Technology old and new

For the usual kind of slightly random reason, I re-read David Edgerton’s excellent book The Shock of the Old this past week (having read it when published in 2006 as he was an interviewee on an Analysis I was presenting [http://news.bbc.co.uk/nol/shared/spl/hi/programmes/analysis/transcripts/27_07_06.txt]). It’s generally aged very well, and is of course a necessary corrective to technology hype. The main argument is that the history of technology tends to be told as a a breathless account of inventors and shiny new inventions, rather than the more representative but complicated story of economic conditions and uneven diffusion and use. So at any moment in time, many overlapping technologies serving the same basic needs will be in use around the world.  What’s more, the same hype gets recycled. For example there’s a quotation from George Orwell in 1944 complaining that people were over-hyping the ‘death of distance’ due to the airplane and radio, when the same claims had been made before 1914!

It is undoubtedly true that different technologies overlap in use, and indeed there’s quite a large economics literature about diffusion and the need for complementary investments before inventions and innovations deliver productivity benefits.  To this extent, Edgerton is railing against an imaginary foe. He is also very sniffy about the concept of ‘weightlessness’, which he misinterprets as a claim about declining employment shares for primary and secondary sectors of the economy. It is not this, but rather a description of the distribution of value added in the economy, and one that has been borne out fully by trends in the past 2 or 3 decades.

The other point that he seems to me to under-play – oddly, given his emphasis on the importance of contest for the use of technologies – is that they are all social. There are countries unable to provide a reliable electricity supply not only because they are low or mid-income but because they do not have the institutions to support the complex supply arrangements: not just sub-Saharan Africa but also California. Or take the book’s example of the Pill, which it argues is an incremental change in contraceptive technologies. Yes and no. Each of the Pill’s characteristics – women in control, reliable, and not requiring a fitting by a doctor – might seem a small shift from condoms, douches, IUDs and diaphragms, but together they did deliver a compelling new method and a radical change in social relations.

Having said all this, The Shock of the Old is a bracing corrective to techno-hype, something certainly still needed.

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Making the impossible happen

I have totally enjoyed One Giant Leap: The impossible mission that flew us to the moon, by Charles FIshman, out now as a paperback. It covers everything about the Apollo mission, from the Cold War context (the shock of Sputnik and Gagarin) and JFK’s political calculations and Congressional debates, to the practicalities of the science, design and manufacturing, to the lasting consequences for global society. The Soviet lead in space stimulated the US space effort, but Kennedy himself was lukewarm about America being first on the Moon. Fishman argues that the assassination of the President ensured the continuation of the mission because it became a memorial to him.

One key long-term consequence is that the mission to get humans on the moon brought about the digital revolution. Fishman makes a totally persuasive case that NASA was such a large-scale and demanding, perfectionist purchaser of integrated circuits that it ensured they became faster, more reliable and cheaper with every passing year. Transistors had only been around for 10 years but were too large and power hungry for the new performance demands of manned space flight. NASA bought most of the chips made in the US during the 1960s. The first ones cost $1000 each, in 1962 they were under $100 each, in 1963 $15 each and $7.68 by 1965.

The other long-term impact was to turn ‘technology’ from something scary and Dr Strangelove-like to do with nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction into something benign and aspirational, the challenge of conquering space for all humanity, albeit planting US flags on the Moon. “The race to the Moon … invoked the wonders of science, with about as much drama as could be imagined.”

The sections about managing the huge engineering project across multiple suppliers, manufacturing to the essential high standards, obessing over details, making key design decisions are all totally fascinating. MIT’s Instrumentation Lab was writing all the software – itself a new word in the early 1960s – and this threatened to delay the launch beyond Kennedy’s ‘before the decade is out’ deadline, so complex and crucial was the task. “It was the first of a whole new kind of engineering projects,” Fishman writes. There was no prior know-how about how to run these. Indeed, big, complex software engineering projects all too often still go wrong. Humans got to the moon and safely back because of the attention to detail on the part of NASA engineers.

