There has been some real silliness recently questioning whether the semantic Web will ever happen. Simply because an idea does not get popularly embraced within five or ten years does not mean it will never succeed. Some ideas — including, I submit, the semantic Web — respond to true underlying imperatives and drivers of change.
Henry Story in a recent post on RDF and Metcalf’s law poses the interesting thesis that "the value of your information grows exponentially with your ability to combine it with new information." I could not agree more.
And that is why the semantic Web, or something very similar to it that might come to be known by a different name, is inevitable. The Web has given global humanity the access and incentive to post all information accumulated through human history online. But your glad may be my happy and there is always that leveraged value from combining stuff ("mashups") from different sources and realms. Those issues are among the classic ones in data federation and a key driver for adoption of means to resolve semantic heterogeneities. How the semantic Web and its tools and infrastructure actually develops today remains opaque. But its need and eventual use is not.
For a while now I have been ruminating on one of the great intellectual mysteries of human development: Why, roughly beginning in 1820, did the historical economic growth patterns of all prior history suddenly take off? Many of us (now) older people can recall grandparents talking about their first sight of a car or airplane. In my own life (born 1952) I can recall the first instance of color TVs, electronic calculators, personal computers and now the Internet. The fact is, the pace of development and technological change is now so constant that its very existence seems unremarkable — part of the daily background noise. But, for 99.9% of human history, this has not always been so.
Part of what I have been reading recently, and reporting in part with a few book reviews and many others to come, has been focused on what some of our leading thinkers have to say about the WHY of this growth and new historical discontinuity. Earlier posts, for example, have discussed Paul Ormerod’s ‘Reasonably Good Strategies’ in the Face of Failure, Knowledge: Unravelling the X Factor in Growth and Wealth, based on David Warsh’s new book, Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations: A Story of Economic Discovery, What Is a Document? based on David M. Levy’s Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age, to my most recent read with a post to come on Elizabeth Eisenstein’s classic Printing Press and later to come the Technologies of Knowledge in 1700-1850.
The Open and Imprecise Historical Record
In our daily lives we are bombarded by statistics: quarterly economic growth rates, sports scores, weather precipitation likelihoods and daily temperatures, in a constant and thus unrecognized stream of numeric immersion. But it is interesting to note that statistics (originally derived from the concept of information about the state) really only began to be collected in France in the 1700s. 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.
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 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.
A Couple of Historical Breakpoints
The trends in the table above can be plotted out for a more dramatic view:
But there are actually a couple of different discontinuities indicated by the estimated historical record. The first shift occurs roughly about 1000 AD, when flat or negative growth begins to accelerate slightly. The growth trend looks comparatively impressive, but that is only because the doubling of economic per capita wealth has now dropped to about every 1000 to 2000 years. These are annual growth rates about 30 times lower than today, which, with compounding, prove anemic indeed.
But, in the early 1820s, an absolutely fundamental break occurred. growth now headed straight up, with even steeper growth after about 1950 or so. The early portions of this period are what are traditionally associated with the Industrial Revolution in Western Europe and North America.
But, Again, Why?
It is silly, of course, to point to single factors or offer simplistic slogans about why this growth occurred. 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 this historical singularity of 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.
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 breakpoint. With the fixity and permanence of printing and cheap paper — and now cheap electrons — all prior discovered information across the entire species can be accumulated and passed on to subsequent generations. Our storehouse of available information is thus growing in a geometric way, and available to all, factors that make the fitness of our species a truly quantum shift from all prior biological beings, including early humans.
There is much, much more to say on these topics. There are implications regarding our new electronic and Internet age as well. There are books and thousands of learned pages devoted to this most central of human questions. I look forward to exploring and expanding various aspects of these topics in posts to come, and, of course, your comments.
 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 2002 Joel Mokyr, an economic historian from Northwestern University, wrote a book that should be read by anyone interested in knowledge and its role in economic growth. The Gifts of Athena : Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy is a sweeping and comprehensive account of the period from 1760 (in what Mokyr calls the “Industrial Enlightenment”) through the Industrial Revolution beginning roughly in 1820 and then continuing through the end of the 19th century. The book (and related expansions by Mokyr available as separate PDFs on the Internet) should be considered as the definitive reference on this topic to date. The book contains 40 pages of references to all of the leading papers and writers on diverse technologies from mining to manufacturing to health and the household. The scope of subject coverage, granted mostly focused on western Europe and America, is truly impressive.
