I must have been on drugs: I haven’t mentioned the brilliant and exquisite Virginia Postrel in some time. I have been a fool.
Virginia has a terrific column in the NY Times on the history of information:
- Indeed, a new book argues, to understand why the West not only grew rich after the Industrial Revolution but also kept growing richer, we have to understand the revolution in how people organize and exchange “useful knowledge.”
….Through most of human history, periods of invention did not create sustained economic growth. Population might increase because, say, agricultural yields improved. But eventually the standard of living returned to its old equilibrium.
That pattern changed in the 19th century. Individual inventions not only flourished but also sparked still more inventions and continuing economic growth.
“The true question of the Industrial Revolution is not why it took place at all but why it was sustained beyond, say, 1820,” Professor Mokyr writes.
The reason, he argues, lies in what he calls the Industrial Enlightenment, a series of cultural changes that connected practical and theoretical knowledge and made both more widely accessible.
….Through “search engines” ranging from Diderot’s huge Encyclopédie to handbooks and periodicals, “useful knowledge” traveled from individual practitioners to anyone with an interest in improving techniques.
“The idea that knowledge is power did not translate into the idea that knowledge should be monopolized,” Professor Mokyr said in an interview. Instead, the ideal of open science prevailed. Even patents required that inventors make ideas public.
In addition, the Industrial Enlightenment “sought to understand why techniques worked by generalizing them” – a critical step in turning new knowledge into an engine of continuing progress.
….The third important aspect of the Industrial Enlightenment was the bridges it built between “those who controlled propositional knowledge,” including scientific generalizations, “and those who carried out the techniques contained in prescriptive knowledge,” the expertise in fields like agriculture, engineering and navigation.
Practitioners and theorists no longer remained socially or intellectually isolated from one another.
….With the advent of the Industrial Enlightenment, “those bridges were built increasingly in the West,” he said. “That is a truly momentous historic development. We’re no longer investigating nature just because we want to know what it means. We really are curious about how we can exploit nature for all kinds of purposes.”
Hmm, seems the more widespread is knowledge, the more likely people are to make connections. Information may not want to be free – information doesn’t want to “be” anything – but people should want it to be free for the betterment of all mankind.
Virginia adds on her own site:
- On the other hand, Athena’s analysis suggests that raising the cost of “useful knowledge” could stifle economic growth. Perhaps the U.S. government wasn’t so bright to save $200,000 a year by closing down the Energy Department’s PubScience project, a website that let visitors search and access 2 million scientific articles for free. The DOE said it was closing the site because commercial publishers offer similar paid services. (Background articles here, here, here, and here.) The argument that tax dollars shouldn’t undercut market efforts is reasonable, but in this case most of the articles come out of tax-funded research to begin with. That research is funded because of the belief that the knowledge it generates makes everyone better off, a claim that’s more likely to be true if the knowledge is widely shared.