and strengthen the individual, not in spite of mass media or any other ideologically based viewpoint but due to the freeing and adaptive benefits of information itself. Information is the natural antidote to entropy and, longer term, to the concentrations of wealth and power.
If many of these arguments of the importance of the availability of information prove correct, then we should conclude that the phenomenon of the Internet and global information access promises still more benefits to come. We are truly seeing access to meaningful information leapfrog anything seen before in history, with soon nearly every person on Earth contributing to the information dialog and leverage.
Endnote: And, oh, to answer the rhetorical question of this piece: No, it is information that has been the source of economic growth. The Industrial Revolution was but a natural expression of then-current information and through its innovations a source of still newer-information, all continuing to feed economic growth.
 The historical data were originally developed in three books by Angus Maddison: Monitoring the World Economy 1820-1992, OECD, Paris 1995; The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective, OECD Development Centre, Paris 2001; and The World Economy: Historical Statistics, OECD Development Centre, Paris 2003. All these contain detailed source notes. Figures for 1820 onwards are annual, wherever possible.
For earlier years, benchmark figures are shown for 1 AD, 1000 AD, 1500, 1600 and 1700. These figures have been updated to 2003 and may be downloaded by spreadsheet from the Groningen Growth and Development Centre (GGDC), a research group of economists and economic historians at the Economics Department of the University of Groningen headed by Maddison. See http://www.ggdc.net/.
In a strange coincidence, I encountered a new project called RDF123 from UMBC’s Ebiquity program a few days back while researching ways to more easily create RDF specifications. (I was looking in the context of easier ways to test out variations of the UMBEL ontology.) I put in on my to-do list for testing, use and a possible review.
Then, this morning, I saw that Tim Finin had posted up a more formal announcement of the project, including a demo of converting my own Sweet Tools to RDF using the very same tool! Thanks, Tim, and also for accelerating my attention on this. Folks, we have another winner!
RDF123, developed by Lushan Han with funding from NSF , improves upon earlier efforts from the University of Maryland’s Mindswap lab, which had developed Excel2RDF and the more flexible ConvertToRDF a number of years back. Unlike RDF123, these other tools were limited to creating an instance of a given class for each row in the spreadsheet. RDF123, on the other hand, allows users to define mappings to arbitrary graphs and different templates by row.
It is curious why so little work has been done on spreadsheets as an input and specification mechanism for RDF given the huge use and ubiquity (pun on purpose!) of the format. According to the Ebiquity technical report , Topbraid Composer has a spreadsheet utility (one that I have not tested) and there is a new plug-in for Protégé version 4.0 from Jay Kola that was also on my to-do list for testing (which requires upgrading to the beta version of Protégé) that has support for imports of OWL and RDF Schema.
I have also been working with the Linking Open Data group at the W3C regarding converting the Sweet Tools listing to RDF, and have indeed had a RDF/XML listing available for quite some time . You may want to compare this version with the N3 version produced by RDF123 . The specification for creating this RDF123 file, also in N3 format, is really quite simple:
@prefix d: <http://spreadsheets.google.com/feeds/list/o15870720903820235800 etc., etc.> . @prefix mkbm: <http://www.mkbergman.com/> . @prefix exhibit: <http://simile.mit.edu/2006/11/exhibit#> . @prefix rdfs: <http://www.w3.org/2000/01/rdf-schema#> . @prefix rdf: <http://www.w3.org/1999/02/22-rdf-syntax-ns#> . @prefix : <#> . @prefix e: <http://spreadsheets.google.com/feeds/list/o15870720903820235800 etc., etc.> .
<Ex:e+$1> a exhibit:Item ; rdfs:label "Ex:$1" ; exhibit:origin "Ex:mkbm+'#'+$1^^string" ; d:Category "Ex:$5" ; d:Existing "Ex:$7" ; d:FOSS "Ex:$4" ; d:Language "Ex:$6" ; d:Posted "Ex:$8" ; d:URL "Ex:$2^^string" ; d:Updated "Ex:$9" ; d:description "Ex:$3" ; d:thumbnail "Ex:@If($10='';'';mkbm+@Substr($10,12,@Sub(@Length($10),4)))^^string" .
The UMBC approach is somewhat like GRDDL for converting other formats to RDF, but is more direct by bypassing the need to first convert the spreadsheet to XML and then transform with XSLT. This means updates can be automatic, and the difficulty of writing XSLT is replaced itself with a simple notation as above for properly replacing label names.
