The functionality of artifacts

We think of artifacts as being “functional” in a specific sense: their characteristics are well designed and adjusted for their “intended” use. Sometimes this is because of the explicit design process through which they were created, and sometimes it is the result of a long period of small adjustments by artisan-producers and users who recognize a potential improvement in shape, material, or internal workings that would lead to superior performance. Jon Elster described these processes in his groundbreaking 1983 book, Explaining Technical Change: A Case Study in the Philosophy of Science.

Here is how I described the gradual process of refinement of technical practice with respect to artisanal winegrowing in a 2009 post (link):

First, consider the social reality of a practice like wine-making. Pre-modern artisanal wine makers possess an ensemble of techniques through which they grow grapes and transform them into wine. These ensembles are complex and developed; different wine “traditions” handle the tasks of cultivation and fermentation differently, and the results are different as well (fine and ordinary burgundies, the sweet gewurztraminers of Alsace versus Germany). The novice artisan doesn’t reinvent the art of winemaking; instead, he/she learns the techniques and traditions of the elders. But at the same time, the artisan wine maker may also introduce innovations into his/her practice — a wrinkle in the cultivation techniques, a different timing in the fermentation process, the introduction of a novel ingredient into the mix.

Over time the art of grape cultivation and wine fermentation improves.

 
But in a way this expectation of “artifact functionality” is too simple and direct. In the development of a technology or technical practice there are multiple actors who are in a position to influence to development of the outcome, and they often have divergent interests. These differences of interests may lead to substantial differences in performance for the technology or technique. Technologies reflect social interests, and this is as evident in the history of technology as it is in the current world of high tech. In the winemaking case, for example, landlords may have interests that favor dense planting, whereas the wine maker may favor more sparse planting because of the superior taste this pattern creates in the grape. More generally, the owner’s interest in sales and profitability exerts a pressure on the characteristics of the product that run contrary to the interest of the artisan-producer who gives primacy to the quality of the product, and both may have interests that are somewhat inconsistent with the broader social good.
Imagine the situation that would result if a grain harvesting machine were continually redesigned by the profit-seeking landowner and the agricultural workers. Innovations that are favorable to enhancing profits may be harmful for safety and welfare of agricultural workers, and vice versa. So we might imagine a see-saw of technological development, as the landowner and the worker gains more influence over the development of the technology.

As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois in the late 1960s I heard the radical political scientist Michael Parenti tell just such a story about his father’s struggle to maintain artisanal quality in the Italian bread he baked in New York City in the 1950s. Here is an online version of the story (link). Michael Parenti’s story begins like this:

Years ago, my father drove a delivery truck for the Italian bakery owned by his uncle Torino. When Zi Torino returned to Italy in 1956, my father took over the entire business. The bread he made was the same bread that had been made in Gravina, Italy, for generations. After a whole day standing, it was fresh as ever, the crust having grown hard and crisp while the inside remained soft, solid, and moist. People used to say that our bread was a meal in itself…. 

Pressure from low-cost commercial bread companies forced his father into more and more cost-saving adulteration of the bread. And the story ends badly …

But no matter what he did, things became more difficult. Some of our old family customers complained about the change in the quality of the bread and began to drop their accounts. And a couple of the big stores decided it was more profitable to carry the commercial brands.

 

Not long after, my father disbanded the bakery and went to work driving a cab for one of the big taxi fleets in New York City. In all the years that followed, he never mentioned the bread business again.

Parenti’s message to activist students in the 1960s was stark: this is the logic of capitalism at work.

Of course market pressures do not always lead to the eventual ruin of the products we buy; there is also an economic incentive created by consumers who favor higher performance and more features that leads businesses to improve their products. So the dynamic that ruined Michael Parenti’s father’s bread is only one direction that market competition can take. The crucial point is this: there is nothing in the development of technology and technique that guarantees outcomes that are more and more favorable for the public.

Hegel on labor and freedom

Hegel provided a powerful conception of human beings in the world and a rich conception of freedom. Key to that conception is the idea of self-creation through labor. Hegel had an “aesthetic” conception of labor: human beings confront the raw given of nature and transform it through intelligent effort into things they imagine that will satisfy their needs and desires.

Alexandre Kojève’s reading of Hegel is especially clear on Hegel’s conception of labor and freedom. This is provided in Kojève’s analysis of the Master-Slave section of Hegel’s Phenomenology in his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. The key idea is expressed in these terms:

The product of work is the worker’s production. It is the realization of his project, of his idea; hence, it is he that is realized in and by this product, and consequently he contemplates himself when he contemplates it…. Therefore, it is by work, and only by work, that man realizes himself objectively as man. (Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel)

It seems to me that this framework of thought provides an interesting basis for a philosophy of technology as well. We might think of technology as collective and distributed labor, the processes through which human beings collectively transform the world around themselves to better satisfy human needs. Through intelligence and initiative human beings and organizations transform the world around them to create new possibilities for human need satisfaction. Labor and technology are emancipating and self-creating. Labor and technology help to embody the conditions of freedom.

However, this assessment is only one side of the issue. Technologies are created for a range of reasons by a heterogeneous collection of actors: generating profits, buttressing power relations, serving corporate and political interests. It is true that new technologies often serve to extend the powers of the human beings who use them, or to satisfy their needs and wants more fully and efficiently. Profit motives and the market help to ensure that this is true to some extent; technologies and products need to be “desired” if they are to be sold and to generate profits for the businesses that produce them. But given the conflicts of interest that exist in human society, technologies also serve to extend the capacity of some individuals and groups to wield power over others.

This means that there is a dark side to labor and technology as well. There is the labor of un-freedom. Not all labor allows the worker to fulfill him- or herself through free exercise of talents. Instead the wage laborer is regulated by the time clock and the logic of cost reduction. This constitutes Marx’s most fundamental critique of capitalism, as a system of alienation and exploitation of the worker as a human being. Here are a few paragraphs on alienated labor from Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts:

The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general.

This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces – labor’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. Under these economic conditions this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.

So much does the labor’s realization appear as loss of realization that the worker loses realization to the point of starving to death. So much does objectification appear as loss of the object that the worker is robbed of the objects most necessary not only for his life but for his work. Indeed, labor itself becomes an object which he can obtain only with the greatest effort and with the most irregular interruptions. So much does the appropriation of the object appear as estrangement that the more objects the worker produces the less he can possess and the more he falls under the sway of his product, capital.

All these consequences are implied in the statement that the worker is related to the product of labor as to an alien object. For on this premise it is clear that the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself. The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object. Hence, the greater this activity, the more the worker lacks objects. Whatever the product of his labor is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less is he himself. The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.

So does labor fulfill freedom or create alienation? Likewise, does technology emancipate and fulfill us, or does it enthrall and disempower us? Marx’s answer to the first question is that it does both, depending on the social relations within which it is defined, managed, and controlled.

