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"There Will Be No Further Industrial Revolution in the Cycles of Our Western Civilization":

Sasha recommended to me Jean Gimpel's The Medieval Machine, which is indeed a fascinating history of the Medieval Industrial Revolution. Gimpel's claim is that the Middle Ages, especially from the 11th to the 13th centuries were — despite their reputation — a time of great innovation in a wide range of fields: the harnessing of water and wind power, increased efficiency in agriculture and in use of draft animals (especially horses), the invention of clocks, eyeglasses, and other important tools, and more. Very interesting stuff, and seems quite persuasive.

But Gimpel also draws analogies between his time (the book was first published in 1976, but then revised in 1988) and the Middle Ages — and, boy, are they pessimistic. Some of his specific criticisms of then-modern cultural attitudes toward technology and innovation seem generally apt, but consider the bottom lines, from the January 1988 Preface (one paragraph break added):

We are witnessing a sharp arrest in technological impetus, save in the military field: it was in the declining Middle Ages that the cannon was developed. Innovations — that is, inventions that have been financed, tested and made commercially available — are few and far between, a fact particularly remarkable in the pharmaceutical industry. Even computers have not spread into every home in the country, as was forecast. Like every previous civilization, we have reached a plateau.

The main purpose of this study is to examine closely, and with new perspectives, the industrial life and institutions of the Middle Ages, and the genius of their inventinveness. Comparisons with our own society will be apparent throughout, and a detailed study of parallels between the two great inventive eras, medieval and modern, will be found in the epilogue....

[But] I must point out one alarming contrast. The economic depression that struck Europe in the fourteenth century was followed ultimately by economic and technological recovery.

But the depression we have moved into will have no end. We can anticipate centuries of decline and exhaustion. There will be no further industrial revolution in the cycles of our Western civilization.

Hmm. I surely can't promise unlimited future technological growth; one has to be hesitant in making predictions like that. But Gimpel seems to have no such hesitation — "the depression we have moved into will have no end." "There will be no further industrial revolution in the cycles of our Western civilization."

Looking even at the modest span of time from 1976 and 1988 to the present, that sort of confidence in technological stagnation seems pretty hard to swallow. Perhaps the English (and in some measure American) economic doldrums of the 1970s left a sour taste in Gimpel's mouth; yet it seems a mistake to judge the technological future of an entire civilization based on sad interludes such as those.

whit:
i don't know if the story is apocryphal or not, but i heard that the head of the US patent office in the beginning of the 20th century claimed that his job was basically becoming obsolete, since anything of value had pretty much already been invented.

then, there was bill gates famous statement about the max amount of ram a PC would ever need!! lol

the fact is that many people have no "vision thing."

the idea that we have reached a plateau (which isn't true anyway but...) is kind of not the point. the question is (if we are in a plateau) will the plateau end with another massive spurt onwards. anybody who studies science knows that science does not so much move incrementally, as it makes massive leaps (paradigm shifts) followed by periods of consolidation, etc. it's actually similar to the way financial markets move (at least according to market profile parlance).
5.17.2007 8:26pm
cbanks:
Eugene: 3d graph in Gimpel quote doesn't make sense--I suspect it wasn't transcribed corectly:
"The economic depression that struck Europe in the fourteenth century was followed ultimately by economic and technological recovery. But the depression that struck Europe in the fourteenth century was followed ultimately by economic and technological recovery."

[Whoops, fixed, thanks! -EV]
5.17.2007 8:32pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Yes, anything Gimpel says about the modern period is basically worthless. I don't know why these medieval historians even try, they're so bad at it.
5.17.2007 8:35pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Oh, and, incidentally, Gimpel's book is French. This tells you something about the philosophical tradition he was coming from.
5.17.2007 8:37pm
Tracy W (mail):
Innovations -- that is, inventions that have been financed, tested and made commercially available -- are few and far between, a fact particularly remarkable in the pharmaceutical industry. Even computers have not spread into every home in the country, as was forecast. Like every previous civilization, we have reached a plateau.


