Muck and Mystery
   Loitering With Intent
blog - at -
October 16, 2010

Expanding on the closing notions of the last post that attempts to "target" government funds taxed from "targeted" sources to direct technological development are complete nonsense since there are no convincing explanations of how current technological development occured. This has been a subject of debate at Cato, most recently focusing on Deirdre McCloskey's ideas of Bourgeois Dignity.

In this month’s Cato Unbound, we are pleased to offer an iconoclastic view. All previous answers are wrong, says polymath economist Deirdre McCloskey. Professor McCloskey is at the halfway point of a four-part series of books on the rise of the bourgeoisie. In it, she argues that what really changed in the modern world was the rhetoric of economic activity.

If this sounds wildly improbable, it shouldn’t. The classical art of rhetoric referred not to blustering phrases and glib talk, but to the unforced art of persuasion via argument and evidence. People began to talk differently about economics, and to conceive of economic production and exchange in new ways that had never been seen before. In simple terms, the artisans and shopkeepers of the world became understood as a dignified, honest, and worthwhile group — rather than a crafty cabal of dishonest penny-pinchers.

Laws, institutions, and wealth all followed, but they could not have done so without a revolution in thought. The revolution began as an idea, and it became an idea that convinced the world.

McCloskey's essay Bourgeois Dignity: A Revolution in Rhetoric kicks off a discussion and includes McCloskey's response to others in the discussion: Humanomics: Values and Innovation
I invite Matt [Ridley], then, to abandon his historical materialism and come over to the little band of practitioners of a new “humanomics” (Hirschman, Klamer, Bronk are some names to conjure with, and Smith, Mill, Keynes, Hayek, Boulding in olden times). We humanomists believe that humans are motivated by more than incentives, just as Greg Clark summarizes my views in his comment. We abhor Max U as a sociopath, admitting that sometimes Prudence Only is satisfactory in explaining some events; we urge Max to become a more reasonable Maxine U, exhibiting the full range of human virtues — prudence, yes, but also temperance, justice, courage, faith, hope, and love. And that’s how we believe one should explain the Industrial Revolution and its astonishing sequel.
The various scholars often accuse one another of confusing correlation with causation: yes, entrepreneurs came to be more highly respected by themselves as well as society as a whole, but is this a result of progress and industrialization or a cause?

An earlier essay at Cato: How the World Got Modern, notes other views.

To put it another way, there are a series of explanations given for the distinctive features of modernity, each identifying one factor as being the critical one and then going on to claim that this factor either first appeared in Europe or was present there to a greater degree than elsewhere. A non-exhaustive list of such models and the scholars associated with them would include increased capital accumulation (Robert Solow); legal pluralism and a distinctive notion of law (Harold Berman); economic institutions, especially property rights (Douglass North, Nathan Rozenberg); geography (Eric Jones, Jared Diamond); accessible fossil fuels (Kenneth Pomeranz); a different way of thinking about knowledge and technical innovation (Lynn White, Joel Mokyr); greater intellectual openness (Jack Goldstone); a particular kind of consciousness, associated with certain religions (Max Weber, Werner Sombart); divided and constrained political power (Eric Jones, several others); a distinctive family system (Deepak Lal, many demographers); population growth past a critical level (Julian Simon); a higher social status and cultural valuation of trade and enterprise (Deirdre McCloskey); trade and the benefits of specialization (Adam Smith and many others); the role of entrepreneurs (Joseph Schumpeter, William Baumol); some combination of these (David Landes). ...

The problem is very simple: none of these theories work, at least not on their own. One problem is that most have been put forward by economists, whose methodology leads them to look always for one single independent variable that explains everything else. The approach of the historian by contrast is to be aware of how most factors are simultaneously cause and effect, because of multiple feedback loops. Of the theories alluded to, some are simply false; the facts contradict them. ...

Many are onto something, in the sense of identifying things that are important but are wrong in seeing these as distinctively European. ... Others are even stronger but have a problem of chronology. That is, while they identify factors that clearly play a major part in the advent of modernity, the factors in question all come into play over a hundred years before the take off occurs. ...

There are three explanations that fall into this final category. The first, associated with Mokyr and Goldstone, sees the critical factor as being a change in the understanding of what knowledge was, coupled with its linking to the practice of empirical science — this takes place during the seventeenth century. The second is the argument made by McCloskey for the role of a shift in the way that trade and commercial innovation were morally viewed and evaluated. This first happens in the Golden Age Dutch Republic, again in the seventeenth century and about a hundred years later in Tokugawa Japan (with the phenomenon of chonindo). The third, made by a number of scholars, is to do with the way early modern Europe saw the emergence of a different kind of state system to the one found elsewhere, recognized at Westphalia in 1648. ...