RDF123 has the option of two interfaces in its four versions. The first interface, used by the application versions, is a graphical interface that allows users to create their mapping in an intuitive manner. The second is a Web service that takes as input a combined URL string to a Google spreadsheet or CSV file and an RDF123 map and output specification .
The four versions of the software are the:
RDF123 is a tremendous addition to the RDF tools base, and one with promise for further development for easy use by standard users (non-developers). Thanks NSF, UMBC and Lushan!
Along with last week’s tremendous announcement by Josh Tauberer for making 2000 US Census data available as nearly 1 billion RDF triples, this dog week of August in fact has proven to be a stellar one on the RDF front! These two events should help promote an explosion of RDF in numeric data.
 Lushan Han, Tim Finin, Cynthia Parr, Joel Sachs, and Anupam Joshi, RDF123: A Mechanism to Translate Spreadsheets to RDF, Technical Report from the Computer Science and Electrical Engineering Dept., University of Maryland, Baltimore County, August 2007, 17 pp. See http://ebiquity.umbc.edu/paper/html/id/368/RDF123-a-mechanism-to-translate-spreadsheets-to-RDF; also, a PDF version of the report is available. The effort was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
 This version was created using Exhibit, the lightweight data publishing framework for Sweet Tools. It allows RDF/XML to be copied from the online Exhibit, though it has a few encoding issues, which required the manual adjustments to produce valid RDF/XML. A better RDF export service is apparently in the works for Exhibit version 2.0, slated for soon release.
 N3 stands for Notation 3 and is a more easily read serialization of RDF. For direct comparison with my native RDF/XML, you can convert the N3 file at RDFabout.com. Alternatively, you can directly create the RDF/XML output with the slightly different instructions to the online service of: http://rdf123.umbc.edu/server/?src=http://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?key=pGFSSSZMgQNxIJUCX6VO3Ww&map=http://rdf123.umbc.edu/map/demo1.N3&out=XML; note the last statement changing the output format from N3 to XML. Also note the UMBC service address, followed by the spreadsheet address, followed by the specification address (the listing of which is shown above), then ending with the output form. This RDF/XML output validates with the W3C’s RDF validation service, unlike the original RDF/XML created from Sweet Tools that had some encoding issues that required the manual fixing.
It is a “smash-up” of Java applets and next generation web concepts. You can create galleries, edit photos, rotate and create that cool 3D rotating photo cube effect we’ve been seeing lately, you name it. Jasper’s short online demo of Iris is really cool, too! (I think the live demo is to be presented in Jasper’s talk at JavaOne tomorrow.)
Hey! Shag me baby!
BTW, thanks to Henry Story for the link to this (he is always sniffing out the good Java stuff).
Pinheads Sometimes Get the Last Laugh
The idea of the ‘long tail’ was brilliant, and Chris Anderson’s meme has become part of our current lingo in record time. The long tail is the colloquial name for a common feature in some statistical distributions where an initial high-amplitude peak within a population distribution is followed by a rapid decline and then a relatively stable, declining low-amplitude population that “tails off.” (An asymptotic curve.) This sounds fancy; it really is not. It simply means that a very few things are very popular or topical, most everything else is not.
The following graph is a typical depiction of such a statistical distribution with the long tail shown in yellow. Such distributions often go by the names of power laws, Zipf distributions, Pareto distributions or general Lévy distributions. (Generally, such curves when plotted on a semi-logarithmic scale now show the curve to be straight, with the slope being an expression of its “power”.)
It is a common observation that virtually everything measurable on the Internet — site popularity, site traffic, ad revenues, tag frequencies on del.icio.us, open source downloads by title, Web sites chosen to be digg‘ed, Google search terms — follows such power laws or curves.
However, the real argument that Anderson made first in Wired magazine and then in his 2006 book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, is that the Internet with either electronic or distributed fulfillment means that the cumulative provision of items in the long tail is now enabling the economics of some companies to move from “mass” commodities to “specialized” desires. Or, more simply put: There is money to be made in catering to individualized tastes.
I, too, agree with this argument, and it is a brilliant recognition of the fact that the Internet changes everything.