It would seem that we can answer the second question for ourselves, in much the same terms. Technology both extends freedom and constricts it. It is indeed true that technology can extend human freedom and realize human capacities. The use of technology and science in agriculture means that only a small percentage of people in advanced countries are farmers, and those who are enjoy a high standard of living compared to peasants of the past. Communication and transportation technologies create new possibilities for education, personal development, and self-expression. The enhancements to economic productivity created by technological advances have permitted a huge increase in the wellbeing of ordinary people in the past century — a fact that permits us to pursue the things we care about more freely. But new technologies also can be used to control people, to monitor their thoughts and actions, and to wage war against them. More insidiously, new technologies may “alienate” us in new ways — make us less social, less creative, and less independent of mind and thought.

So it seems clear on its face that technology is both favorable to the expansion of freedom and the exercise of human capacities, and unfavorable. It is the social relations through which technology is exercised and controlled that make the primary difference in which effect is more prominent.

Turing’s journey

A recent post comments on the value of biography as a source of insight into history and thought. Currently I am reading Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma (1983), which I am finding fascinating both for its portrayal of the evolution of a brilliant and unconventional mathematician as well as the honest efforts Hodges makes to describe Turing’s sexual evolution and the tragedy in which it eventuated. Hodges makes a serious effort to give the reader some understanding of Turing’s important contributions, including his enormously important “computable numbers” paper. (Here is a nice discussion of computability in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophylink.) The book also offers a reasonably technical account of the Enigma code-breaking process.

Hilbert’s mathematical imagination plays an important role in Turing’s development. Hilbert’s speculation that all mathematical statements would turn out to be derivable or disprovable turned out to be wrong, and Turing’s computable numbers paper (along with Godel and Church) demonstrated the incompleteness of mathematics. But it was Hilbert’s formulation of the idea that permitted the precise and conclusive refutations that came later. (Here is Richard Zack’s account in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Hilbert’s program; link.)

And then there were the machines. I had always thought of the Turing machine as a pure thought experiment designed to give specific meaning to the idea of computability. It has been eye-opening to learn of the innovative and path-breaking work that Turing did at Bletchley Park, Bell Labs, and other places in developing real computational machines. Turing’s development of real computing machines and his invention of the activity of “programming” (“construction of tables”) make his contributions to the development of digital computing machines much more advanced and technical than I had previously understood. His work late in the war on the difficult problem of encrypting speech for secure telephone conversation was also very interesting and innovative. Further, his understanding of the priority of creating a technology that would support “random access memory” was especially prescient. Here is Hodges’ summary of Turing’s view in 1947:

Considering the storage problem, he listed every form of discrete store that he and Don Bayley had thought of, including film, plugboards, wheels, relays, paper tape, punched cards, magnetic tape, and ‘cerebral cortex’, each with an estimate, in some cases obviously fanciful, of access time, and of the number of digits that could be stored per pound sterling. At one extreme, the storage could all be on electronic valves, giving access within a microsecond, but this would be prohibitively expensive. As he put it in his 1947 elaboration, ‘To store the content of an ordinary novel by such means would cost many millions of pounds.’ It was necessary to make a trade-off between cost and speed of access. He agreed with von Neumann, who in the EDVAC report had referred to the future possibility of developing a special ‘Iconoscope’ or television screen, for storing digits in the form of a pattern of spots. This he described as ‘much the most hopeful scheme, for economy combined with speed.’ (403)

These contributions are no doubt well known by experts on the history of computing. But for me it was eye-opening to learn how directly Turing was involved in the design and implementation of various automatic computing engines, including the British ACE machine itself at the National Physical Laboratory (link). Here is Turing’s description of the evolution of his thinking on this topic, extracted from a lecture in 1947:

Some years ago I was researching on what might now be described as an investigation of the theoretical possibilities and limitations of digital computing machines. I considered a type of machine which had a central mechanism and an infinite memory which was contained on an infinite tape. This type of machine appeared to be sufficiently general. One of my conclusions was that the idea of a ‘rule of thumb’ process and a ‘machine process’ were synonymous. The expression ‘machine process’ of course means one which could be carried out by the type of machine I was considering…. Machines such as the ACE may be regarded as practical versions of this same type of machine. There is at least a very close analogy. (399)

At the same time his clear logical understanding of the implications of a universal computing machine was genuinely visionary. He was evangelical in his advocacy of the goal of creating a machine with a minimalist and simple architecture where all the complexity and specificity of the use of the machine derives from its instructions (programming), not its specialized hardware.

Also interesting is the fact that Turing had a literary impulse (not often exercised), and wrote at least one semi-autobiographical short story about a sexual encounter. Only a few pages survive. Here is a paragraph quoted by Hodges:

Alec had been working rather hard until two or three weeks before. It was about interplanetary travel. Alec had always been rather keen on such crackpot problems, but although he rather liked to let himself go rather wildly to newspapermen or on the Third Programme when he got the chance, when he wrote for technically trained readers, his work was quite sound, or had been when he was younger. This last paper was real good stuff, better than he’d done since his mid twenties when he had introduced the idea which is now becoming known as ‘Pryce’s buoy’. Alec always felt a glow of pride when this phrase was used. The rather obvious double-entendre rather pleased him too. He always liked to parade his homosexuality, and in suitable company Alec could pretend that the word was spelt without the ‘u’. It was quite some time now since he had ‘had’ anyone, in fact not since he had met that soldier in Paris last summer. Now that his paper was finished he might justifiably consider that he had earned another gay man, and he knew where he might find one who might be suitable. (564)

The passage is striking for several reasons; but most obviously, it brings together the two leading themes of his life, his scientific imagination and his sexuality.

This biography of Turing reinforces for me the value of the genre more generally. The reader gets a better understanding of the important developments in mathematics and computing that Turing achieved, it presents a vivid view of the high stakes in the secret conflict that Turing was a crucial part of in the use of cryptographic advances to defeat the Nazi submarine threat, and it gives personal insights into the very unique individual who developed into such a world-changing logician, engineer, and scientist.

Worker-owned enterprises as a social solution

image: Mondragon headquarters, Arrasate-Mondragon, Spain

Consider some of the most intractable problems we face in contemporary society: rising inequalities between rich and poor, rapid degradation of the environment, loss of control of their lives by the majority of citizens. It might be observed that these problems are the result of a classic conundrum that Marx identified 150 years ago: the separation of society into owners of the means of production and owners of labor power that capitalism depends upon has a logic that leads to bad outcomes. Marx referred to these bad outcomes as “immiseration”. The label isn’t completely accurate because it implies that workers are materially worse off from decade to decade. But what it gets right is the fact of “relative immiseration” — the fact that in almost all dimensions of quality of life the bottom 50% of the population in contemporary capitalism lags further and further from the quality of life enjoyed by the top 10%. And this kind of immiseration is getting worse. 

