Talk: Lessons from the Industrial Revolution

I gave a talk on lessons from the industrial revolution. Slides are available here.

Some notes on things that stand out, as a commentary to the slides.

  • The industrial revolution marked the first period of consistent growth in human welfare
    • 2019-05-02 10_38_10-Industrial Revolution - PowerPoint.png
  • Most metrics of well-being seem to be relatively static until late 18th century in England. Here are estimates of a “wheat equivalent” of wages in various points in time (from Gregory Clark’s lecture series)
    • Spacetime Coordinates Wheat wage
      England today 15X 12 lbs
      England 1800 12 lbs
      Malawi today 5 lbs
      Hunter-gatherers 12 lbs
      Athens 350 BC 27 lbs
      Babylonia 1700 BC 15 lbs
  • (My caricature of) the standard story in history textbooks is “Newton solved physics, Watt solved the steam engine, industrial revolution followed. There’s lots of problems with this “SI Unit Model” of social progress. For one, it doesn’t explain why consistent productivity growth first started (a) in Lancashire, a region with little in terms of human capital (b) as a result of tinkering by mostly uneducated inventors of mechanized textile machinery who had little to no idea
    • Caveat 1: advances in scientific understanding definitely played a significant role in later stages of the industrial revolution, preventing running into diminishing returns.
    • Caveat 2: There’s solid evidence that scientific undestanding played a significant to central role in the early stages as well, which I plan to cover elsewhere.
  • The story of what happened is extremely complicated. But it’s hard to make the case that scientific and technological advances were sufficient.
  • In principle, most of the basic technologies and insights were available to Romans, Arabs and Ming Chinese. Coal was widely used long before the the 18th century and principles  of the steam engine were understood at least since Hero of Alexandria (1st century AD).
    • Hero’s primitive steam engine, the aeolipile
  • Growth in scientific understanding, ability to make precise tools, or improved information flows happening at least since 1500’s failed to have much of an impact before a series of relatively low-level advances in the textile industry.
    • The bookwheel, invented in 1588 by Agostino Ramelli, is my favorite example of an advanced tool with little practical use outside of academic circles. Note the sophisticated epicyclic gearing.
  • Some key components in the actual story seem to be
    • Better organization of labor, task decomposition and specialitzation, taking advantage of economies of scale.
    • Growth in precision in making machines, machines that make machines, and so on.
    • Cultural shift towards tinkering and invention being higher status
    • Demand for energy and machine tools from the textile industry
  • The textile industry had the advantage of being a large source of scalable demand: because textile products are largely positional goods, people spend
    • A question to ask is: what is the equivalent of the textile industry for AI, synthetic biology and other emerging technologies?

Some of my favorite resources on the industrial revolution:

  1. Gregory Clark’s lecture series
  2. Eric Drexler’s Radical Abundance
  3. Norbert Wiener’s treatment in The Human Use of Human Beings
  4. Luke Muehlhauser’s posts
  5. Wikipedia

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