Friday, October 25, 2013

A companion list to The Atlantic's "50 Greatest Inventions"

The Atlantic has a panel-generated list of the 50 greatest inventions since the wheel, which is entertaining, and an accompanying James Fallows meditation on what the exercise can teach us about innovation's impact, value and future prospects, which is humane, urbane and deeply informed, as you'd expect from Fallows.

Fallows also provides a "taxonomy" of the 50 chosen items. I had read the listicle first, and when I came to the lead-in to the taxonomy, it immediately made me sense a category missing from the list:
One of our panelists, Leslie Berlin, a historian of business at Stanford, organized her nominations not as an overall list but grouped into functional categories. From our panelists’ nominations, a similar but slightly broader set of categories emerges. Here is my adaptation of Berlin’s useful scheme.
Fallows' categories are as follows: innovations that 1) expand the human intellect; 2) are integral to the infrastructure of the modern world; 3) enabled the industrial revolution; 4) extend life; 5) allow real-time communication out of voice range; 6) enhance transportation; 7) enable organizational breakthroughs (clocks, calendars, alphabetization); and 7) facilitate killing.

I shouldn't say that what I want to add was "missing" -- arguably it didn't belong. Let's call mine a companion list. But it occurred to me a while back that the U.S. Constitution was a kind of enabling technology of the modern world, and that makes me want to think more about what you might call social technologies, from those traceable to the dawn of recorded history to the present (excluding an earlier strata including language, worship and prayer, marriage and tribal organization). Here's a first pass at a list of key "inventions" of this kind. It's neither chronological nor ranked in order of "importance," but rather loosely grouped according to type: legal, political, economic, pedagogical.

Codified law: rule-based governance of social relations, putting the power of the group behind moral intuitions that may be as old as humanity, and attempting to standardize them. Dates back at least as far as the Hammurabi Code, circa 1772 BC, and probably further back than that.

Trial by jury:  a quantum leap over trial by combat and a major extension of the rule of law and judgment on the basis of empirical evidence.

Equal protection under the law: foundation of the concept of human rights, which has continually expanded the circle of those to whom a society commits to providing with the opportunity to fully exercise their human faculties.

Parliamentary procedure: a technology enabling group decision-making and power apportionment without weapons.

Representative government: a means of ensuring that members of a parliament work to secure the interests of more than a narrow class of compatriots.

Democracy:  a harnessing of the wisdom of crowds and a means of striving to ensure that government works in the interest of all the people, i.e., all those beings afforded equal protection under the law and endowed with human rights.

Credit: a means of amassing the capital essential to long-term, wealth-creating investments.

Interest: a means of stimulating credit and therefore amassing capital.

Joint stock ownership: also a means of amassing capital.

Insurance: a key underpinning of wealth-generating enterprise.

Contract law: an enabling technology for developing means of credit, joint ownership and joint venture.

Taxation: essential to equitable (and inequitable) distributions of wealth and vital collective investments.

School:  I doubt the ancient Greeks invented it per se, but I know that they did use, if not invent, classes, 
lectures, and (so to speak) class discussion. I don't know when or where tests came into being, but they're also an important "technology" of learning. (Apprenticeship, broadly understood, would  belong in the prehistoric strata with language, prayer, etc.)

Universities/higher education: bringing scholars with established credentials to teach specialized subjects to young adults -- more or less a medieval invention.

It is these social technologies, I believe, that address a question that Fallows kind of half-asks: 
Please stop to think about this: Outside of the sciences and technology, and apart from the legacies created in each family, humanity is struggling today for a sense of cumulative achievement. Are today’s statesmen an improvement over those of our grandparents’ era? Today’s level of public debate? Music, architecture, literature, the fine arts—these and other manifestations of world culture continually change, without necessarily improving. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, versus whoever is the best-selling author in Moscow right now? The original, elegant Penn Station, versus its warehouse-like replacement?

A central question for technologists is whether innovation in the material and productive realms can be sustained—or whether we might, on the contrary, already be entering another of the long, stagnant eras that have marked much of human history, including the ones after times of rapid advance.
That question about artistic advance is a bit of a diversion, in my view. T. S. Elliot said that art never improves, but the conditions under which art is produced are forever changing, necessitating artistic "innovation."  The question not posed -- though glanced at sideways via the question of whether "innovation" can be sustained -- is whether humanity has achieved moral progress commensurate with material progress.

In my view the answer is yes (argued in some detail from different angles here and here). The widening circles of what's understood by human rights -- both of who's included and of what those rights encompass -- mark clear moral advances. Those advances are enabled by physical technologies that have made it feasible to share and increase real wealth that expands human possibility: food, sanitation, health care, education, and information technologies (from phone to TV to computer). Developing, widening conceptions of human rights have also radically reduced violence in recent decades.

The continuing spread of education, opportunity, health and peace, as much as the stand-on-shoulders-of-giants cumulative technological momentum that Fallows alludes to, point toward continued and accelerating human progress.  Not that there aren't myriad ways we could blow it.

Update, 12/11/13: One of Fallows' readers did me one better (or 33 better) and sent him a list of 50 Social Innovations. Lots of overlap!

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