A particularly urgent contemporary version of these problems is the increasing pace of automation of various fields, leading to dramatic reduction for the demand for labor. Intelligent machines replace human workers. 
The central insight of Marx’s diagnosis of capitalism is couched in terms of property and power. There is a logic to private ownership of the means of production that predictably leads to certain kinds of outcomes, dynamics that Marx outlined in Capital in fine detail: impersonalization of work relations, squeezing of wages and benefits, replacement of labor with machines, and — Marx’s ultimate accusation — the creation of periodic crises. Marx anticipated crises of over-production and under-consumption; financial crises; and, if we layer in subsequent thinkers like Lenin, crises of war and imperialism.

At various times in the past century or two social reformers have looked to cooperatives and worker-owned enterprises as a solution for the problems of immiseration created by capitalism. Workers create value through their labor; they understand the technical processes of production; and it makes sense for them to share in the profits created through ownership of the enterprise. (A contemporary example is the Mondragon group of cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain.) The reasoning is that if workers own a share of the means of production, and if they organize the labor process through some kind of democratic organization, then we might predict that workers’ lives would be better, there would be less inequality, and people would have more control over the major institutions affecting their lives — including the workplace. Stephen Marglin’s 1974 article “What do bosses do?” lays out the logic of private versus worker ownership of enterprises (link). Marglin’s The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community explores the topic of worker ownership and management from the point of view of reinvigorating the bonds of community in contemporary society.

The logic is pretty clear. When an enterprise is owned by private individuals, their interest is in organizing the enterprise in such a way as to maximize private profits. This means choosing products that will find a large market at a favorable price, organizing the process efficiently, and reducing costs in inputs and labor. Further, the private owner has full authority to organize the labor process in ways that disempower workers. (Think Fordism versus the Volvo team-based production system.) This implies a downward pressure on wages and a preference for labor-saving technology, and it implies a more authoritarian workplace. So capitalist management implies stagnant wages, stagnant demand for labor, rising inequalities, and disagreeable conditions of work. 

 
When workers own the enterprise the incentives work differently. Workers have an interest in efficiency because their incomes are determined by the overall efficiency of the enterprise. Further, they have a wealth of practical and technical knowledge about production that promises to enhance effectiveness of the production process. Workers will deploy their resources and knowledge intelligently to bring products to the market. And they will organize the labor process in such a way that conforms to the ideal of humanly satisfying work.

The effect of worker-owned enterprises on economic inequalities is complicated. Within the firm the situation is fairly clear: the range of inequalities of income within the firm will depend on a democratic process, and this process will put a brake on excessive salary and wage differentials. And all members of the enterprise are owners; so wealth inequalities are reduced as well. In a mixed economy of private and worker-owned firms, however, the inequalities that exist will depend on both sectors; and the dynamics leading to extensive inequalities in today’s world would be found in the mixed economy as well. Moreover, some high-income sectors like finance seem ill suited to being organized as worker-owned enterprises. So it is unclear whether the creation of a meaningful sector of worker-owned enterprises would have a measurable effect on overall wage and wealth inequalities.

There are several ways in which cooperatives might fail as an instrument for progressive reform. First, it might be the case that cooperative management is inherently less efficient, effective, or innovative than capitalism management; so the returns to workers would potentially be lower in an inefficient cooperative than a highly efficient capitalist enterprise. Marglin’s arguments in “What do bosses do?” gives reasons to doubt this concern as a general feature of cooperatives; he argues that private management does not generally beat worker management at efficiency and innovation. Second, it might be that cooperatives are feasible at a small and medium scale of enterprise, but not feasible for large enterprises like a steel company or IBM. Greater size might magnify the difficulties of coordination and decision-making that are evident in even medium-size worker-owned enterprises. Third, it might be argued that cooperatives themselves are labor-expelling: cooperative members may have an economic incentive to refrain from adding workers to the process in order to keep their own income and wealth shares higher. It would only make economic sense to add a worker when the marginal product of the next worker is greater than the average product; whereas a private owner will add workers at a lower wage when the marginal product is greater than the marginal product. So an economy in which there is a high proportion of worker-owned cooperatives may produce a high rate of unemployment among non-cooperative members. Finally, worker-owned enterprises will need access to capital; but this means that an uncontrollable portion of the surplus will flow out of the enterprise to the financial sector — itself a major cause of current rising inequalities. Profits will be jointly owned; but interest and finance costs will flow out of the enterprise to privately owned financial institutions.

And what about automation? Would worker-owned cooperatives invest in substantial labor-replacing automation? Here there are several different scenarios to consider. The key economic fact is that automation reduces per-unit cost. This implies that in a situation of fixed market demand, automation of an enterprise implies reduction of the wage or reduction of the size of the workforce. There appear to be only a few ways out of this box. If it is possible to expand the market for the product at a lower unit price, then it is possible for an equal number of workers to be employed at an equal or higher individual return. If it is not possible to expand the market sufficiently, then the enterprise must either lower the wage or reduce the workforce. Since the enterprise is democratically organized, neither choice is palatable, and per-worker returns will fall. On this scenario, either the work force shrinks or the per-worker return falls.

Worker management has implications for automation in a different way as well. Private owners will select forms of automation based solely on their overall effect on private profits; whereas worker-owned firms will select a form of automation taking the value of a satisfying workplace into account. So we can expect that the pathway of technical change and automation would be different in worker-owned firms than in privately owned firms.

In short, the economic and institutional realities of worker-owned enterprises are not entirely clear. But the concept is promising enough, and there are enough successful real-world examples, to encourage progressive thinkers to reconsider this form of economic organization.

(Here are several earlier posts on issues of institutional design that confront worker-owned enterprises (link, link). Noam Chomsky talks about the value of worker-owned cooperatives within capitalism here; link. And here is an interesting article by Henry Hansmann on the economics of worker-owned firms in the Yale Law Journal; link.)

 

Designing and managing large technologies

What is involved in designing, implementing, coordinating, and managing the deployment of a large new technology system in a real social, political, and organizational environment? Here I am thinking of projects like the development of the SAGE early warning system, the Affordable Care Act, or the introduction of nuclear power into the civilian power industry.

