Predecessors and outsiders

I’m a sucker for books about innovation, and enjoyed reading Gavin Weightman’s Eureka: How Invention Happens. It’s a jolly account of five 20th century inventions: flight, TV, bar codes, personal computers and mobile phones.

Despite the title, the main argument is that there is no single Eureka moment. While we often credit some well-known individuals (such as the Wright brothers or John Logie Baird) with an invention, all inventions rely on bringing together a prior series of other inventions. For example, Babbage never could build his mechanical computers; computing had to wait for electronic valves, transistors and then chips, as well as the insights of Turing and Von Neumann. Predecessor inventions are essential. Yet at the same time, it is often an outsider – such as the Wrights or Baird – who question received wisdom and join the dots to bring the new thing into being. It takes an outsider to not know that something isn’t possible…

The most interesting chapter in a funny way was the one on barcodes (which also feature in Tim Harford’s Fifty Things…). Apart from the fact that they’re less obvious as ‘an invention’, the corporate aspect to this was very interesting. Tech companies were pitching a product to supermarkets that would cost a good deal in upfront investment and needed co-ordination across competing chains to set technical standards. Retail has undergone some huge, productivity-enhancing technical changes over time. It has gone from entirely labour-intensive (shelf stacking, checking out, packing) to using increasing amounts of capital (conveyor belts, scanners) and free labour (customers doing the packing), then still more hard and soft capital (automated checkouts with scanners and sophisticated software) and free labour (we do our own scanning now too) to eventually Amazon-style stores where the paid human labour has gone and the free human labour reduced, but the software greatly augmented. All of this requires barcodes.

It was interesting to learn about some of the prior contributions to the iconic innovations, and the book is an easy read thanks to a lot of biographical background on the various people, often eccentric. The computer and mobile phone histories are ones I’ve read a lot about before.  I think Francis Spufford’s Backroom Boys (albeit only UK focused) is a far better read, if you’re only going to read one general interest book about a range of inventions. But Eureka is very enjoyable, and looks at different technologies from a US perspective, & I’d recommend it.

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Domestic solutions to global problems

Trade Wars are Class Wars by Matthew Klein and Michael Pettis is an excellent account of the global imbalances that have emerged in the 21st century, contributing to the GFC among other consequences. “A core argument of this book is that the distribution of purchasing power within a society affects its economic relations with the rest of the world,” they write. They trace the imbalances problem to the inequailities of income and wealth within China and Germany that mean domestic demand in each case is inadequate to absord domestic production, so the two run large current account surpluses with the rest of the world. “People who cannot buy what they produce must rely on foreign demand for their output.” Hence the ‘class wars’ of the title.

While the US should have been in the same position, given how unequal it is, foreign demand for US assets means it has run a consistent deficit instead: “For more than six decades the United States has satiated savers in the rest of the world at the expense of its own workers” – the dollar being an “exorbitant burden” in this perspective. (Another great virtue of the book is spelling out the fact that balances balance and so the capital account will be in deficit if the current account is in surplus; and if some people are saving – eg the rich in surplus countries – others will have to be borrowing – Greece, or ordinary Americans before the GFC.)

A lot of the commentary has focused on the bilateral US-China trade deficit and the “China shock” due to offshoring, but Klein and Pettis argue that the link is less direct than Chinese vs American factories, and must include an account of capital flows. It portrays inequality within China and Germany, rather than China’s low-wage manufacturing capabilities, as the root cause. The book is just as critical of German as of Chinese domestic policies: “Germany’s ideological and constitutional commitment to fiscal rectitude caused lasting harm to ordinary Germans.” The harm has taken the form of welfare cuts, eroded protection in the labour market, massive under-investment in infrastructure. One doesn’t think of Germany as particularly unequal. Yet although the average German is twice as rich as the average Spaniard, the median German is much poorer – about as wealthy as the median Polish person.

The book refers back to the writings of John Hobson in the early 20th century, when the US was the surplus economy in its gilded age, and Britain the bearer of the reserve currency burden. In Imperialism: A Study (1902) Hobson wrote: “When the distribution of income is suchas to enable all classes of the nation to convert their felt wants into an effectiove demand for commodities, there can be no over-production, no under-employment of capital and labour, and no necessity to fight for foreign markets.” Inequality and the competition for overseas markets led to what what he described as “the greed of empire.” It didn’t end well a century ago, and it isn’t going so well now.

Trade Wars are Class Wars is a tale of three economies, China, Germany and the US. I’m not sure where others fit in – including the UK, also highly unequal but with a (Brexit-augmented) current account deficit. (Greece gets a walk-on role.) Still, I found the argument persuasive and in any case reducing within-country inequality from today’s socially-destructive levels can only be a good thing. It’s a terrific book.