Let me see, since 1988, inventions that have at least vastly increased in commercial availability
- the Internet
- mobile phones
- surgery done by making small holes and pocking cameras through them (I had an operation in 1989 done by cutting a big slit in my skin and opening it up, my Dad in 1993 had a similar surgery done by breaking open the knee)
- lasik eye surgery (husband just had this done with a new technique that involves cutting a flap in the cornea by laser).
- computers getting pretty darn close to every home in the country
- digital cameras
- digital video cameras
- Genetically Modified Organisms
- DNA testing
- Apparently technology to measure what you're thinking (brain scans)
- A complete revolution in understanding the role of fatigue in brain injuries
- Hybrid cars
- Open-source software
- Central bank independence (not sure if that's working out yet, give it another couple of decades)

There's probably heaps of things I'm missing out on here. But no improvements?
5.17.2007 9:09pm
A.C.:
Not to mention the improvements in the gadgets that make all the things listed above... we don't see those, but they have to be on the same level as better steam engines and spinning machines.
5.17.2007 9:18pm
James Ellis (mail):
He certainly didn't anticipate Viagra!
5.17.2007 9:35pm
Truth Seeker:
Sounds like he was suffering from depression.
5.17.2007 11:05pm
Drake:
As an IP lawyer in one of the biggest IP firms in the country, I can assure you there is no shortage of new technology coming through our hands. In fact, we are getting so much work that we are having to turn it down.
5.17.2007 11:11pm
A.C.:
Or cheap data storage. I remember 1988 -- my computer had 512K of RAM and no hard drive, and a laser printer cost more than the car I had at the time. I could use e-mail within the university I attended, but the editing function was really, really weird. And the connection didn't extend beyond the institution.

At the opposite extreme, I couldn't get decent bread or beer. Decent bread and beer existed, of course. I had just come back from Europe, and I knew what was good. The good stuff just wasn't available locally, so I resorted to making my own. Things like that have changed. There's no actual invention involved there, but travel and new business ventures make the choices in each individual place more diverse. I'm sure that happened in the late Middle Ages too, as people looked beyond their villages to wider social networks.

On the downside, toasters seem to have gotten worse since they started being made in places that weren't even doing textiles in the 1980s. Can anyone advise me on a brand that actually toasts and won't fall apart?
5.17.2007 11:12pm
Alaska Jack (mail):
Hmm. I guess what strikes me as the relevant fact is the time period the book was written. I sometimes think we've developed a sort of mild amnesia about the 1970s, forgetting how bad things were (in America and even moreso in England; can't speak to conditions in France) and how it didn't seem like there was much hope of things getting better.

The cynic in me suspects that it's partially relates to the fact that dwelling on the crappiness of the 70s forces one to draw some uncomfortable conclusions about what was essentially the culminations of decades of paleoliberal domination of the political/judicial/media systems.

It also requires an acknowledgment of Thatcher and Reagan and their respective roles in yanking the Anglosphere out of its malaise.

(An aside: One often hears complaints nowadays about liberal bias in the media. Right or wrong, the fact that we even have that debate represents a fundamental shift from the "old days." Ever watch any old newscasts from the early or mid-70s? The liberal assumptions permeate everything.)

Not trying to start any flame wars. The post just got me a-ruminatin'.

- Alaska Jack
5.17.2007 11:43pm
Alaska Jack (mail):
Oh, a followup for A.C. I often say that the ability to get really good beer -- even fresh beer! -- is just the most amazing development of the last 10 years. I mean, hey, look, I'm a red-blooded American. I want to like Budweiser and Pabst Blue Ribbon and their watery ilk. But I just can't understand why anyone who ever tasted GOOD beer would ever want to go back.

- Alaska Jack
5.17.2007 11:48pm
Joe Bingham (mail):
Isn't the entire perspective of modern environmentalism rooted in a pessimistic perspective about technological advancement? We're going to run out of oil and never find another way to function unless the gov't steps in now, etc... Catholics are going to kill us all because the world is overpopulated and we'll all die...
5.17.2007 11:51pm
abw (www):
It could be an interesting list of inventions that (it is claimed) cannot be improved on, for example an atomic clock measure time so precisely there is no way (or point) to improve.
5.18.2007 12:02am
wuzzagrunt (mail):
Hmm. I guess what strikes me as the relevant fact is the time period the book was written. I sometimes think we've developed a sort of mild amnesia about the 1970s, forgetting how bad things were (in America and even moreso in England; can't speak to conditions in France) and how it didn't seem like there was much hope of things getting better.

The cynic in me suspects that it's partially relates to the fact that dwelling on the crappiness of the 70s forces one to draw some uncomfortable conclusions about what was essentially the culminations of decades of paleoliberal domination of the political/judicial/media systems.