Tom Hughes described several such projects in Rescuing Prometheus: Four Monumental Projects That Changed the Modern World. Here is how he describes his focus in that book:

Telling the story of this ongoing creation since 1945 carries us into a human-built world far more complex than that populated earlier by heroic inventors such as Thomas Edison and by firms such as the Ford Motor Company. Post-World War II cultural history of technology and science introduces us to system builders and the military-industrial-university complex. Our focus will be on massive research and development projects rather than on the invention and development of individual machines, devices, and processes. In short, we shall be dealing with collective creative endeavors that have produced the communications, information, transportation, and defense systems that structure our world and shape the way we live our lives. (kl 76)

The emphasis here is on size, complexity, and multi-dimensionality. The projects that Hughes describes include the SAGE air defense system, the Atlas ICBM, Boston’s Central Artery/Tunnel project, and the development of ARPANET. Here is an encapsulated description of the SAGE process:

The history of the SAGE Project contains a number of features that became commonplace in the development of large-scale technologies. Transdisciplinary committees, summer study groups, mission-oriented laboratories, government agencies, private corporations, and systems-engineering organizations were involved in the creation of SAGE. More than providing an example of system building from heterogeneous technical and organizational components, the project showed the world how a digital computer could function as a real-time information-processing center for a complex command and control system. SAGE demonstrated that computers could be more than arithmetic calculators, that they could function as automated control centers for industrial as well as military processes. (kl 285)

Mega-projects like these require coordinated efforts in multiple areas — technical and engineering challenges, business and financial issues, regulatory issues, and numerous other areas where innovation, discovery, and implementation are required. In order to be successful, the organization needs to make realistic judgments about questions for which there can be no certainty — the future development of technology, the needs and preferences of future businesses and consumers, and the pricing structure that will exist for the goods and services of the industry in the future. And because circumstances change over time, the process needs to be able to adapt to important new elements in the planning environment.

There are multiple dimensions of projects like these. There is the problem of establishing the fundamental specifications of the project — capacity, quality, functionality. There is the problem of coordinating the efforts of a very large team of geographically dispersed scientists and engineers, whose work is deployed across various parts of the problem. There is the problem of fitting the cost and scope of the project into the budgetary envelope that exists for it. And there is the problem of adapting to changing circumstances during the period of development and implementation — new technology choices, new economic circumstances, significant changes in demand or social need for the product, large shifts in the costs of inputs into the technology. Obstacles in any of these diverse areas can lead to impairment or failure of the project.

Most of the cases mentioned here involve engineering projects sponsored by the government or the military. And the complexities of these cases are instructive. But there are equally complex cases that are implemented in a private corporate environment — for example, the development of next-generation space vehicles by SpaceX. And the same issues of planning, coordination, and oversight arise in the private sector as well.

The most obvious thing to note in projects like these — and many other contemporary projects of similar scope — is that they require large teams of people with widely different areas of expertise and an ability to collaborate across disciplines. So a key part of leadership and management is to solve the problem of securing coordination around an overall plan across the numerous groups; updating plans in face of changing circumstances; and ensuring that the work products of the several groups are compatible with each other. Moreover, there is the perennial challenge of creating arrangements and incentives in the work environment — laboratory, design office, budget division, logistics planning — that stimulate the participants to high-level creativity and achievement.

This topic is of interest for practical reasons — as a society we need to be confident in the effectiveness and responsiveness of the planning and development that goes into large projects like these. But it is also of interest for a deeper reason: the challenge of attributing rational planning and action to a very large and distributed organization at all. When an individual scientist or engineer leads a laboratory focused on a particular set of research problems, it is possible for that individual (with assistance from the program and lab managers hired for the effort) to keep the important scientific and logistical details in mind. It is an individual effort. But the projects described here are sufficiently complex that there is no individual leader who has the whole plan in mind. Instead, the “organizational intentionality” is embodied in the working committees, communications processes, and assessment mechanisms that have been established.

It is interesting to consider how students, both undergraduate and graduate, can come to have a better appreciation of the organizational challenges raised by large projects like these. Almost by definition, study of these problem areas in a traditional university curriculum proceeds from the point of view of a specialized discipline — accounting, electrical engineering, environmental policy. But the view provided from a discipline is insufficient to give the student a rich understanding of the complexity of the real-world problems associated with projects like these. It is tempting to think that advanced courses for engineering and management students could be devised making extensive use of detailed case studies as well as simulation tools that would allow students to gain a more adequate understanding of what is needed to organize and implement a large new system. And interestingly enough, this is a place where the skills of humanists and social scientists are perhaps even more essential than the expertise of technology and management specialists. Historians and sociologists have a great deal to add to a student’s understanding of these complex, messy processes.

Social construction of technical knowledge

After there was the sociology of knowledge (link), before there was a new sociology of knowledge (link), and more or less simultaneous with science and technology studies (link), there was Paul Rabinow’s excellent ethnography of the invention of the key tool in recombinant DNA research — PCR (polymerase chain reaction). Rabinow’s monograph Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology appeared in 1996, after the first fifteen years of the revolution in biotechnology, and it provides a profound narrative of the intertwinings of theoretical science, applied bench work, and material economic interests, leading to substantial but socially imprinted discoveries and the development of a powerful new technology. Here is how Rabinow frames the research:

Making PCR

is an ethnographic account of the invention of PCR, the polymerase chain reaction (arguably the exemplary biotechnological invention to date), the milieu in which that invention took place (Cetus Corporation during the 1980s), and the key actors (scientists, technicians, and business people) who shaped the technology and the milieu and who were, in turn, shaped by them. (1)

This book focuses on the emergence of biotechnology, circa 1980, as a distinctive configuration of scientific, technical, cultural, social, economic, political, and legal elements, each of which had its own separate trajectory over the preceding decades. It examines the “style of life” or form of “life regulation” fashioned by the young scientists who chose to work in this new industry rather than pursue promising careers in the university world…. In sum, it shows how a contingently assembled practice emerged, composed of distinctive subjects, the site in which they worked, and the object they invented. (2)

There are several noteworthy features of these very exact descriptions of Rabinow’s purposes. The work is ethnographic; it proceeds through careful observation, interaction, and documentation of the intentionality and practices of the participants in the process. It is focused on actors of different kinds — scientists, lab technicians, lawyers, business executives, and others — whose interests, practices, and goals are distinctly different from each others’. It is interested in accounting for how the “object” (PCR) came about, without any implication of technological or scientific inevitability. It highlights both contingency and heterogeneity in the process. The process of invention and development was a meandering one (contingency) and it involved a large group of heterogeneous influences (scientific, cultural, economic, …).

Legal issues come into this account because the fundamental question — what is PCR and who invented it? — cannot be answered in narrowly technical or scientific terms. Instead, it was necessary to go through a process of practical bench-based development and patent law to finally be able to answer both questions.

A key part of Rabinow’s ethnographic finding is that the social configuration and setting of the Cetus laboratory was itself a key part of the process leading to successful development of PCR. The fact of hierarchy in traditional scientific research spaces (universities) is common — senior scientists at the top, junior technicians at the bottom. But Cetus had developed a local culture that was relatively un-hierarchical, and Rabinow believes this cultural feature was crucial to the success of the undertaking.