Mokyr deals with ‘useful knowledge,’ as he acknowledges Simon Kuznets‘ phrase. Mokyr argues that the growth of recent centuries was driven by the accumulation of knowledge and the declining costs of access to it. Mokyr helps to break past logjams that have attempted to link single factors such as the growth in science or the growth in certain technologies (such as the steam engine or electricity) as the key drivers of the massive increases in economic growth that coincided with the era now known as the Industrial Revolution.
Mokyr cracks some of these prior impasses by picking up on ideas first articulated through Michael Polanyi‘s “tacit knowing” (among other recent philosophers interested in the nature and definition of knowledge). Mokyr’s own schema posits propositional knowledge, which he defines as the science, beliefs or the epistemic base of knowledge, which he labels omega (Ω), in combination with prescriptive knowledge, which are the techniques (“recipes”), and which he also labels lambda (λ). Mokyr notes that an addition to omega (Ω) is a discovery, an addition to lambda (λ) is an invention. One of Mokyr’s key points is that both knowledge types reinforce one another and, of course, the Industrial Revolution was a period of unprecedented growth in such knowledge. Another key point, easily overlooked when “discoveries” are seemingly more noteworthy, is that techniques and practical applications of knowledge can provide a multiplier effect and are equivalently important. For example, in addition to his main case studies of the factory, health and the household, he says:
The inventions of writing, paper, and printing not only greatly reduced access costs but also materially
affected human cognition, including the way people thought about their environment.
Mokyr also correctly notes how the accumulation of knowledge in science and the epistemic base promotes productivity and more still-more efficient discovery mechanisms:
The range of experimentation possibilities that needs to be searched over is far larger if the searcher knows nothing about the natural principles at work. To paraphrase Pasteur’s famous aphorism once more, fortune may sometimes favor unprepared minds, but only for a short while. It is in this respect that the width of the epistemic base makes the big difference.
In my own opinion, I think Mokyr starts to get closer to the mark when he discusses knowledge “storage”, access costs and multiplier effects from basic knowledge-based technologies or techniques. Like some other recent writers, he also tries to find analogies with evolutionary biology. For example:
Much like DNA, useful knowledge does not exist by itself; it has to be “carried” by people or in storage
devices. Unlike DNA, however, carriers can acquire and shed knowledge so that the selection process is quite different. This difference raises the question of how it is transmitted over time, and whether it can actually shrink as well as expand.
One of the real advantages of this book is to move forward a re-think of the “great man” or “great event” approach to history. There are indeed complicated forces at work. I think Mokyr summarizes well this transition when he states:
A century ago, historians of technology felt that individual inventors were the main actors that brought about
the Industrial Revolution. Such heroic interpretations were discarded in favor of views that emphasized deeper economic and social factors such as institutions, incentives, demand, and factor prices. It seems, however, that the crucial elements were neither brilliant individuals nor the impersonal forces governing the masses, but a small group of at most a few thousand peopled who formed a creative community based on the exchange of knowledge. Engineers, mechanics, chemists, physicians, and natural philosophers formed circles in which access to knowledge was the primary objective. Paired with the appreciation that such knowledge could be the base of ever-expanding prosperity, these elite networks were indispensible, even if individual members were not. Theories that link education and human capital of technological progress need to stress the importance of these small creative communities jointly with wider phenomena such as literacy rates and universal schooling.
There is so much to like and to be impressed with this book and even later Mokyr writings. My two criticisms are that, first, I found the pseudo-science of his knowledge labels confusing (I kept having to mentally translate the omega symbol) and I disliked the naming distinctions between propositional and prescriptive, even though I think the concepts are spot on.
My second criticism, a more major one, is that Mokyr notes, but does not adequately pursue, “In the decades after 1815, a veritable explosion of technical literature took place. Comprehensive technical compendia appeared in every industrial field.” Statements such as these, and there are many in the book, hint at perhaps some fundamental drivers. Mokyr has provided the raw grist for answering his starting question of why such massive economic growth occurred in conjunction with the era of the Industrial Revolution. He has made many insights and posited new
factors to explain this salutory discontinuity from all prior human history. But, in this reviewer’s opinion, he still leaves the why tantalizingly close but still unanswered. The fixity of information and growing storehouses because of declining production and access costs remain too poorly explored.
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