Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Tag: development

The very long shadow of the history of technology

A confession: when it comes to thinking about the future, I hold two views. On one hand, I find the black swans work of Nassim Taleb– the argument that the speed and complexity of the modern world has left it vulnerable to more, and more unpredictable, crises– pretty convincing. (Call this the New View.)

On the other, I also believe that much of what we claim is novel about this modern age is not so new. Many facets of globalization– the importance of migration, global trade, etc.– are actually as old as civilization. I also believe that other things, like a belief in greater vulnerability to epidemics and financial panics (or just as worrying, the belief that we are now immune from such things), are a product of a relatively short-term view of history. You could better understand our current world, and think more clearly about the future, if you stretch your view of the past from the last 50 years to the last 500 or 5,000. (Call this the Long View.)

Obviously, the New View and the Long View are contradictory. I get around that by not thinking about both of them at the same time. But I'm trying to construct a framework that fits them together.

This morning I ran across another data-point in the Long View: a new piece by Diego Comin, Erick Gong, and William Easterly looking at very long-term trends in technology and economic development. As Easterly explains,

We collected crude but informative data on the state of technology in various parts of the world in 1000 BC, 0 AD, and 1500 AD.

1500 AD technology is a particularly powerful predictor of per capita income today. 78 percent of the difference in income today between sub-Saharan Africa and Western Europe is explained by technology differences that already existed in 1500 AD – even BEFORE the slave trade and colonialism.

From the abstract (pdf):

The emphasis of economic development practitioners and researchers is on modern determinants of per capita income such as quality of institutions to support markets, economic policies chosen by governments, human capital components such as education and health, or political factors such as violence and instability.

Could this discussion be missing an important, much more long-run dimension to economic development?… Is it possible that history as old as 1500 AD or older also matters significantly for today’s national economic development? A small body of previous growth literature also considers very long run factors in economic development…. This paper explores these questions both empirically and theoretically. To this end, we assemble a new dataset on the history of technology over 2,500 years of history prior to the era of colonization and extensive European contacts…. We detect signs of technological differences between the predecessors to today’s modern nations as long ago as 1000 BC, and we find that these differences persisted and/or widened to 0 AD and to 1500 AD (which will be the three data points in our dataset, with 1500 AD estimated from a different collection of sources than 1000 BC and 0 AD). The persistence of technological differences from one of these three “ancient history” data points to the next is high, as well as robust to controlling for continent dummies and other geographic factors.

Our principal finding is that the 1500 AD measure is a statistically significant predictor of the pattern of per capita incomes and technology adoption across nations that we observe today.

Of course, one can get into how this is a different set of forces than most futurists are interested in– but to the degree that it serves as a corrective to the tacit view held some futurists that history doesn't matter at all– a kind of social science version of transhumanism, in which thanks to technology (or migration or whatever) we're able to ignore the past and its gravitational pull– it's worth reading and pondering.

Pro-poor foresight

I seem never to have pointed to IAF's Foresight for Smart Globalization project, which I read about ages ago and found very impressive. From the report's executive summary:

Pro-poor foresight is forward-looking analysis that focuses on poor and marginalized people by expanding their social and economic opportunities and by enhancing the social, economic, and ecological resilience of human society. Yet foresight, as generally applied within government, industry, and the non-governmental sector, rarely includes an explicit focus on poverty. While foresight exercises typically take into account the impact of long- term political, economic, social, and technological trends, the differential implications of these factors for the lives of poor people tend not to be addressed. Poor communities, however, will be disproportionately affected by the myriad and intractable problems of the 21st century, including climate change disasters, weak governance systems, financial crises, security threats, and societal disruptions….

The report explores three main ideas at the heart of the workshop: pro-poor foresight, anticipatory governance, and smart globalization. It also summarizes the real-world experience of participants in conducting foresight in different geographical regions and the barriers faced in applying foresight for decision-making. Subsequently, it describes three interlocking issues—energy and climate change, science and technology, and economic governance—that were discussed in tandem at the workshop.

In conclusion, pro-poor foresight provides an opportunity to approach the problems of developing countries in the Global South in a unique, interconnected, and more effective manner. Pro-poor foresight can catalyze insight in the minds of communities and decision-makers, forge new paths for action, and lead to understanding and embracing complexity. In short, it serves as a survival tool through which we, as individuals, as communities, and as a species can escape the bounds of present circumstances and achieve a measure of freedom of choice about our destinies.

“In the current era it is prosperity, not ideology, that keeps authoritarian regimes in power”

This bit by Anne Applebaum in Slate caught my eye a little while ago:

I would say that in the closing days of the 2000s, the future does not look good for all authoritarian regimes. However, the signs are very positive for one particular authoritarian regime: China. Partly this is because the Chinese, unlike the Iranians and the Russians, continue to deliver prosperity, and in the current era it is prosperity, not ideology, that keeps authoritarian regimes in power.

Perhaps, then, we are embarking not upon a new twilight of liberalism but, rather, on an era in which prosperity, in the form of infrastructure as well as consumption, becomes the focus of international competition and U.S. foreign policy. We are already heading that way: The Copenhagen climate summit failed, after all, because the United States and China could not agree on a matter that affected their prospects for growth. Meanwhile, Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, the focus of U.S. foreign policy for the past decade, is dwindling to the status of major nuisance.

Some time ago I wrote about Buckminster Fuller and the geodesic dome, and its curious cultural trajectory– its use by Cold Warriors in international exhibitions in the 1950s, then by commune-builders in the 1960s and early 1970s. American exhibits at trade fairs were designed to show people in non-aligned countries what was best about the United States, and why the model of liberal, democratic capitalism was superior to the Soviet model; but organizers argued about just what was "best." Exhibits tended to emphasize economic growth and prosperity, rather than personal liberty, the belief that government belonged to the people, or the power of workers to organize and assert their rights: the message tended to boil down to, "Americans are free… to buy houses, freezers, and cars."

Some of these were trade fairs, which were pretty tightly focused on promoting trade and industry. But the equation of freedom with prosperity was pretty clear and consistent, and according to contemporary accounts (in the American press, anyway) it was pretty successful. So if the Chinese are able to make a convincing argument that their system delivers prosperity and growth, I wouldn't dismiss the attractiveness of that claim.

China, future hegemon

Nobel laureate Robert Fogel has an article in the latest Foreign Policy arguing that by 2040 China is likely to dominate the world economy— just as it did for eighteen of the last twenty centuries:

In 2040, the Chinese economy will reach $123 trillion, or nearly three times the economic output of the entire globe in 2000. China's per capita income will hit $85,000, more than double the forecast for the European Union, and also much higher than that of India and Japan. In other words, the average Chinese megacity dweller will be living twice as well as the average Frenchman when China goes from a poor country in 2000 to a superrich country in 2040. Although it will not have overtaken the United States in per capita wealth, according to my forecasts, China's share of global GDP — 40 percent — will dwarf that of the United States (14 percent) and the European Union (5 percent) 30 years from now. This is what economic hegemony will look like.

Why will it do so well? Enormous investments in education; growing productivity and development in rural areas and in the agricultural sector; the systematic underestimation by Chinese officials of its growth rate; and the relative decline of the EU as a global economic powerhouse.

I'm not sure I agree with the piece's conclusions, but it's a provocative piece and worth reading.

© 2019 Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

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