Cetus’s organizational structure was less hierarchical and more interdisciplinary than that found in either corporate pharmaceutical or academic institutions. In a very short time younger scientists could take over major control of projects; there was neither the extended postdoc and tenure probationary period nor time-consuming academic activities such as committees, teaching, and advising to divert them from full-time research. (36)

And later:

Cetus had been run with a high degree of organizational flexibility during its first decade. The advantages of such flexibility were a generally good working environment and a large degree of autonomy for the scientists. The disadvantages were a continuing lack of overall direction that resulted in a dispersal of both financial and human resources and in continuing financial losses. (143)

A critical part of the successful development of PCR techniques in Rabinow’s account was the highly skilled bench work of a group of lab technicians within the company (116 ff.). Ph.D. scientists and non-Ph.D. lab technicians collaborated well throughout the extended period during which the chemistry of PCR needed to be perfected; and Rabinow’s suggestion is that neither group by itself could have succeeded.

So some key ingredients in this story are familiar from the current wisdom of tech companies like Google and FaceBook: let talented people follow their curiosity, use space (physical and social) to elicit strong positive collaboration; don’t try to over-manage the process through a rigid authority structure.

But as Rabinow points out, Cetus was not an anarchic process of smart people discovering things. Priorities were established to govern research directions, and there were sustained efforts to align research productivity with revenue growth (almost always unsuccessful, it must be said). Here is Rabinow’s concluding observation about the company and the knowledge environment:

Within a very short span of time some curious and wonderful reversals, orthogonal movements, began happening: the concept itself became an experimental system; the experimental system became a technique; the techniques became concepts. These rapidly developing variations and mutually referential changes of level were integrated into a research milieu, first at Cetus, then in other places, then, soon, in very many other places. These places began to resemble each other because people were building them to do so, but were often not identical. (169).

And, as other knowledge-intensive businesses from Visicalc to Xerox to H-P to Microsoft to Google have discovered, there is no magic formula for joining technical and scientific research to business success.

Marx’s thinking about technology

 

It sometimes seems as though there isn’t much new to say about Marx and his theories. But, like any rich and prolific thinker, that’s not actually true. Two articles featured in the Routledge Great Economists series (link) are genuinely interesting. Both are deeply scholarly treatment of interesting aspects of the development of Marx’s thinking, and each sheds new light on the influences and thought processes through which some of Marx’s key ideas took shape. I will consider one of those articles here and leave the second, a consideration of Marx’s relationship to the physiocrats, for a future post.

Regina Roth’s “Marx on technical change in the critical edition” (link) is a tour-de-force in Marx scholarship. There are two aspects of this work that I found particularly worthwhile. The first is a detailed “map” of the work that has been done since the early twentieth century to curate and collate Marx’s documents and notes. This was an especially important effort because Marx himself rarely brought his work to publishable form; he wrote thousands of pages of notes and documents in preparation for many related lines of thought, and not all of those problem areas have been developed in the published corpus of Marx’s writings. Roth demonstrates a truly impressive grasp of the thousands of pages of materials included in the Marx-Engels Gesamtaushgabe (MEGA) and Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW) collections, and she does an outstanding job of tracing several important lines of thought through published and unpublished materials. She notes that the MEGA collection is remarkably rich:

A second point I want to stress is that the MEGA offers more material than other editions, not only regarding the manuscripts mentioned above but also with other types of written material. If we look at the material gathered in the MEGA we find examples of several different levels of communication. We may think of manuscripts on a first level as witnessing the communication between the author with himself and with his potential readers. On a second level, his letters give us notice of what he talked about to the people around him. And, on a third level, there is the vast part of his legacy that documents Marx’s discourse with authors of his time: his excerpts, the books he read and his collections of newspaper cuttings. (1231)

Here is a table in which Roth correlates several important economic manuscripts in the two collections.

Careful study of these thousands of pages of manuscripts and notes is crucial, Roth implies, if we are to have a nuanced view of the evolution and logic of Marx’s thought.

They show, first of all, that Marx was never content with what he had written: he started five drafts of his first chapter, and added four fragments to the same subject, each of them with numerous changes within each text. (1228)

And study of these many versions, notes, and emendations shows something else as well: a very serious effort on Marx’s part to get his thinking right. He was not searching out the most persuasive or the simplest versions of some of his critical thoughts about capitalism; instead, he was trying to piece together the economic logic of this social-economic system in a way that made sense given the analytical tools at his disposal. Marx was not the dogmatic figure that he is sometimes portrayed to be.

There are many surprises in Roth’s study. The falling rate of profit? That’s Engels’ editorial summation rather than Marx’s finished conclusion! By comparing Marx’s original manuscripts with the posthumous published version of volume 3 of Capital, she finds that “Engels inserted the following sentence in the printed version [of Capital vol. 3]: ‘But in reality […] the rate of profit will fall in the long run’ ” (1233). In several important aspects she finds that Engels the editor was more definitive about the long-term tendencies of capitalism than Marx the author was willing to be. For example:

Therefore, Engels continued, this capitalist mode of production ‘is becoming senile and has further and further outlived its epoch.’ Marx did not give such a clear opinion with a view to the future of capitalism, at least not in Capital. (1233)

She notes also that Engels was anxious about Marx’s unwillingness to bring his rewriting and reconsideration of key theses to a close:

Shortly before the publication of Volume I of Capital, Engels worried: ‘I had really begun to suspect from one or two phrases in your last letter that you had again reached an unexpected turning-point which might prolong everything indefinitely.’ (1247)

The other important aspect of this article — the substantive goal of the piece — is Roth’s effort to reconstruct the development of Marx’s thinking about technology and technology change, the ways that capitalism interacts with technology, and the effects that Marx expected to emerge out of this complicated set of processes. But this requires careful study of the full corpus, not simply the contents of the published works.

To understand Marx’s views on technical change, his whole legacy, which is also comprised of numerous drafts, excerpts, letters, and so forth, must be considered. (1224)

In fact, the unpublished corpus has much more substantial commentary on technology and technical change than do the published works. “In Capital terms such as technical progress, technical change or simply technology turn up rarely” (1241).

Roth finds that Marx had a sustained interest in “the machinery question” — essentially, the history of mechanical invention and the role that machines play in the economic system of capitalism. He studied and annotated the writings of Peter Gaskell, Andrew Ure, and Charles Babbage, as well as many other writers on the technical details of industrial and mining practices; Roth mentions Robert Willis and James Nasmyth in particular.

The economic importance of technical change for Marx’s system is the fact that it presents the capitalist with the possibility of increasing “relative surplus value” by raising the productivity of labor (1241). But because technical innovation is generally capital-intensive (increasing the proportion of constant capital to variable capital, or labor), technical innovation tends to bring about a falling rate of profit (offset, as Roth demonstrates, by specific counteracting forces). So the capitalist is always under pressure to prop up the rate of profit, and more intensive exploitation of labor is one of the means available.

In the discussion in the General Council [of the IWMA], Marx argued that machines had effects that turned out to be the opposite of what was expected: they prolonged the working day instead of shortening it; the proportion of women and children working in mechanized industries increased; labourers suffered from a growing intensity of labour and became more dependent on capitalists because they did not own the means of production any more …. (1246)

So technology change and capitalism are deeply intertwined; and there is nothing emancipatory about technology change in itself.

