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?
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.
In Europe livestock was widely used for farming whereas this was not the case in the Asian subcontinent. In China very few animals were used, however rice farming is not livestock intensive (Pomeranz, 2000). Substitutes were devised using the wheel, creating wheelbarrows and rickshaws, so Europe’s abundant livestock cannot be looked upon as an advantage. Considering land transportation, there was no shortage of transport capital in India and China in comparison. ‘China had massive amounts of grain trade in 1800’s; almost five times Europe’s long distance grain trade’ (Pomeranz, 2000).
Path dependency or technological advancement dependant on its past, the spill over of old technologies because of natural resources is also one idea of why some societies became technologically advanced before others. An example of this is mining where the advancement of mining stagnated until the knowledge of sciences became incorporated in the 1800’s to develop the steam engine. This then allowed Britain to pump out water in the mines and reach depths it had never been able to before. This then became one of Britain’s biggest industrializing factors. However the Chinese could not adopt this, as their mines had the opposite problem and were dry and tended to spontaneously combust. So they needed ventilation instead of a pump. Chinese interest in maths and physics increased in the 17th century after the Manchu conquest, at the same time as the European advances in science and technology. So was it just a matter of luck that the Europeans were able to find a way to mine earlier?
Not all path dependency innovations and applications however lead to definite progress. In the 18th century the potato was adopted as the Irish staple food because of its higher caloric value than grain, but more grain was produced so areas which had invested specifically invested in potatoes stagnated economically (Mokyr, 1990)
Religion and the ethics brought about by a religious belief also propelled and hindered many societies. In the 18th century religion was very much something decided by birth and unchangeable. ‘Agriculture, manufacturing, mining, hunting and transport alter nature for human needs’ (Mokyr, 1990). In Europe the belief was that nature was to be used and enjoyed, but this was not the same in the rest of the world. In India a rigid caste system where higher castes wanted stability and order over progress and growth (Jones, 1988) In order to protect their power and the status quo, they hindered technological advancement. The result of this was that apart from early hydraulic engineering and textile production there was little technological progress early on. Although only religion cannot be blamed for India’s slow industrialisation, there are also factors such as wars, colonialism and many natural disasters.
Another example includes factors such as ‘exposure effects’ (Mokyr, 1990 p186) and whether or not a society is open to new technology. In medieval Europe many Moslem devices were adopted from Moslems such Arabic numerals and medical knowledge. Rulers in Europe had Islamic engineers brought to their courts and their works translated. However despite being exposed to European technologies Moslems did not adopt them as fast or as much when the Europeans became more technologically advanced in the 18th century. (Lewis, 1982 p229-30) ‘The Islamic world’s ignorance of the west was profound.’ In the Moslem religion bidaa (innovation) was seen in the same light as ‘heresy’ in the west. It was believed that they had reached technological maturation, and did not need to learn any more, with warfare as the only exclusion used to fight holy wars. This obviously hindered their technological advancement on their religious beliefs.
Person (1981) said that in small conformist economies deviant acts such as invention were more noticeable and more important. However this cannot be the case as this would mean that China should have been most tolerant, but this was not so. Conformist thought had to be overcome in society for technology to progress
Europe engaged in transfer of technology from China; however Asian cultures except 19th century Japan did not. Governments and rulers of countries slowed the assimilation of new technologies, until they realised this was actually damaging their power. ‘The Tokugawa regime in Japan formed a very conservative society where the deviance of invention was not favoured until after 1867. Peter the Greats Russia is also a good example of this. (Mokyr, 1990 p180) A strong centralized government could also prove to be the most favourable environment for innovation where patent laws, property rights, institutions were in place, and inventors were rewarded for their achievement.
Political resistance to technology has also occurred in Europe, where some groups would lose their status quo or have their welfare reduced by new technological advances. New innovations could mean loss of work, make some structural capital obsolete and it could also alter the physical environment. ‘In 1939 tailors on Cologne were forbidden to use machines that used pinheads.’ (Mokyr, 1990 p182) Those who have invested in certain techniques do not their livelihood to decrease because of new techniques. SO many societies across the world experienced this kind of resistance.