The Apollo project was made all the harder by the fact that the onboard computer had to fit within one cubic foot, and its memory contained just 589,824 0s or 1s. So its software was – literally – woven by hand. MIT and NASA HQ had tapes and punch cards. On the spacecraft itself, the programs required to get to the Moon, land the Lunar Module, take off again, dock in space with the Command Module, and return to Earth, there was no room for these bulky items. The punch cards were taken to an old textile factory in Waltham, Massachussetts, where women who had woven fabric, or manfactured watches, in previous jobs now wove software into ‘core rope memory’ at special looms. Their old skills made them the only kind of workers with the know-how to weave computer memory. When the women struck for a while in the mid-1960s, everything their supervisors and managers produced until the strike was over, had to be scrapped.

This is the kind of detail that made me love the book. But the wonder of the Apollo Mission is also part of the enjoyment. I have a vague memory of watching Neil Armstrong, sitting in my PJs along with my older siblings; our family had got our first TV for the occasion. I ended One Giant Leap feeling vaguely optimistic as we approach the end of a dreadful year. Human societies can do impossible, wonderful things, with a combination of political vision and support, and engineers.

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Accounting for progress

I read Stephen Macekura’s The Mismeasure of Progress: Economic Growth and its Critics in proof, and just enjoyed reading it again now it’s been published. People who know about my work won’t be surprised to hear that this is just my cup of tea. The question preoccupies me as much as it ever did – what counts as progress and how do we count it? – along, increasingly, with the issue of who gets to answer the question.

There are now quite a few books about the limitations of GDP, or history of GDP, or both (eg as well as my GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History, Matthias Schmelzer’s The Hegemony of Growth, Philip Lepenies The Power of a Single Number, Ehsan Masood’s The Great Invention, Brett Chrostophers’ Banking Across Boundaries, and more). So Macekura has this recent literature to build on as well as older classics including Alain Desrosieres and Theodore Porter. What he brings is a unified story about the critics of GDP and the System of National Accounts told from the 1940s on, and particularly including the perspective of the economists and statisticians working on or in developing economies.

That the arcana of economic statistics matter is clear from the start: “Accounting and accountability are closely intertwined,” Macekura writes. His framework is James Scott‘s powerful concept of state ‘legibility’. This makes the imperialist habit clear when it comes to the history of national accounting in the colonies of western powers. As one Colonial Office official put it, the UK had to ‘level up’ its colonies, and would do so by increasing their GDP growth. Hmmm. That term is oddly familiar.

The heroes of the tale in some ways are economists such as Phyllis Deane of NIESR and Dudles Seers, founder of the Institute for Development Studies, for their appreciation that economies are not all the same. The fabric of life in low income countries was profoundly different from the standard framework it was supposed to fit. However, western critics of the focus on economic growth – whether for this reason or because of the increasing concern with environmental limits – were in turn criticised by some economists and others from the countries concerned, who considered that to not prioritise growth was a western luxury. “The Limits To Growth report [1972] prompted a strong backlash from experts in the Global South,” Macekura notes. He goes on to argue that, “Growth critics often sought to replace one set of numbers in governance with another. They mounted a technocratic critique of technocracy that claimed the basic problems of contemporary life could be resolved through the use of socially relevant and more specialized data.”

The book ends with a picture of the critics of growth and of GDP (overlapping but certainly not identical sets) in recent times, flagging questions such as the measurement of the financial sector, as well as the ever-more pressing sustainability issues. He ends with a call for a wider set of metrics but also for enfranchising people to participate in the debate about progress. There is certainly quite widespread interest in matters of measurement, for all kinds of reasons, now. GDP is rapidly losing its legitimacy but the need for the social accounts that enable accountability is more important than ever.