Thinking about disaster

 

Charles Perrow is a very talented sociologist who has put his finger on some of the central weaknesses of the American social-economic-political system.  He has written about corporations (Organizing America: Wealth, Power, and the Origins of Corporate Capitalism), technology failure (Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies), and organizations (Complex Organizations: A Critical Essay).  (Here is an earlier post on his historical account of the corporation in America; link.) These sound like very different topics — but they’re not, really.  Organizations, power, the conflict between private interests and the public good, and the social and technical causes of great public harms have been the organizing themes of his research for a very long time.

His current book is truly scary.  In The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters he carefully surveys the conjunction of factors that make 21st-century America almost uniquely vulnerable to major disasters — actual and possible.  Hurricane Katrina is one place to start — a concentration of habitation, dangerous infrastructure, vulnerable toxic storage, and wholly inadequate policies of water and land use led to a horrific loss of life and a permanent crippling of a great American city.  The disaster was foreseeable and foreseen, and yet few effective steps were taken to protect the city and river system from catastrophic flooding.  And even more alarming — government and the private sector have taken almost none of the prudent steps after the disaster that would mitigate future flooding.

Perrow’s analysis includes natural disasters (floods, hurricanes, earthquakes), nuclear power plants, chemical plants, the electric power transmission infrastructure, and the Internet — as well as the threat of deliberate attacks by terrorists against high-risk targets.   In each case he documents the extreme risks that our society faces from a combination of factors: concentration of industry and population, lax regulation, ineffective organizations of management and oversight, and an inability on the part of Congress to enact legislation that seriously interferes with the business interests of major corporations even for the purpose of protecting the public.

His point is a simple one: we can’t change the weather, the physics of nuclear power, or the destructive energy contained in an LNG farm; but we can take precautions today that significantly reduce the possible effects of accidents caused by these factors in the future. His general conclusion is a very worrisome one: our society is essentially unprotected from major natural disasters and industrial accidents, and we have only very slightly increased our safety when it comes to preventing deliberate terrorist attacks.

This book has been about the inevitable inadequacy of our efforts to protect us from major disasters. It locates the inevitable inadequacy in the limitations of formal organizations. We cannot expect them to do an adequate job in protecting us from mounting natural, industrial, and terrorist disasters.  It locates the avoidable inadequacy of our efforts in our failure to reduce the size of the targets, and thus minimize the extent of harm these disasters can do. (chapter 9)

A specific failure in our current political system is the failure to construct an adequate and safety-enhancing system of regulation:

Stepping outside of the organization itself, we come to a third source of organizational failure, that of regulation. Every chapter on disasters in this book has ended with a call for better regulation and re-regulation, since we need both new regulations in the face of new technologies and threats and the restoration of past regulations that had disappeared or been weakened since the 1960s and 1970s. (chapter 9)

The central vulnerabilities that Perrow points to are systemic and virtually ubiquitous across the United States — concentration and centralization.  He is very concerned about the concentration of people in high-risk areas (flood and earthquake zones, for example); he is concerned about the centralized power wielded by mega-organizations and corporations in our society; and he is concerned about the concentration of highly dangerous infrastructure in places where it puts large populations at risk.  He refers repeatedly to the risk posed by the transport by rail of huge quantities of chlorine gas through densely populated areas — 90 tons at a time; the risk presented by LNG and propane storage farms in areas vulnerable to flooding and consequent release or explosion; the lethal consequences that would ensue from a winter-time massive failure of the electric power grid.

Perrow is an organizational expert; and he recognizes the deep implications that follow from the inherent obstacles that confront large organizations, both public or private.  Co-optation by powerful private interests, failure of coordination among agencies, lack of effective communication in the preparation of policies and emergency responses — these organizational tendencies can reduce organizations like FEMA or the NRC to almost complete inability to perform their public functions.

Organizations, as I have often noted, are tools that can be used by those within and without them for purposes that have little to do with their announced goals. (Kindle loc, 1686)

Throughout the book Perrow offers careful, detailed reviews of the effectiveness and consistency of the government agencies and the regulatory legislation that have been deployed to contain these risks.  Why was FEMA such an organizational failure?  What’s wrong with the Department of Homeland Security?  Why are chronic issues of system safety in nuclear power plants and chemical plants not adequately addressed by the corresponding regulatory agencies?  Perrow goes through these examples in great detail and demonstrates the very ordinary social mechanisms through which organizations lose effectiveness.  The book serves as a case-study review of organizational failures.

Perrow’s central point is stark: the American political system lacks the strength to take the long-term steps it needs to in order to mitigate the worst effects of natural (or intentional) disasters that are inevitable in our future.  We need consistent investment for long-term benefits; we need effective regulation of powerful actors; and we need long-term policies that mitigate future disasters.  But so far we have failed in each of these areas.  Private interests are too strong, an ideology of free choice and virtually unrestrained use of property leads to dangerous residential and business development, and Federal and state agencies lack the political will to enact the effective regulations that would be necessary to raise the safety threshold in dangerous industries and developments. And, of course, the determined attack on “government regulations” that has been underway from the right since the Reagan years just further worsens the ability of agencies to regulate these powerful businesses — the nuclear power industry, the chemical industry, the oil and gas industry, …

One might think that the risks that Perrow describes are fairly universal across modern societies.  But Perrow notes that these problems seem more difficult and fundamental in the United States than in Europe.  The Netherlands has centuries of experience in investing in and regulating developments having to do with the control of water; European countries have managed to cooperate on the management of rivers and flood plains; and most have much stronger regulatory regimes for the high risk technologies and infrastructure sectors.

The book is scary, and we need to pay attention to the social and natural risks that Perrow documents so vividly.  And we need collectively to take steps to realistically address these risks.  We need to improve the organizations we create, both public and private, aimed at mitigating large risks.  And we need to substantially improve upon the reach and effectiveness of the regulatory systems that govern these activities.  But Perrow insists that improving organizations and leadership, and creating better regulations, can only take us so far.  So we also need to reduce the scope of damage that will occur when disaster strikes.  We need to design our social system for “soft landings” when disasters occur.  Fundamentally, his advice is to decentralize dangerous infrastructure and to be much more cautious about development in high-risk zones.

Given the limited success we can expect from organizational, executive, and regulatory reform, we should attend to reducing the damage that organizations can do by reducing their size.  Smaller organizations have a smaller potential for harm, just as smaller concentrations of populations in areas vulnerable to natural, industrial, and terrorist disasters present smaller targets. (chapter 9)

If owners assume more responsibility for decisions about design and location — for example, by being required to purchase realistically priced flood or earthquake insurance — then there would be less new construction in hurricane alleyways or high-risk earthquake areas.  Rather than integrated mega-organizations and corporations providing goods and services, Perrow argues for the effectiveness of networks of small firms.  And he argues that regulations and law can be designed that give the right incentives to developers and home buyers about where to locate their businesses and homes, reflecting the true costs associated with risky locations. Realistically priced mandatory flood insurance would significantly alter the population density in hurricane alleys.  And our policies and regulations should make a systematic effort to disperse dangerous concentrations of industrial and nuclear materials wherever possible.