Could the effect of population change have any effects on technological progress? Boserup (1981) hypothesised that shifts in population increase led to labour intensive techniques, but eventually there would be the factor of diminishing returns where increases in labour would have little marginal increases in output. Also this assumes that a large population would mean a more technological progress, but this was obviously not the case for China and India during the industrial revolution. Boserup says that cities played a large part in invention, ‘but this would leave out the advances made by clock masters, shipwrights and metalworkers which took place in urban areas.’ (Mokyr 1990 p192) Also in the circa 1800 22% of the Japanese population lived in a city compared to 10-15% in Europe (Pomeranz, 2000 p38) but the Japanese did not industrialise and utilize new technologies until after Europe.
Many of the new innovations were labour saving however, which did benefit those with a shortage of a workforce perhaps due to population. So could a labour shortage or costs have driven technological progress? Were relative wages higher in Europe? Pomeranz (2000 p48) cites that the wages of China, Japan and South East Asia were comparable to that of Europe if not higher before the industrial revolution. The Habakkuk thesis (H. J. Habakkuk 1962) states that high wages and labour scarcity stimulates technological creativity. (Mokyr, 1990 p165) This theory was applied to explain many modern technological advancements, such as that in the USA in the 19th century, with the system of manufacturing based on interchangeable parts. But there is no real evidence to show that technological progress was to save labour in the past (Von Tunzelmann, 1981 p158). (McLeod, 1988 158-181) ‘The goal of 18th century English patentees was to save capital and improve product quality, only 3.7% said it was done to ‘save labour’.’ Also many inventions were not concerned with using less labour such as steam engines, glass blowing and iron making. And innovations such as lighting and the use of electricity in the 19th century, which led to cheaper and better lighting.
By 1850 Europe was more technologically advanced over the rest of the world, one argument is that this was due to a European ‘culture of science,’ (Mokyr, 1990 p169) with increased literature and accessible public lectures. Education of science’s such as maths and physics plays a vital role in the successful transfer of technology at the time of the industrial revolution from one society to another, as well as the invention of technology itself.
Newtonian mechanics boosted the post 1750 technologies as well Galileo’s theory of mechanics. These all taught inventors to think methodically. Many scientists at the time of the industrial revolution worked closely with scientists and mathematicians. The steam engine would have been impossible without the theories of atmospheric pressure. However Chinese iron makers knew the methods of making coke, purified coal and it’s uses long before it would be known in the rest of the world for centuries.(Pomeranz, 2000 p58) So why did this idea not revolutionise China to become a leader in industrialisation?
The new innovations in metallurgy, power generation and transport were interlinked to a continual progression during the industrial revolution.
‘Metallurgical improvements were absolutely indispensable to the construction of more efficient steam engines. The steam engine, in turn, was utilised for introducing a hot blast of air into the blast furnace, the hot blast by improving the efficiency of the combustion process, lowered fuel requirements and thereby reduced the price of iron. Thus cheaper metal meant cheaper power was translated into even cheaper metal.’ (Rosenberg, 1982 p246)
A similar occurrence happened with railroads leading to cheaper transport with the aid of cheap iron.
Now with the beginnings of the industrial revolution taking place the modes of transfer of technology were vital. Only countries who were well educated and skilled could successfully borrow technologies, as the technologies themselves were becoming more advanced. This required managerial skills, organisational structures and an operation of incentive systems once the technologies had been copied in the recipient country. Data shows that those countries with the most well educated populations were the most successful in borrowing foreign technology. (Rosenberg, 1990 p248)
European migration patterns were also a good indication of which countries would industrialise fastest. (Rosenberg, 1982 p249) First to the United States and then to Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Arthur Lewis states that when Europe industrialised the other countries could either imitate the same technology or partake in trade. They mostly chose trade in commodities such as tea, cane sugar and coffee because of rising incomes in the west. However despite the fact African and Asian countries traded, very few countries could economically grow i.e. modernise their agricultural process. There was also little effort made to increase institutional progress and little effort was made by colonial powers to encourage this growth also.
Some possible reasons to why these countries did not modernise include lack of entrepreneurial innovation. Rice, rubber, sugar and such goods relative to industrialisation went down in price. Also there was a slow demand in sugar. The only exception to all of these was Japan.