I'm sure it was the Disco music that had him in such a funk. Even people who claimed to like Disco required massive doses of controlled/illegal substances to avoid being made suicidal by it.
5.18.2007 12:32am
Hey (mail):
Krups makes a good toaster. Essentially anything that you pick up/order from Williams Sonoma is good, but expensive. Go to Target/Wal-Mart for appliances that you can throw out when they break.

People forget how much even the 80s sucked. Watch Wall Street and see how weird an environment it was compared with the present. These were supposed to be the richest people out there, and everything kind of sucked.

Other improvements: Logistics/Just in Time Inventory, Fibre Optics, Electronic Fuel Injection, ABS brakes, Electronic Stability Control. Something that he could have really used was Paxil/Wellbutrin/Prozac. Psychopharmacology has advanced so much since the 70s and 80s in ways that are truly unfathomable.
5.18.2007 1:24am
BGates (www):
As I comment I'm watching Cirque du Soleil on a 57" tv that cost 2 weeks' rent. So I'm going to have to disagree that the world's best days are behind us. Hey is right about Wall Street though - Michael Douglas as the robber baron has a cell phone the size of his forearm.
5.18.2007 1:41am
CaseyL (mail):
People here are talking about inventions which are degrees of improvements over previous models. Gimpel is talking about an industrial revolution - something that transforms society/culture in permanent, meaningful ways.

PCs, Internet and cell-phones are all part of a single revolutionary technology: the chip. The question isn't what further refinements can be made with that technology, but what new innovations will spawn an entire new ecosystem (as the chip created entirely new industries, careers, and markets)? What new innovation will, to use a horribly overdone phrase, shift the paradigm, changing not only how we do things, but how we define ourselves?

I used to think space exploration would be the Next Really Big Thing. Then I thought maybe genetic science and engineering would be. But the Next Really Big Thing depends, not on what we can invent, but what areas we chose to devote the resources to be inventive in. Americans are no longer interested in space, and genetic engineering is something most people are afraid of.

Sometimes revolutions just happen (as with the chip); sometimes they're forced on us. Global climate change could be a trigger of the latter sort. Even if you don't believe humans cause it, it's getting harder to insist global climate change isn't happening. Whether human-caused, human-exacerbated, or just plain natural cycle, it's going to result in profound dislocations which will have to be dealt with.
5.18.2007 4:23am
PersonFromPorlock:
Alaska Jack:

But I just can't understand why anyone who ever tasted GOOD beer would ever want to go back.

The good stuff is definitely worth the price but it comes in twelve ounce bottles, where 'cheap' beer can be had by the pint. If, like me, you drink just one, a bottle of Sam Adams isn't enough liquid but a can of Pabst is.
5.18.2007 4:27am
William Oliver (mail) (www):
Another good book that refutes the "Dark Ages" myth (and which is written in English!) is The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success by Rodney Stark.
5.18.2007 9:34am
Preferred Customer:

PCs, Internet and cell-phones are all part of a single revolutionary technology: the chip. The question isn't what further refinements can be made with that technology, but what new innovations will spawn an entire new ecosystem (as the chip created entirely new industries, careers, and markets)? What new innovation will, to use a horribly overdone phrase, shift the paradigm, changing not only how we do things, but how we define ourselves?



I think you are operating at too high a level of generality. Of course the interweb is enabled by the chip, but it isn't the same as the chip--I think it is fair to call the vast changes wrought by the network of networks part of a transformative and revolutionary change.

Your question is a good one, though, and is the starting point for nearly every decent scifi yarn out there. Let me nominate two:

-Machine/brain interfaces: Without the burden of much substantive knowledge of this field, my guess is that over the next few decades these direct interfaces will make keyboards and displays seem as archaic as punch cards and flashing light readouts. The profound consequences of true integration of machine and human are impossible to predict, and probably impossible to overstate.

-Home manufacturing: Rapid prototying machines already exist that can "print" three dimensional objects. The next step is devices that can create more complex items--perhaps including integrated circuits. The shakeup in the record industry, with its "products" going from physical items (LPs, CDs, DATs) to pure data, is an interesting preview of what might happen if such devices become practical. Imagine if all products were data.

Just as my great-grandmother, who was born in the 19th century, could not have imagined when she was young the things she saw on the eve of the 21st century, I do not doubt that the changes that will happen between now and 2130 are beyond the scope of my imagination. Based on human history, anyone who tells you that we have reached a plateau is either a fool or a liar.
5.18.2007 9:54am
Adeez (mail):
There will be a revolution that will rival any technological leap in the history of mankind: antigravity technology, or the capture and use of free energy.