 

Transmitting technology

How do large technological advances cross cultural and civilizational boundaries? The puzzle is this: large technologies are not simply cool new devices, but rather complex systems of scientific knowledge, engineering traditions, production processes, and modes of technical communication. So transfer of technology is not simply a matter of conveying the approximate specifications of the device; it requires the creation of a research and development infrastructure that is largely analogous to the original process of invention and development. Inventors, scientists, universities, research centers, and skilled workers need to build a local understanding of the way the technology works and how to solve the difficult problems of material and technical implementation.

Take inertial guidance systems for missiles, described in fascinating detail by Donald MacKenzie in Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance. The process MacKenzie describes of discovery and development of inertial guidance was a highly complex and secretive one, with multiple areas of scientific and engineering research solving a series of difficult technical problems.

Now do a bit of counterfactual history and imagine that some country — say, Burma — had developed powerful rocket engines in the 1950s but did not have a workable guidance technology; and suppose the US and USSR had succeeded in keeping the development of inertial navigation systems and the underlying science secret. Finally, suppose that Burmese agents had managed to gain a superficial description of inertial navigation: “It is a self-contained device that tracks acceleration and therefore permits constant updating of current location; and it uses ultra-high precision gyroscopes.” Would this be enough of a leak to permit rapid adoption of inertial navigation in the Burmese missile program? Probably not; the technical obstacles faced in the original development process would have to be solved again, and this means a long process of knowledge building and institution building.  For example, MacKenzie describes the knotty problem posed to this technology by the fact of slight variations in the earth’s gravitational field over the surface of the globe; if uncorrected, these variations would be coded as acceleration by the instrument and would lead to significant navigational errors.  The solution to this problem involved creating a detailed mapping of the earth’s gravitational field.

This is a hypothetical case. But Hsien-Chun Wang describes an equally fascinating but real case in a recent article in Technology and Culture, “Discovering Steam Power in China, 1840s-1860s” (link). There was essentially no knowledge of steam power in Chinese science in the mid-Qing (early nineteenth century). The First Opium War (1839-1842) provided a rude announcement of the technology, in the form of powerful steam-driven warships on the coast and rivers of eastern China. Chinese officials and military officers recognized the threat represented by Western military-industrial technology, but it was another 25 years before Chinese industry was in a position to build a steam-powered ship. So what were the obstacles standing in front of China’s steam revolution?

Wang focuses on two key obstacles in mid-Qing industry and technology: the role of technical drawings as a medium for transmitting specifications for complex machines from designer to skilled workers; and the absence in nineteenth-century China of a machine tool technology.  Technical drawings were an essential medium of communication in the European industrial system, conveying precise specifications of parts and machines to the workers and tools who would fabricate them.  And machine tools (lathes, planes, stamping machines, cutting machines, etc.) provided the tools necessary to fabricate high-precision metal parts and components.  (Merritt Roe Smith describes aspects of both these stories in his account of the U.S. arms industry in the early nineteenth century; Harpers Ferry Armory and New Technology.)  According to Wang, the Chinese technical culture had developed models rather than drawings to convey how a machine works; and the intricate small machines that certainly were a part of Chinese technical culture depended on artisanal skill rather than precision tooling of interchangeable parts.

So communicating the technical details of a complex machine and creating the fabrication infrastructure needed to produce the machine were two important obstacles for rapid transfer of steam technology from Western Europe to Qing China.  But perhaps a more fundamental obstacle emerges as well: the fact that Chinese technical and scientific culture was as yet simply unready to “see” the way that steam power worked in the first place.  When steam warships arrived, acute Chinese observers saw smoke and fire, and they saw motion.  But they did not see “steam-driven traction”, or the translation of kinetic energy into rotational work.  (This is evident also in the drawing of the treadmill water pump above; the maker of the drawing clearly did not perceive from the Italian drawing how the motion of the treadmill was translated into the vertical pumping action.)  Wang quotes a description from an observer in Guangzhou in 1828:

Early in the third month … there suddenly came from Bengal a huo lunchuan [fire-wheel ship] …. The huo lunchuan has an empty copper cylinder inside to burn coal, with a machine on the top.  When the flame is up, the machine moves automatically.  The wheels on both sides of the ship move automatically too. (37)

And another observer wrote in Zhejiang in 1840:

The ship’s cabin stores a square furnace under the beam from which the wheels are hung.  When the fire is burning in the furnace, the two wheels turn like a fast mill and the ship cruises as fast as if it is flying, regardless of the wind’s direction. (37-38)

The give-away here is the word “automatically”; plainly these observers had not assimilated a causal process linking the production of heat (fire) to mechanical motion (the rotation of the paddle wheels).  Instead, the two circumstances are described as parallel rather than causal.

So the fundamental motive force of steam was not cognitively accessible at this point, even through direct observation.  By contrast, the marine utility of paddlewheel-driven warships was quickly assimilated. Chinese commanders adapted what they observed in the European naval forces (powerful paddlewheels that made sails unnecessary) to an existing technology (human- or ox-driven paddlewheels), and large “wheel-boats” saw action as early as 1842 on Suzhou Creek (40).

Wang notes that several Chinese inventors did in fact succeed in discerning the mechanism associated with steam power by the 1840s. Ding Gongchen succeeded in fabricating a model steam rail engine 61 centimeters long and a 134-centimeter model paddlewheel steamboat; so he clearly understood the basic mechanism at this point.  And Zheng Fuguang appears to have mastered the basic concept as well.  But here is Wang’s summary:

Ding’s efforts show that despite the circulating writings of a few experimenters, the steam engine remained a novelty, which was difficult to understand and probably impossible to reproduce.  Interested parties were discussing it, however, but attempted to grasp it in terms of their indigenous expertise alone rather than more broadly understanding the new Western technology. (45)

In 1861, during the Taiping Rebellion, a senior military commander Zeng Guofan created an arsenal in Anqing for ammunition, and also set about to create the capacity to build steam-powered ships.  With the assistance of experts Xu Shou and Hua Hengfang, the arsenal produced a partially successful full-scale steamship by 1863, and in 1864 Hua and Xu succeeded in completing a 25-ton steamship, the Huanghu, that was capable of generating 11.5 kilometers per hour.  The Chinese-build steamship had arrived.