During the expansion of British industry in the 19th century, the labour force progressively worked in manufacture. Mining and industry. ‘With 46.3% employed in these fields by 1901’ (Rosenberg, 1982 p250). By the mid 19th century Britain accounted for one third of coal export and was the main supplier of iron, railroad equipment, steam engines and cotton textiles. Transportation costs came down not only due to the railroads, but through improved ships. So a good did not have to be produced in the area where the natural resources were found.
However, international trade ceased to grow, and even fell during the First World War as the foreign trade sector was out pacing Britain. Britain’s largest industry of textiles was declining because of imports of other substitutes to cotton. Britain was unable to adapt and produce higher quality cloth, and this marked the descent of British manufacture. There were massive shifts in world production around the time of WWI.
New technologies were emerging such as electricity, organic chemistry and the internal combustion engine. ‘Organic Chemicals became a German industry; the motor car was pioneered in France and mass produced in the United States’ says W.A. Lewis. The technology of mass production in the U.S. revolutionised industry and the methods of production. No country that had not industrialised could possible compete. The export of technology in the late 19th century and 20th century led to firms beginning to set up subsidiary branches around the world, with products such as cars. An example of this is when Henry Ford. In the second half of the 20th century, he moved production to developing countries, because of cheap labour and the standardisation of technique.
However most of the investment by multinational companies into developing countries was concentrated in specific countries. Countries were not chosen if they did not have skilled workers able and willing to work in factories. A lack of physical infrastructure such as ports and roads. Or if a country’s foreign direct investment rules were complex and administration was corrupt such as India until the early 1990’s, or if there was a lack of an institutional framework.
Japan was the only Asian country to industrialise and adopt new technologies quickly, and has emerged as one of the great industrial powers in the last quarter century.
The Japanese adapted western technology so as to reduce the capital-output
Ratio. In textiles for example they purchased older second hand machines.
(Rosenberg, 1982 p261)
They used greater amounts of labour and used cheaper raw materials; they perfected what they call ‘improvement engineering.’ (The Economist, 1993) World Bank figures show that Japan took 34 years to industrialize in the 19th century, faster than both Britain and America.
Research and development has accounted for much in recent years with countries staying on top of technological improvements. Data (Science Indicators, 1978) from the National Science Board, Washington have shown that those countries that the major economies in the world invested continually in R&D. An article in the Economist (1993) would confirm that America is able to have a sustained economic growth as a technological leader, by investing heavily in R&D and sciences.
Rosenberg makes some final important points for modern technological progress, which reflect current trends in economic development accurately.
The importance of adapting. Despite the difficulty of the adaptations with effects on unemployment and investment within a country, to trade patterns is vital to maintain sustained economic growth. It is also increasingly importance to educating the workforce, so that successful transfer of technology can take place. As more of the new technologies developed depend on strong engineering and scientific knowledge. South Korea has industrialized so quickly be providing a good educational system to its citizens. South Korea became industrialized in 11years, faster than any country to date. (Economist 1993)
For many of the newly developing countries similar methods are being used as the Japanese used, but the trade off is that the production processes which they undertake involve polluting and dirty work. Rosenberg (1982 p279) states that this trade off between economic growth and some environmental degradation seems to be unavoidable. South Korea and Taiwan have been catching up with the rest of the world through these processes of copying and specialising.
A society’s ability to technological advance and hence economically progress has been based on many different factors and no single one can be accounted. From new ideas and innovations, transferring and adapting other technologies with good systems of education and institutions, as well as continually adapting in a changing market.
Joel Mokyr, The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1990)
Nathan Rosenberg, Inside the Black Box :Technology and Economics, (Cambridge UP 1982)
Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence (Princeton 2000)
“When nations play leapfrog”, Economist, October 16, 1993
A. R. Hall, ‘Early Modern Technology to 1600’ In Technology in Western Civilization (New York : Oxford Press 1967)
Strayer, Joseph R. 1980 “Review of Lynn White, Medieval Religion and Technology”
Jones, Eric L. Growth recurring: Economic Change in World History (Oxford; 1988)
Von Tunzelmann G. N. Steam Power and British and British Industrialization to 1860 (Oxford 1978)
Christine McLeod, Inventing the Industrial Revolution (Cambridge 1988)