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What you need to know about Strongmen

I’m biased about this one: my dear friend Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat at New York University has a new book out. It’s Strongmen: How They Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fall. The book looks at how personal authoritarian regimes come about in democracies or  through democratic processes, and covers strongmen ranging from Hitler and Mussolini, Mobutu and Pinochet, to Putin and Trump. It’s an illuminating approach because the book discusses their common tactics and features across time and space – for these types learn from each other – and also tracks changes, for instance in the use of different types of media over time. The book also ends on a cheerful(ish) note: strongmen do fall. And the more personal their authoritarianism, the more inevitable that end is. Their methods are counter-productive in the end because they do not govern well, people can eventually lose their fear of opposing publicly the regime and resistance has an impact, and they age: posing with no shirt doesn’t work so well as muscles sag.

Anyway, do read it. It’s so relevant. I’m not going to celebrate Trump’s defeat until he actually goes. There are a lot of wannabe authoritarians around elsewhere as well as the ones we have currently in countries such as Hungary or Turkey. This book has great insights about the dynamics of strongmanism, which I fear will not go away any time soon.

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Talking about the future

One of the things I like about Brett Christophers’ books is that they always make me think, and always provide an immensely well-informed critique of aspects of economics that economists don’t interrogate enough themselves. His new book, Rentier Capitalism: Who Owns the Economy and Who Pays for it?, is no exception. It’s an essential read for anyone thinking about what UK governments might need to do differently as the pandemic upends the economy, and people’s jobs, without doubt feeding an appetite for some significant change in the philosophy of public policy.

The new one is a natural follow-up to the author’s previous book, The New Enclosure: The Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain, on the inequalities and inequities of land ownership in the UK. Landowners are one form of rentier. The new book argues that rentiership has, however, spread to many parts of the economy, and particularly so in the UK. At one level, the argument is a compelling attack on the way successive governments have taxed (or rather failed to tax), regulated (or failed to regulate), and generally favoured big companies and their ever-wealthier executives at the expense of the public good – in other words, the rest of us. We pay more for shoddier goods and services, either directly or as taxpayers, than we should.

It’s hard to argue with any of the targets skewered in the book: extractors of mineral wealth, the financial sector, the big outsourcers – whose incompetence is getting another outing in the test, track’n’trace fiasco – the gatekeeper digital platforms, the private equity firms running so much infrastructure, the exploiters of patents and ludicrously long copyright periods. Indeed, the book kindly quotes things I’ve written myself on some of these outrages.

Having said that, I have one small issue and one bigger issue with the analysis. The small issue is about the way he defines rentiership – as the earning of income from an asset whose ownership confers monopoly power. Assets can be intangible as well as tangible of course, but I’m not entirely convinced that everything presented as an asset in the book is one. To my mind, an asset is something with a stock, which can be depleted or augmented, providing a flow of services over time. Land, or oil, or physical infrastructure, for sure. Digital platform markets – probably. Outsourcing contracts – not so sure, it depends. Perhaps as a competition economist I see everything as a competition problem, but I think the common issue in all these examples is monopoly power and the artificial scarcity it creates, and we should be analysing monopoly rents, and their regulation.

The bigger issue is about the way the concept of an asset is becoming more or less demonised in some areas of social science, as an effective synonym for the use of money in inappropriate domains. Debate about the limits of markets is time-honoured and I have no problem with it. But if it is now inappropriate to regard anything as an asset, how on earth can we think about sustainability? To give a specific example, I can understand why some people think it is morally wrong to put a market price on clean air or biodiversity, even while making the economist’s counter-argument that refusing to do so imposes an implicit price of zero, which is even wronger. However, if we don’t think about nature as an asset, whose stocks we should steward, I find it hard to see how to embed concern for the future in policy choices. In my work thinking about how to get beyond the policy short-termism of a focus on GDP growth, measuring and understanding the whole range of assets available to people has been key.

There have been a number of books recently criticising ‘assetization’ so Brett is not alone. My questions to the various authors, all I think people inclined to the left of politics, is a serious one. How does ‘assetization’ differ from ‘monetization’? Are the arguments about it really distinct from those about monopoly power, as made for example by Thomas Phillipon? And above all how are we to think about, and name, those things in which we should be investing, or at least not depleting, to have regard for the future?

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