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What information, to whom – and do they want it?

For a bit of variety, I’ve been reading Bletchley Park and D-Day by David Kenyon, who is the Research Historian at Bletchley Park. The broad story of code-breaking at Bletchley Park during World War 2, and the contribution of Alan Turing along with many others, is now well-known. The aspect explored in this book is specifically about the intelligence provided ahead of and during the D-Day landings. This includes a lot of detail about the operation of the various bits of Bletchley Park and other arms of intelligence. In one sense, that makes it a sort of ‘inside the Beltway’ account: who reported to which officer, how the different branches of the armed services related to each other and so on will be details too far for general interest.

However, there is one kind of detail in this book that I found truly fascinating, and that is about how the flow of information was organised: coming into Bletchley Park, within its increasingly large and complex organisational structures, and going out to decision-makers in the UK central command, in the US, and of course in the field before and during the attack. For information flows are at the heart of the challenge of managing any complex organisation. And the ease and cheapness of digital information flows are translating now into a growing gap between businesses and other organisations that can make use of the information and those that can’t.

In other words, it wasn’t all about code breaking. One key role was played by (mainly) women graduates whose job was to provide a weekly Index of what intelligence had been unearthed and send that to the people who needed it. There was so much raw data – decrypted messages – that making sense of its importance became at least as important. These women didn’t have exciting new machines: just their own intelligence, pencils and index cards.

Another interesting point is about willingness to receive the intelligence. General Patton was all in favour but Montgomery was not: he thought the military alone should get the Ultra information and distrusted it because he knew Churchill and others in Government were getting it too. Luckily, he had a subordinate who paid attention to the Ultra messages received.

Anyway, I confess to skipping through some parts but overall really enjoyed the book. I have an appetite for anything about the Bletchley Park story. And what could be more relevant to thinking about information in organisations than an organisation whose whole raison d’être was information?

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All the Cs but how many Gs?

The title of Fred Bergsten’s latest book is somewhat misleading: it’s The US vs China: the quest for global economic leadership. But the argument of the book goes against the polarisation presumed in the title. Bergsten’s argument is that while the US and China are bound to compete in some economic domains, they should, and will find they must, co-operate in others. Tackling climate change and ensuring global financial stability are two of the examples of the latter. Indeed, he calls for ‘conditional competitive co-operation’, with the formation of a G2 on issues of global public goods, pandemics and other crises.

This all seems super-sensible. But it also has the flavour of a book from a distant era. Although the pandemic had happened, the Russian invasion of Ukraine had not. Nor at the beginning of 2022 might we have expected both China and the US to seem as unstable internally as they do at this moment, with astonishingly bad covid-exit policies on the one hand and the resurgence of Trumpism in public life on the other, alongside what is going to prove the most serious crisis of capitalism for at least a generation. The (geo)political pack has been not just shuffled but thrown up in the air. (And who had a monkey-pox epidemic on their 2022 bingo card??) At least Bergsten does warn about the dangers of a leadership vacuum, a G0 world, with the 1930s as a spectre of what could be.

The author’s knowledge of the international monetary system is legendary, and this is a terrific book to read for the economic insider’s perspective. Alongside Adam Tooze’s books, particularly Crashed, I now feel as informed as I’m going to be about international monetary matters. But the future now looks even more frightening than the most frightening prospect described here. Screenshot 2022-05-20 at 15.53.40


The end of empire in Asia

I’ve strayed outside my own territory to read a book by a colleague, Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire by Tim Harper. I’ll start by saying it’s definitely a commitment as the book is 650 pages long (before counting the footnotes). However, I’ve found it completely gripping and was glad to have some long train journeys this week. This is a subject – Asian political and intellectual history from about 1900-1930 – that I knew next to nothing about beforehand. The book ranges across the whole of Asia including China and India, and follows the activists on their travels to Europe and the US, whether voluntary (seeking support) or not (sent into exile). So – to use an awkward metaphor – the book joins up unknown dots. It also completely brings home the immorality of empire, with none of the imperial powers – Britain, France, the Netherlands – coming out of it with any honour as they resisted realising that the days of empire were drawing to an end. The political developments, including the spread of actively revolutionary ideas and movements after the Bolshevik revolution, dominate the narrative; but I also relished the cultural elements of the story, including the popularity of English and French detective novels in the late 19th century or the proliferation of new journals as ideas spread along seaways and railways.

Here’s a longer and more informative review for those who know more about this subject than I do. One blurb on the back, from Peter Frankopan, describes the book as reading like a thriller. It absolutely does. An excellent beach paperback for the summer.

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