Look up what Thomas Townsend Brown and Nikola Tesla have done on these issues. The technology exists, and once it's available to everyone, the world as we know it will never be the same.

Just a hunch.
5.18.2007 11:09am
rarango (mail):
To add to Adeez' hunches: nanotechnology and robotics.
5.18.2007 11:31am
rarango (mail):
I forgotto add why I would cite nanotechnology and robotics as revolutionary rather than evolutionary: their wide spread use would reduce the world wide demand for human manual labor.
5.18.2007 11:50am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
In his "Profiles of The Future", Arthur C. Clarke started out with some of the most hilarious examples of no-further-progress, if-man-were-meant-to-fly pontificating imaginable.
Perhaps the author wants to be included in a newer edition.
5.18.2007 12:00pm
M. Simon (mail) (www):
abw,

There will always be a need for more accurate measurement of time.
5.18.2007 1:32pm
markm (mail):
Casey: "omething that transforms society/culture in permanent, meaningful ways" doesn't just happen. First, new materials, manufacturing techniques, etc., have to pave the way. Over several centuries of the Medieval Period, iron workers gradually replaced human labor on the bellows with waterpower, improved their process control, discovered new techniques for hardening and forming the metal, discovered allowys that would improve it, and overall became capable of producing much more iron, steel, and other metals of much better quality - and all that historians noticed was that plate armor became more common.

Meanwhile, the Chinese had invented gunpowder, but over 500 years they never turned into an effective field weapon. It took the improved metal-working capabilities of the west to do that. And then a revolution in warfare occurred, which also led to a social revolution, as the realization spread that you could now hand muskets to peasants, and in a few days teach them to beat knights who had spent their whole life learning to fight with sword and lance. But from the technologist's viewpoint, there were no big jumps.

Likewise, the progression of electronics from telegraph wires and spark-gap transmitters to computers, fiber-optic lines, and cell-phones was a series of incremental improvements. Vacuum tubes extended the range of what could be accomplished, but it took 50 years of engineering and production improvements to move from the first triac to televisions in nearly every house. For example, several resistors were needed in the circuits around each vacuum tube. Originally, you cut a length of wire and wound it around a small spool, but this isn't practical in mass production. Mass production techniques had to be invented, resistor companies created and financed, and factories built before radios were widely available. Capacitors, inductors, and transformers had to similarly move to mass production. Then, to bring the price of a TV into a middle-class family budget, they had to make all the parts much cheaper, and also to streamline the assembly process and cut the costs. Then they invented transistors. The first ones were cranky things that had to be wired by hand, and then a technician had to tune the circuit to individual transistor characteristics. In the early 60's, I saved my allowance for quite a while to buy a small AM radio that boasted of containing SIX transistors, but good electronics still used tubes. However, already there was a patent application in for an early IC with several transistors grown on one block of silicon. Desktop electronic calculators began to appear, driven by large numbers of chips with dozens of transistors each. In the early 70's, Intel superseded those with the 4004, an IC with a few thousand IC's that had the functionality of a very small, slow computer CPU. (4 bits, clock rate in KHz.) And it grew from there, as the number of transistors they could put on one chip doubled every 18 months or so.

The point is, there are no technological revolutions as such. New technology builds upon the old, or if it's really new (tubes, transistors, IC's, microprocessors), it has to mark time while the manufacturing and supporting technology catches up. However, there are points where new technology changes the world. Automobiles, radio, and TV did. Computers are still changing the world, and no one can be sure where we'll end up.
5.19.2007 1:43pm
Tracy W (mail):
People here are talking about inventions which are degrees of improvements over previous models.

That's what the Industrial Revolution was - degrees of improvements over previous models. James Watt didn't invent the steam engine, he improved it. Looms for weaving had been around for centuries - the spinning-jenny was a degree of improvement. Both of these inventions, foundations of the Industrial Revolution, were large degrees of improvement over previous models, but no more so than the cellphone or the Internet is over a microchip.

Gimpel is talking about an industrial revolution - something that transforms society/culture in permanent, meaningful ways.

Nothing in that to stop an invention that is a degree of improvement over an existing model transforming society/culture in permanent, meaningful ways.

For example, the building of state and interstate highways transformed society/culture in permanent, meaningful ways. Even though the technology probably could have been equalled by the Romans.
5.20.2007 10:59am
Warmongering Lunatic (mail):
Whit --
Myth. And a persistent one.
5.20.2007 5:58pm