Thursday, August 16, 2012

What was the Industrial Revolution?

"In 1709 Abraham Derby smelted iron in a blast furnace, using coke. And so began the Industrial Revolution. Out of Abraham's Shropshire furnace flowed molten metal. Out of his genius flowed the mills, looms, engines, weapons, railways, ships, cities, conflicts and prosperity that built the world we live in."

Danny Boyle Olympics 2012 Opening Ceremony Programme

Danny Boyle's words capture the most commonly held view about the industrial revolution. Economic historians refer to this as the 'wave of gadgets' view. And despite all the complex models, regression analyses, and difficult-to-comprehend language layered on by academia, this view - the idea that technology is growth - sits at the heart of our understanding of the economic changes that Danny Boyle so dramatically represented in the Olympics opening ceremony.

It's an explanation that's never satisfied me.

Someone invents a new technology, it spreads, all our lives are changed. That's it really. That's our explanation for the difference between then and now; between mammoth hunting cavemen and apple mac tweeting hipsters.

Questions about the spread of technologies through trade and about the conditions that encourage innovation and invention have fed generations of economic thought. And they continue to this day to feed the families of any economist able to befuddle us into believing their particular answer. Allied to the economist's sophistry are two things. One is our commonly held belief that science is the father of technology. And the other is our inherent ambivalence. This expresses itself as a morality which finds value either in freedom, or in equality. Individualism versus collectivism is the dynamic dualism at the heart of democratic political economy.

We are gripped by this powerful paradigm because it draws strength from our conflicting moral experience providing answers so full and sufficient, so able to satisfy both sides, that rightness is transformed into righteousness. Escape requires the de-construction of the trinity of science, technology and economics and their reformation into a trinity of questions; What is money? What is growth? What is value?

That would be a revolution so profound as to make the agricultural, industrial and digital appear as they truly are; as markers on a continuum of human understanding. Art has a way of allowing us to glimpse such a possibility. The naive narrative of Boyle's ceremony reveals our limitations; smoke-belching chimneys penetrating verdant pastures, the fertility of growth flowing from one man's genius. Individual seeds nurtured into form by collective desire.

Our circumstance is one of sexual animal and we try to create a history from within this pulsing, pumping, stiffening body. Hence, all revolutions are sexual. They reflect the quality of our relationships. We reap, we sow. We create, we destroy. We own, we owe. Our point of perception chisels our experience from a rock of possibilities.

What was the Industrial Revolution? It was a period of change, in our relationship with money, our understanding of growth, and our connection to value. As was the Agricultural Revolution, and as is the Digital Revolution.

Each Revolution is an expression, an identification, of the limitation of our ability to understand our experience. The truly new is never fully knowable.

As analogy, one could view experience as water filling a cup. The amount of water in the cup denotes the sum total of experience. However, the shape of the water (confined to the cup) is due to "forces which lie outside of experience”.

Mark Metaphysics of Quality Forum (DQ and SQ interrelationship Thread 14/08/2012)

Further Reading:
Dierdre McCloskey 1066 and Wave of Gadgets in Penelope Gouk, ed., Wellsprings of Achievement: Cultural and Economic Dynamics in Early Modern England and Japan (Variorum, 1995).

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