But Long Tails Have ‘Teeny Heads’
Yet what is amazing about this observation of long tails on the Internet has been the total lack of discussion of its natural reciprocal: namely, long tails have teeny heads. For, after all, what also is the curve above telling us? While Anderson’s point that Amazon can carry millions of book titles and still make a profit by only selling a few of each, what is going on at the other end of the curve — the head end of the curve?
Well, if we’re thinking about book sales, we can make the natural and expected observation that the head end of the curve represents sales of the best seller books; that is, all of those things in the old 80-20 world that is now being blown away with the long tail economics of the Internet. Given today’s understandings, this observation is pretty prosaic since it forms the basis of Anderson’s new long tail argument. Pre-Internet limits (it’s almost like saying before the Industrial Revolution) kept diversity low and choices few.
Okaaaay! Now that seems to make sense. But aren’t we still missing something? Indeed we are.
Social Collaboration Depends on ‘Teeny Heads’
So, when we look at many of those aspects that make up what is known as Web 2.0 or even the emerging semantic Web, we see that collaboration and user-submitted content stands at the fore. And our general power law curves then also affirm that it is a very few who supply most of that user-generated content — namely, those at the head end, the teeny heads. If those relative few individuals are not motivated, the engine that drives the social content stalls and stutters. Successful social collaboration sites are the ones that are able to marshal “large numbers of the small percentage.”
The natural question thus arises: What makes those “teeny heads” want to contribute? And what makes it so they want to contribute big — that is, frequently and with dedication? So, suddenly now, here’s a new success factor: to be successful as a collaboration site, you must appeal to the top 1% of users. They will drive your content generation. They are the ‘teeny heads’ at the top of your power curve.
Well, things just got really more difficult. We need tools, mindshare and other intangibles to attract the “1%” that will actually generate our site’s content. But we also need easy frameworks and interfaces for the general Internet population to live comfortably within the long tail.
So, heads or tails? Naahh, that’s the wrong question. Keep flipping until you get both!
We’re So Focused on Plowing Ahead We Often Don’t See The Value Around Us
For some time now I have been wanting to dedicate a specific category on this blog to showcasing tools or notable developments. It is clear that tools compilations for the semantic Web — such as the comprehensive Sweet Tools listing — or new developments have become one focus of this site. But as I thought about this focus, I was not really pleased with the idea of a simple tag of “review” or “showcase” or anything of that sort. The reason such terms did not turn my crank was my own sense that the items that were (and are) capturing my interest were also items of broader value.
Announcing ‘Jewels & Doubloons’
As I have told development teams in the past, as you cross the room to your workstation each morning look down and around you. The floor is literally strewn with jewels, pearls and doubloons –tremendous riches based on work that has come before — and all we have to do is take the time to look, bend over, investigate and pocket those riches. It is that metaphor, plus in honor of Fat Tuesday tomorrow, that I name my site awards ‘Jewels & Doubloons.’
Jewels & Doubloons (or J & D for short) may get awarded to individual tools, techniques, programming frameworks, screencasts, seminal papers and even blog entries — in short, anything that deserves bending over, inspecting and taking some time with, and perhaps even adopting. In general, the items so picked will be more obscure (at least to me, though they may be very well known to their specific communities), but what I feel to be of broader cross-community interest. Selection is not based on anything formal.
Why So Many Hidden Riches?
I’ll also talk on occasion as to why these riches of such potential advantage and productivity to the craft of software development may be so poorly known or overlooked by the general community. In fact, while many can easily pick up the mantra of adhering to DRY, perhaps as great of a problem is NIH — reinventing a software wheel due to pride, ignorance, discontent, or simply the desire to create for creation’s sake. Each of these reasons can cause the lack of awareness and thus lack of use of existing high value.
There are better ways and techniques than others to find and evaluate hidden gems. One of the first things any Mardi Gras partygoer realizes is not to reach down with one’s hand to pick up the doubloons and plastic necklaces flung from the krewes’ floats. Ouch! and count the loss of fingers! Real swag aficionados at Mardi Gras learn how to air snatch and foot stomp the manna dropping from heaven. Indeed, with proper technique, one can end up with enough necklaces to look like a neon clown and enough doubloons to trade for free drinks and bar top dances. Proper technique in evaluating Jewels & Doubloons is one way to keep all ten fingers while getting rich the lazy man’s way.
Jewels & Doubloons are designated with either a medium-sized or small-sized (see below) icon and also tagged as such.
I’ve gone back over the posts on AI3 and have postdated J & D awards for these items: