Parent categories: Innovation.

Breakthroughs in Societies

Which societies produce breakthrough technology?

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A small number of societies have produced almost all of the breakthrough technologies in human history. Social conditions that allow rapid innovation in technology and industry are rare and fragile. What are these conditions? How do they translate into technological progress?

This interesting question comes from this on-line meeting: Ben Landau, Bismarck Analysis, via Foresight Institute.


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Perhaps those societies that facilitate interactions between diverse people (multi-cultural places like cities) and encourage idea copying (China).


--Ruta,
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Paraphrasing, the 3 main points from Ben Landau were identified in all the cases of societies, in which you're getting lots of breakthrough technology:

1. Wealth accumulation close to economic production. Accumulation of wealth in the hands of people who are very closely involved in the economic production, and the source of their power in society is the raw economic production itself. Here, "accumulation" is not "income" (if your expenses = income, you're not accumulating anything). This statement is not about particular individuals, but at the society in general ("if you zoom out, and look where the piles of wealth are deployed"). You can find societies that, for example, have priests or religious figures accumulating wealth (early Mesopotamian, or early Medieval Europe). You can find societies, where political leaders accumulate wealth (like in Roman Empire). You can also find societies where people themselves come to be deeply involved in the economic production (craftsmen, farmers, industrialists) the ones who are building up and accumulating the surplus, and deciding how to deploy it. When you're doing this, it does not only allow to have income, but also have piles of wealth, that you can use to reshape society in important ways.

Also, one interesting thing about the accumulation, is that it tends to be associated less with just the size of the industry, and a lot more with whether it's growing and new, where things are expanding and becoming relatively more important, is where you tend to see accumulation of politically relevant fortunes.

Those people who are closely involved in the economic production, when empowered, they where the interventions can make a difference, and that contributes to the creation of breakthrough technologies. Whereas, when the accumulation is happening among generals and governors (like in Roman Empire), these people are making their money from large farms worked by slaves, and they are not really involved and don't know how agriculture works. They are not going to innovate in agriculture, as it's not what they do - they know that the way you get richer is by conquering other nations. Of course, they can be innovative in the military sense then...

2. Disruption-tolerance. You need a culture that is relatively tolerant of new power bases, and people coming up with new ways of doing things on a large scale. It can often be really locally-damaging to the things that are getting displaced. Joseph Schumpeter calls this "the process of creative destruction" -- "you have a new industry coming that works so much better than previous one, such that the old one gets destroyed" (e.g., supermarket displacing the baker and green grocer, and butcher). Nowadays we call this "disruption." This is most obvious in cases of communication technology, where establishment media sources are displaced by newer internet-based media sources. The disruption-tolerance may be low. For example, you can think of Uber as one of the disruptive technologies, but in France, taxi drivers rioted and destroyed the cars of Uber drivers. You don't have that happen in the U.S., as we have more legal tolerance towards people doing new things. It may be even in the law, like, e.g., in the U.S. there is precedent-based reactive practice, -- "You do whatever, and we will later decide if it is good." -- vs. like in Europe "Things have to be defined in law before they are legal."

3. Logic-based culture. A very logical school of thought that's quite prominent in the culture. In order to do very good physical engineering, there have to be enough people who are comfortable with this sort of very logical thought, -- very analytical, so that they can do not just the empirical side, but also the thinking through, doing hypothesis generation to explore consequences. In the modern world, this is something that may be called "scientific materialism", "rationalism" -- which seem to work very well for this. In other cultures that have physical technology you'll see some equivalent of this, e.g., scholasticism, or legalism, or some sort of very logical culture that gives a wide social space for "nerds to get into the weeds." This is more of an empirical claim, but it seems to fit that this is a thing you would need to do the type of large scale engineering, which may be necessary for both incremental and breakthrough technology.


--Mindey,

They may have psychological and even genetic components. For example, hunting vs farming, may have selected people for completely different set of abilities, where in one case, the results are not very much correlated with efforts (more related with subconscious "cooking" of various ideas so to speak), whereas in other case they are closely related with the amount of work done.

So, I'd say, it has a lot to do with those natural propensities, but also, on how society rewards them economically.


--Mindey,

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