Book: Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy
Author: Tim Harford
Publication: Little, Brown
Price: Rs 599
When the makers of our Constitution incorporated Article 48, providing for a ban on the slaughter of cows and their progeny as a non-binding “directive principle of state policy”, there were a few thousand tractors and probably no power threshers or combine harvesters in use in farms across India. Chemical fertiliser application, too, was hardly 40,000 tonnes a year in nutrient terms, while artificial insemination didn’t extend beyond trials at the Indian Veterinary Research Institute, Bareilly. And most rural homes used dried dung cake as cooking fuel.
Cut to the present, where we have tractor sales of 550,000-600,000 and fertiliser nutrient consumption at 27-28 million tonnes annually, while the 70 million-plus artificial inseminations during 2016-17 could theoretically cover over half of the country’s adult female bovine population.
All these add up to a huge technological disruption. But more important are its socio-economic and cultural consequences. The cow — as the source of draught power, fertiliser-cum-fuel and milk — was an integral part of a largely agriculture-based civilisation. But with the advent of tractors, chemical fertilisers, artificial insemination and LPG cylinders, the gau was reduced to a mere milk-producing machine. The tensions now on the ground, between practical farmers and people violently yearning for an irrecoverable past, are no less a by-product of technology disruption.
Tractors, combines, artificial insemination and LPG cylinders don’t figure in Tim Harford’s Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy, though the Haber-Bosch process – which, by enabling use of atmospheric nitrogen to make ammonia, paved the way for mineral fertilisers — does. Some of the things in his list — infant formula, TV dinners and the pill — were transformative, no doubt, but perhaps more for women in advanced than in third-world settings. You cannot ultimately divorce technology from the specific contexts in which it is introduced.
That tendency to not look beyond the industrialised capitalist world for game-changing innovations — the now-largely-forgotten C.K. Rajkumar’s idea of selling shampoos in sachets was no less pioneering than Ikea’s Billy bookcase — shouldn’t, however, take away from the insightfulness of the latest offering from the author of The Undercover Economist. The good part about Fifty Things is its readability; not only can you begin from any chapter, Harford himself follows no chronological order while dealing with the inventions he believes have really made our world today possible. Thus, the chapter on the light bulb comes at the very end, whereas those on the iPhone and Google search feature in the middle and towards the beginning, respectively. Not adhering to a historical timeline, indeed, allows for viewing things for what they are: the plough’s design and power source may have changed, but what it does today isn’t much different from the time when humans first turned from hunter-gatherers into settled agriculturalists.
The plough, barbed wire and light bulb were inventions whose utility was immediate and obvious. This wasn’t the case, though, with the shipping container and the barcode. The idea of moving cargo in corrugated steel boxes that fitted neatly onto flatbed trucks and using cranes to lock, lift and load these directly on ships — as opposed to physical handling of individual goods in general cargo vessels — was original and elegant. But for it to take off required truckers, shipping companies and ports to come together and agree first on the standards for container sizes. The barcode similarly became a reality only when grocery makers had affixed these machine-readable distinctive black and white stripes on their products. But they wouldn’t do it until the food retailers had installed enough scanners.
The same goes for electricity. By the early 1880s, Thomas Alva Edison had already built generating stations. Yet, less than five per cent of mechanical drive power in American factories, even in 1900, was coming from electric motors. The reason: Most factories were still running on steam power. Simply replacing steam engines with electric motors didn’t make sense to owners. Electricity could help raise manufacturing efficiency, but it meant having to change everything, from the production process to factory layout architecture. That happened only towards the late 1910s: “The thing about a revolutionary technology”, as Harford notes, “is that it changes everything”. Electricity did precisely that.
It follows, then, that no technology can succeed without the willingness of potential users to reorganise their existing systems and processes. The power of a technology becomes evident only with a critical mass of adopters — who start discovering new ideas and avenues for its exploitation — and also when it combines with other technologies. Skyscrapers, for instance, were a result of at least three inventions – the elevator, air-conditioning and reinforced concrete — coming together. The modern glassy high rises, to quote Harford, would be “uninhabitable” without the air-conditioner, “unbuildable” without steel or reinforced concrete, and “inaccessible” without the elevator.
An equally relevant point about inventions, especially today’s, is that they aren’t always the work of just the individuals with whom they are associated. Steve Jobs was a genius, but many of the iPhone’s key technologies — the internet which makes a smartphone a smartphone, the fast Fourier transform algorithms that swiftly turn analogue signals into digital, the touch screen or even the Siri voice-activated personal assistant — were originally developed by others, including the US Department of Defence and the European Organisation for Nuclear Research.
Nor are the big inventions necessarily things. Harford mentions limited liability companies, double-entry bookkeeping and intellectual property as man-made ideas that were, nevertheless, game-changing. To these, we could add, perhaps, even the goods and services tax (GST) — the idea of a single national commodities tax levied on a value-added principle, wherein compliance becomes self-policing.
Finally, technology creates both winners and losers. In the pre-gramophone era, a singer had to be physically present at a place to be heard. But with sound reproduction technology, her voice could reach a global audience.
Unfortunately, it also led to a winner-take-all dynamic, with the best ones in the performing industry grossing far more than the next-best. If you could listen to the best sitting at home, why settle for second-best? Barcode scanners have, likewise, made tracking inventory and managing queues at cash counters easier for big supermarkets. But the losers are the mom-and-pop stores, for whom investing in scanners or renting point-of-sale terminals is plainly unviable. We are seeing a similar logic now playing out through GST.