Here is how Wang summarizes this history of technology adaptation over a 25-year period of time:

The path from the treadmill paddlewheel boat to the Jiangnan arsenal’s steamers was a long journey of discovery. Qing officials experimented with the knowledge and skills available to them, and it took time–and trial and error–for them to realize that steamboats were driven by steam, that machine tools were necessary to turn the principle of steam into a workable engine, and that drawings had to be made and read for the technology to be diffused. (53)

So perhaps the short answer to the question posed above about cross-civilizational technology transfer is this: “transfer” looks a lot more like “reinvention” than it does “imitation.”  It was necessary for Chinese experimenters, officials, and military officers to create a new set of institutions and technical capacities before this apparently simple new technological idea could find its way into Chinese implementations on a large scale.

(The image at the top is one of the most interesting parts of Wang’s very interesting paper; it establishes vividly the difficulty of transmitting technologies across different technical cultures.  The Italian drawing dates from 1607, and the Chinese copy dates from 1627.  As Wang points out, the Chinese version of the drawing is visually highly similar to the Italian original; it is a good copy.  And yet it fails to designate any of the technical features of how this treadmill-operated water pump works.  The pair of drawings are fascinating to examine in detail.)

Technology innovation in Chinese agriculture


It is a commonplace in world history to observe that China had achieved a high level of sophistication in science, medicine, and astronomy by the Middle Ages, but that some unknown feature of social organization or culture blocked the further development of this science into the expansion of technology in the early modern period. Chinese culture was “blocked” from making significant technological advances during the late Ming and early Qing periods — in spite of its scientific advantage over the West in medieval times; or so it is believed in a standard version of Chinese economic history.

A variety of hypotheses have been offered to account for this supposed fact. For example, Mark Elvin argues that China’s social and demographic system created conditions for a “high-level equilibrium trap” in the early modern period in The Pattern of the Chinese Past. According to Elvin, Chinese social arrangements favored population growth; innovative and resourceful farmers discovered all feasible refinements of traditional agricultural techniques to refine a highly labor-intensive system of agriculture; and population expanded to the point where the whole population was at roughly the subsistence level while consuming virtually the whole of the agricultural product. There was consequently no social surplus that might have been used to invest in discovery of major innovations in agricultural technology; so the civilization was trapped. (Here is a more developed discussion of Elvin’s argument.)

Other historians have speculated about potential features of Confucian culture that might have blocked the transition from scientific knowledge to technology applications. The leading Western expert on Chinese science is Joseph Needham (1900-1995), whose multi-volume studies on Chinese science set the standard in this area (Science and Civilisation in China. Volume 1: Introductory Orientations; Clerks and Craftsmen in China and the West). And Needham attributes China’s failure to continue to make scientific progress to features of its traditional culture.

But here is a more fundamental question: is the received wisdom in fact true? Was Chinese technology unusually stagnant during the early-modern period (late Ming, early Qing)? Agriculture is a particularly important aspect of traditional economic life; so we might reformulate our question a bit more specifically: what was the status of agricultural technology in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (late Ming, early Qing)? (See an earlier posting on Chinese agricultural history for more on this subject.)


Economic historian Bozhong Li considers this question with respect to the agriculture of the lower Yangzi Delta in Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850. And since this was the most important agricultural region in China for centuries, his findings are important. (It was also the major cultural center of China; see the concentration of literati in the map above.) Li makes an important point about technological innovation by distinguishing between invention and dissemination. An important innovation may be discovered in one time period but only adopted and disseminated over a wide territory much later. And the economic effects of the innovation only take hold when there is broad dissemination. This was true for Chinese agriculture during the Ming period, according to Li:

The revolutionary advance in Jiangnan rice agriculture technology appeared in the late Tang and led to the emergence and development of intensive agriculture composed of double-cropping rice and wheat. But this kind of intensive agriculture in pre-Ming times was largely limited to the high-fields of western Jiangnan. In the Ming this pattern developed into what Kitada has called the ‘new double-cropping system’ and spread throughout Jiangnan, but only in the late Ming did it become a leading crop regime. Similar were the development and spread of mulberry and cotton farming technologies, though they were limited to particular areas and cotton technology’s advances came later because cotton was introduced later. Each had its major advances in the Ming. Therefore, technology advances in Ming Jiangnan agriculture were certainly not inferior to those of Song times which are looked at as a period of ‘farming revolution’. (40)

Li also finds that there was a significant increase in the number of crop varieties in the early Qing — another indication of technological development. He observes, “The later the date, the greater the number of varieties. For example, in the two prefectures of Suzhou and Changzhou, 46 varieties were found in the Song, but the number rose to 118 in the Ming and 259 in the Qing” (40). And this proliferation of varieties permitted farmers to adjust their crop to local soil, water, and climate conditions — thus increasing the output of the crop per unit of land. Moreover, formal knowledge of the properties of the main varieties increased from Ming to Qing periods; “By the mid-Qing, the concept of ‘early’ rice had become clear and exact, and knowledge of ‘intermediate’ and ‘late’ strains had also deepened” (42). This knowledge is important, because it indicates an ability to codify the match between the variety to the local farming environment.

Another important process of technology change in agriculture had to do with fertilizer use. Here again Li finds that there was significant enhancement, discovery, and dissemination of new uses of fertilizer in the Ming-Qing period.

A great advance in fertilizer use took place in Jiangnan during the early and mid-Qing, an advance so significant that it can be called a ‘fertilizer revolution’. The advance included three aspects: (a) an improvement in fertilizer application techniques, centring on the use of top dressing; (b) progress in the processing of traditional fertilizer; and (c) an introduction of a new kind of fertilizer, oilcake. Although all three advances began to appear in the Ming, they were not widespread until the Qing. (46)

And the discovery of oilcake was very important to the increases in land productivity that Qing agriculture witnessed — thus permitting a constant or slightly rising standard of living during a period of some population increase.

There were also advances in the use of water resources. Raising fish in ponds, for example, became an important farming activity in the late Ming period, and pond fish became a widely commercialized product in the Qing. Li describes large-scale fishing operations in Lake Tai in Jiangnan using large fishing boats with six masts to catch and transport the fish (62).

So Li’s estimate of agricultural technology during the Ming period is that it was not stagnant; rather, there was significant diffusion of new crops, rotation systems, and fertilizers that led to significant increases in agricultural product during the period. “In sum, in the Jiangnan plain, land and water resources were used more rationally and fully in the early and mid-Qing than they had been in the late Ming” (64).

Two points emerge from this discussion. First, Li’s account does in fact succeed in documenting a variety of knowledge-based changes in agricultural practices and techniques that led to rising productivity during the Ming-Qing period in Jiangnan. So the stereotype of “stagnant Chinese technology” does not serve us well. Second, though, what Li does not find is what we might call “science-based” technology change: for example, the discovery of chemical fertilizer, controlled experiments in rice breeding, or the use of machinery in irrigation. The innovations that he describes appear to be a combination of local adaptation and diffusion of discoveries across a broad territory.

So perhaps the question posed at the start still remains: what stood in the way of development of empirical sciences like chemistry or mechanics that would have supported science-based technological innovations in the early modern period in China?

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