“Itreally looks that we had as much technological change and progress between 1870 and today as we had between 6000 BC and 1870 AD. We packed what had previously been nearly eight millennia of changes in the underlying technological hardware of society, which required changes in the running sociological code on top of that hardware. To try to pack what had been eight millennia worth of changes before in 150 years is going to produce an awful lot of history.
Before 1870, most of history is how elites run their force-and-fraud, domination-and-extraction mechanism against a poor peasantry so that they, at least, can have enough, and so that their children are only two inches shorter than we are, rather than five or six as the peasants are. It’s about how the elites elbow each other out of the way as they eat from the trough. And it’s about the use they make of their wealth for purposes good and ill, of civilization and destruction.
But if you’re enough of a Marxist, like me, to say that the real motor of history is the forces of production, their changes, and how society reacts for good or ill to changing forces of production, then yes, [1870 to 2010] has to be as consequential because there’s as much technological change-driven history as there is in entire millennia before.”
“you look worldwide and you take my index of technological progress, and it [grows by] less than half a percent per year from 1770 to 1870. That’s based on exploitation of really cheap coal and also on the productivity benefits of falling transport costs that gather all of the manufacturing in the world into the place [the United Kingdom] where it’s most productive and most efficient, because it’s the place where coal is cheapest.
I was struck by a line I came across from the 1871 version of John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy: “Hitherto it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toll of any human being.”
Say you have some slowdown in global technological progress after 1870 because the cheapest coal has already been mined and the deeper coal is hard to find, and say that you have some other slowdown because you don’t get the boost from gathering manufacturing in places where it’s productive. We might well have wound up right with a steampunk world after 1870: a world with about the population of today, but the living standards of 1870 on average.
That’s what the pace of progress was, except that we got the industrial research lab, the modern corporation, and then full globalization around 1870. The industrial research lab rationalized and routinized the discovery and development of technologies; the corporation rationalized and routinized the development and deployment of technologies; and globalization diffused them everywhere.”