Engineer's Fantasy

John Maynard Keynes Managing the Economy

I'm still on hiatus, but:

[Choo Choo]

That's an image from Robert Graboyes' substack post Viewer, Puzzler, Pleader, Seer; Apparatchik, Engineer, where he discusses the nature of economics. Very insightful stuff, illustrated with the above image, which was generated with (yes) AI at Midjourney.

I encourage you to read Graboyes, or do something equally wonderful at Midjourney, or both.

Last Modified 2024-01-30 5:52 AM EST

Innovation and Its Enemies

Why People Resist New Technologies

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

I picked up this book (from Wellesley College Library via UNH Interlibrary Loan) because it appeared in this short video from Adam Thierer showing the books that "had the greatest influence" on his thoughts about "technological innovation/progress". And there it is, between Virginia Postrel's The Future and its Enemies and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now. It isn't quite what I was expecting, and it doesn't quite live up to those illustrious neighbors, but that's OK.

I was discouraged by the first chapter where the author, Calestous Juma (originally from Kenya), provides a general essay about innovative products and services, and the forces that they might be up against. Schumpeter's famous insights about "creative destruction" are examined and expanded upon. This intro is vague and (frankly) Juma doesn't have an interesting prose style.

Worse, when discussing the late 19th-century fracas between British old-style "practical electricians" and the young whippersnappers designing things by working out the implications of Maxwell's equations of electrodynamics, Juma states the old fogies "believed that electricity flows through wires the way water flowed through pipes" and the upstarts "showed" that "electricity flowed in a field around the conducting wire".

Um. Well, electrons do flow through a wire. Not like water, but even so: the standard measure of electric current, the ampere, is about 6.2x1018 electrons going past a point every second.

The Maxwell-described field surrounding a current-conducting wire is a magnetic field, not "electricity". No flowing involved there.

(I got the first edition of the book; I notice there's a newer edition, and this might have been fixed.)

But (good news) once I got past the first chapter, things improved markedly. Juma looks at nine case studies, from history up to the present, one per chapter: the introduction of coffee to the West; the Ottoman Empire's prohibition against use of the printing press to reproduce Islamic religious texts; margarine; farm machinery; electricity (the AC/DC wars); mechanical refrigeration; recorded music; transgenic crops; and, finally, AquAdvantage salmon.

Juma does a great job in recounting history, and he's relentlessly fair in looking at the opposition to each innovation. Bending over backwards at times, I'd say. Readers expecting a screed against the reactionaries impeding technological progress will be disappointed. An exception is that chapter about the salmon; Juma describes the "frankenfish" opposition as masterfully using the tools of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. (The AquAdvantage salmon was developed in 1989; thanks to the obstructionism, its first US sales were in 2021.)

Fun facts abound. In Germany, coffee was going up against Big Beer (or, I guess, "Großes Bier"). Which pointed out that coffee had no nutritional value, and beer was, of course, liquid bread. Coffee interests responded by mixing soup in with their brew. As Juma reports with a straight face: this didn't catch on.

In discussing the impact of the printing press, Juma notes perhaps the earliest occurrence of what we now call the Streisand Effect. The church used the press to produce posters listing all the books that needed to be burned. "This inadvertently served as advertising as people went out and bought the books."

So it's a mixed bag, but mostly good. If you get the revised edition, let me know if that electricity thing has been fixed.

Last Modified 2024-01-13 5:04 AM EST