Why do you think that technological change occurs in some societies, and at some periods, and not in others? What are the implications of uneven technological progress in the world economy for economics disparities?

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Comparative Growth in Asia and Africa                                        Mandeep Soor

Why do you think that technological change occurs in some societies, and at some periods, and not in others? What are the implications of uneven technological progress in the world economy for economics disparities?

Technological progress is the improvement of ways to produce goods and services. The industrial revolution brought about the first boom of technology and innovation, which took place in Britain and rapidly spread over much of Western Europe. It is clear that toady there extremely large disparities in the world economy. One key factor of structural economic change is the rate at which a country industrializes, and it’s advancement in technology. There have been many changes in history where the economic growth has been closely related to changes in technology, with industry from agriculture and then a shift towards services in modern day.

Three great mechanical inventions during the Elizabethan period, printing which advanced literature, gunpowder later used for warfare and the compass which was vital in navigation were invented most likely in China, but all were used in these functions in Europe. (Rosenberg, 1982 p245) These are all examples of successful technology transfer and adaptation, which was just as, if not more significant in the technological advancement of a society.

A society’s rate of innovation is determined by its views on ‘risk aversion, leisure preference and time preference’ Mokyr (1990 p152). The adoption of a new technique depends on the private costs paid by the inventor and the social costs paid by society as a whole, including effects on the environment. Only the West was able to turn this into a growth of technology initially.

Kenneth Pomeranz argues in his book ‘The great divergence’ that before the 18th century, and the industrial revolution much of Asia was just as technologically advanced as Europe. There is little evidence from his findings that Europe had better transport, standards of living including life expectancy, birth rates and diet and better land management. Paul Bairoch (Pomeranz, 2000 p37) estimates that circa 1800 Asia as a whole was behind Western Europe, but ahead of Europe as whole in technological advancements, and China as a whole was ahead of Western Europe.

Life expectancy and nutrition has been cited as one environmental possibility for technological advancement in some societies over others. However life expectancy did not increase in Europe until 1750 whereas technological progress was already taking place. Also South East Asia’s health was generally better than that of much of Europe due to advances in sanitation and clean water provision. India was the only exception with lower life expectancy. In much of Asia however there was a problem of infant protein deficiency syndrome (IPDS) which caused brain damage in the resulting adults. Mokyr (1990) states that this could have made them unable to think innovatively and hence invent. This was really only applicable to the poorer members of society and they were not likely to be the inventors.

Workers and poorer members of society were also not educated and even if they did invent, it was unlikely that the idea would have been expanded on if the master did not endorse the innovation. This also brings about the question of the risks of invention and the circumstances of the individuals in society who were able to do this. The costs involved in invention such as capital and time through a trial and error method, were not likely have high returns. In China the heads of dynasty families were unlikely to engage in such high risk pursuits because of their responsibilities similar to heads of extended families in Europe.

The physical environment of a society does not automatically mean that technological progress will take place, but it does effect the technological advancements made. An example of this is the diffusion of watermill technology that changed the economies of Europe north of the Alps on the early middle ages (Strayer). The technology of the watermill was assimilated into England, whereas Ireland which has the same rainy weather did not. An Asian windmill was devised for conditions much dryer in China, North Africa and India with similar functions; however this failed to be used as extensively.

Europe was disadvantaged in many ways through its agriculture, land management and its inefficient use of land intensive products such as fuel wood. Land saving knowledge was gained through its overseas empire and luck, such as forest saving coal. Without these Europe’s inventions would have had the same impact as china and India in the 18th century. How did sustained European growth become ecologically stable?  (Pomeranz, 2000) Problems of soil erosion, fertility of soil and droughts with no irrigational systems were resolved by borrowing technologies from South East Asia. ‘Throughout history Europeans have engaged in aggressive borrowing of inventions and techniques that had originated in other cultures.’ (A. R. Hall, 1957)

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Not only was the land use of Europe accelerated through borrowing technologies, but many of Europe’s most important innovations were land saving ones, such as fossil fuels which reduced reliance on forests for energy. Also land intensive products were grown through colonialism and slavery in the new world, such as cotton, sugar, grain, timber and wool. Cotton grown in America endorsed technologies such as wool spinning due to the slave trade and this could not have been grown in Britain. This in the same light reduced any possible growth of Africa as much of it was colonised.

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