It is at this point that we can see the real start of what has become a central feature of the modern world, the way in which governments and ruling classes seek to systematically encourage and stimulate economic growth by amongst other things removing all kinds of barriers to trade and exchange, at least within the territories that they directly control. This is enormously enhanced by the cultural and ideological shift that McCloskey identifies and the move to experimental science and technological innovation stressed by Mokyr and Goldstone. ...

In my view there is a more compelling explanation which can be discussed in the context of Mokyr's The Gifts of Athena, reviewed here.
He begins by dividing useful knowledge into two categories: “propositional knowledge” and “prescriptive knowledge” (p. 4). Propositional knowledge is general, theoretical knowledge—for example, knowledge of the properties and effects of atmospheric pressure or knowledge of the theory of flight. Prescriptive knowledge is knowledge of technique—for example, how to build a steam engine or how to build a jet plane. According to Mokyr, economic growth springs in large part from institutions and norms that encourage an active, rational search for propositional knowledge and the use of such knowledge for the discovery of prescriptive knowledge.

The practical, applied tinkerer who stumbled across a workable machine that raised worker productivity certainly contributed to economic growth. As Mokyr takes pains to explain, however, the staggering vastness of the economic-growth process during the past two centuries cannot have resulted from a flurry of trial-and-error experiments by determined tinkerers. Instead, the quest for propositional knowledge became institutionalized in universities, research institutes, and professional societies. One consequence is that people spent less time and effort tinkering in ways that were destined to fail. Equipped with more and better propositional knowledge, people more successfully discovered where and how to apply their efforts at creating new products and production processes.

Propositional knowledge is merely prescrptive knowledge written down by the scribes in the institutions. Some of the scribes were indeed creative but the vast majority are just journeymen documenting what others discovered, perhaps doing a little backing and filling to smooth the terrain.

We are misled by the fact that their accounts are the only record of discovery, and that is revealing. As information technologies advanced so did scholarship. Printed books were much cheaper and more numerous than the hand written and illuminated manuscripts of the past. Knowledege was more quickly and widely available to a much less restricted audience. The rate of change accelerated as a consequence, but the true sources of insight are still masked by the official accounts of discovery.

As information and communication technologies continued to advance the rate of change continued to accelerate. The broadcast technologies which democratized information - printing, radio etc. - are now poised to democratize "propositional knowledge". Peer to peer networked communication all but eliminates the value of the institutionalized scribes as gatekeepers taking credit for the ideas that well up from society.

What is called the industrial revolution is the early phases of the communication revolution, and will not be widely discussed in future since it is such a small part of a far larger phenomenon. We are just beginning to grasp the implications as we shift our gaze from the past to the future - as we must since the rate of change is accelerating - and most of the current scholarship and punditry will seem more like cargo cult ruminations than real scholarship, though perfectly understandable given the limited knowledge of the scholars. Their blinkered and myopic views are the best they could do at the time.

Many have said all or part of this before. See Science Class for an earlier discussion from 5 years ago about Clifford D. Conner's 'A People's History of Science', among other things, for support for the lack of true distinction between “propositional knowledge” and “prescriptive knowledge”, and the implications of ICT.

Conner laments the closing off of science to society, citing great accomplishments by amateurs such as Anton van Leeuwenhoek and John Harrison who were working stiffs who had interesting hobbies that they pursued obsessively and made big contributions to society.

I think that it is a phase, and that ICT is melting the walls so studiously erected by elites seeking to monopolize knowledge. As more libraries go online and the audience for books and papers grows I expect to see a resurgence in home brewed science by amateurs. Some have likened this to protestantism enabled by printing, growing literacy and cheaper books. The seemingly unrelated trends noted by some of a decline in the number of scientists and engineers being trained, and a decline of male graduate numbers may be an aspect of the tyranny of those soft handed scribes descended from Xenophon and their eons long disdain for more robust humans. The central characteristic they discriminated against wasn't so much the physical part as a way of seeing, knowing and working that differed from the verbal style of the talking trades.

Hackers are perhaps a foretaste.

Posted by back40 at 11:24 AM | TechnoSocial

TrackBack URL for Humanomists -