Written: February 21, 2015
This is an encyclopedia of inventions, but unlike the encyclopedia that is arranged alphabetically, this is arranged through links, what the author calls the pinball effect, how one invention crosses to another field and makes possible another invention and so forth. At times the links are weak, but it does, however, make it much easier to read about hundreds of inventions rather than going along alphabetically. And the author’s argument does carry weight. Inventions are spurred not so much by a rigorous microanalysis of one subject matter but rather the ability to laterally apply one concept in one field to another field to make a breakthrough. Perhaps the book should be called six-degrees of separation linking all inventions to each other by six degrees. The book also argues that in the future, computers or intelligent machines will be able to take care of all the details in a particular field, specializing, and that humans maximize their abilities by being able to cross fields, know a little about a lot of things, and make those cross field connections and inventions.
While the book focuses mainly on Western European and American inventions, fact is, the Industrial Age was dominated by Western Europe and America. I read another book that explained why Western Europe and America jumped out ahead of say China, one of the first and most potent civilizations or the Middle East where they invented many things like algebra and advances in astronomy. In Western Europe, progress occurs when you have two forces balanced against each other, in this case, the church and the monarchy. In England, after it became free of the Catholic church, it was a balance between the monarchy and the nobles and then later the nobles and the merchant class. When you have two relatively equal forces fighting each other, they try to weaken each other and get concessions from each other by appealing to the masses and their desire for freedom and autonomy from any oppression. So it works in the favor of the masses, and in the case of Western Europe and America, it allowed them to rise up, become educated, invent like crazy, and build whole new industries. In America, you might think the Democrats and Republicans are two equal powers that fight each other to the benefit of the masses, but you’re simply wrong. They’re two heads of the same monster controlled by one power, the billionaires. Their fight is only theatre and they collude remarkably well to extract maximum wealth from the masses to reallocate to the billionaires. While we are experiencing tremendous technological advances aided by computers and the Internet, we also have a huge lower class that is not inventive and seems to be raised as fodder for the service industry and low-paying corporate jobs. Reading this book, you are overwhelmed by the creative inventiveness of people in the 18th and 19th centuries. Of course, most people back then were also dimwitted farm hands, but there was a burgeoning middle class the world had never experienced with remarkable freedom and leisure time to maximize creativity and inventiveness.
There are so many gaps in our history books, and the way they are arranged chronologically is perhaps slightly more effective than alphabetical, but not only do you miss the connections and causes of many historic events, you also miss some of the oddities. A German chemist discovered that plants needed phosphoric acid and ground-up bones was a great way to produce phosphoric acid. As a result, the English led in the production of phosphoric acid and by 1870 produced 40K tons a year. Now you ask, where did they get all those bones? The answer was they became prolific grave robbers and even plundered the battlefields of Europe and it was estimated took the bones of 3.5 million buried men from Europe each year.
What you learn from this book is that accidents often lead to invention. People who are prone to accidents, who are not very good at trying to control everything and eliminate variables like scientists, tend to be greater inventors. In fact, our modern schools seem to discouraging us from being great inventors by emphasizing control, conformity, and standardization. Frederick Hayek (the great libertarian thinker) has a great saying that “advance and even the preservation of civilization are dependent upon a maximum of opportunity for accidents to happen.” The book also makes the understandable mistake of calling old libertarians like Benjamin Franklin, “liberals.” The liberals of the past were in fact what you would call a libertarian today. Somewhere along the way, the federalist and statists won out and changed their name to liberals. Old liberals should be called “classical liberals” or libertarians, because they did not believe the government should fix everything and control the masses.
You also learn that government used to offer prizes for solutions and new inventions. Why doesn’t the government do that today? Instead, they spend hundreds of millions paying consultants who invariably suggest that the answer to any problem is spending more money and creating larger budgets and programs. If the government offered a prize to reduce poverty, crime, and congestion, a smart person would come up with real solutions. He would loosen regulations for professions and small businesses, legalize drugs, and instead of building new roads, tax new developments for any additional municipal services and traffic they generate. A consultant on the other hand would suggest increasing taxes, raising the minimum wage, building more prisons, hiring more police officers, and building more roads.
One interesting part is about Rousseau and the focus back on nature and experience and intuition over science, mechanization, and what I would call civilized-closed order. Before hermeneutics, the study of knowledge which has more emphasis on experience than science, there was a counter-revolution to the Enlightenment, the Romantic Era. I think the Enlightenment diminished religion but everything along with it including superstition, intuition, nature, art, music, all the irrational things of life that make life so meaningful to us. I think logical conclusion of Enlightenment was not liberation from the tyranny of irrational religion and its bureaucracy but rather simply a changing of the guards to a new oppression and tyranny of industry and the diminishing stature of humans to mere cogs in a giant machine. Out of this spirit came the American revolution and much of the “liberal” ideals of our given rights by nature to liberty, life, and the pursuit of happiness, that a government that takes away those rights is unnatural. Of course, the book, like almost every history book, keeps making the same mistake and interchanges the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘libertarian’ without explanation. Every history book that covers liberalism or libertarianism should immediately state in the introduction what definition of the term ‘liberal’ they mean. Do they mean the true, classical liberal, (what today we define as libertarian?) or do they mean the current use, the progressive statist who wants big government (what once was known as federalism).
In the end, I made an interesting observation. You can read the book in many ways as the author notes, by jumping around using their footnotes from one idea in one section to the same idea in another section, and the combinations grow exponentially. At the end of the book, you can start reading the beginning of the book. When you look at history chronologically, there is obvious a beginning and an end, and the story on a macro-scale is pretty much the same. However, when you travel through history not chronologically but through connections and relationships, there is no beginning or end. Perhaps this is how the universe is constructed. Physicists tell us that time is relative, but it may even be an illusion. If this is so, then how does one live, travel through an illusion? Perhaps, we travel not chronologically through fixed time but rather through our connections and relationships, and the combinations grow exponentially. I keep coming back to this odd thought. Let’s say you’re God. You know everything. You know every story told, every joke. What’s the fun in that? You’d get bored. How do you entertain yourself? Well, one way is to purposefully suspend your memory, basically you roofie yourself. But this is like living the same old story over and over for all eternity. Another possibility is not to travel chronologically but through connections, at each point of decision, you can travel through Option A or B, but you always try something different so the possibilities keep growing. Some people argue that there are infinite parallel universes where every possible combination of events occurs, which I find a rather big waste of resources. But if spacetime is an illusion, you’re not really wasting anyone’s space or time. I’m not sold on it, but it is an interesting concept, one way of making life interesting for a being that has a trillion, trillion times our intelligence and hence probably gets a lot more bored than we can ever imagine.