Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Lever of Riches, Joel Mokyr : A Set of Sound Explanations to the Technological Progress Phenomenon

Joel Mokyr’s Lever of Riches is a book on technological creativity. Throughout his book Mokyr searches for the variables that affect the technological change. As it is deduced from the text that the technology, by itself, is not the only cause of the richness of a nation, but the interactions among the law, trade, administration, institutions and inventions create the vital, and generally short-lived, environment for the technological progress which yields to richness.

It is clearly seen from The Lever of Riches that Mokyr follows a scientific methodology with which he tests hypothesises of different historians who tried to solve the technological progress mystery, and he refutes most of these hypothesis by using sound justifications. From chemistry to agriculture, metallurgy to shipping, by narrating the different inventions of the historical periods from classical antiquity to year 1914, Mokyr tries to address the causes of technological progress.

I was quite satisfied by the explanations made by Mokyr, especially the attitudes of societies, the techniques used before and after 1850, the policy on patent system, the dispute between guilds and firms, comparison of China and Europe, the evolution of macro and micro inventions which those all together effects the technical progress.

There is huge difference between Mokyr, Joseph Needham and Lynn White on the technique they used and the information they provided. In his Science in Traditional China, Joseph Needham mainly focuses on the technological progress and social changes in China which took place for nearly 1500 years. It is not possible to understand from Needham’s text why China could not develop a Western-style technological progress model, which Mokyr shows by describing the attitudes of guilds, the emergence patent system, the perception of societies’ on value, the techniques (learning by doing, learning by using) used by the European’s, the interaction among the countries and many more. The linear reasoning approach applied by the Lynn White is quite different than that of Mokyr’s scientific approach. White’s solutions to the technological progress phenomenon are basically an incremental technological change in tools and their effect on political and social system. White claims that the usage of stirrup, plough and reinforced armour led to a change in the political system. Despite it has valuable explanations, contrary to Mokyr, White’s text does not give us any information on the guilds, the techniques employed for utilization of inventions, or the developments and their interactions in mining, shipping, and the change of the centre of gravity of technological progress.

In the search to answer why Europe led other continents and why England led Europe until 1850, Mokyr examines different sectors (chemistry, mining, metallurgy, etc) one by one and shows how a technical change in one sector affects other sectors. It is obvious from his text that by switching among the sectors and time periods, Mokyr has both vertical and horizontal depth of knowledge on technological change and its agents.

In order to understand the Industrial Revolution, the mutual progress made by the humanity shall be inspected, and Mokyr does this. Inventions made in China, medieval Islam and Europe are explained with their effects on society and productivity. But since the Industrial Revolution emerged in England, the text narrated by Mokyr mainly deals with the developments occurred in England and Europe.

I think that there is no one-single root cause of the technological progress, but dozens of macro and micro causes that forms the shape, speed, and path of the progress. From The Lever of Riches, we see that, indeed, the technological progress phenomenon is not an easy one which can be explained by a single theory.

It was enlightening for me to read how England led others by performing learning-by-doing and learning-by-using technique, a technique which eventually led England behind of Germany and United States due to England’s resistance of changing her techniques with the new scientific methods which were mainly generated by the universities.

Despite he has questions whether the progress or stagnation is the normal state of a society, I could not see the reason why Mokyr did not focused on the fact that the progress cannot be achieved without stagnation due to the need of consuming the products of the progress.

One comment to the book may be that Mokyr seems to be inclined to see the negative sides of the craft guilds, and why he did not mentioned their contributions to the cumulative body of knowledge, which is explained in detail in Civilization and Capitalism, of Braudel.

I am totally glad about having read this book, and I believe those who seek the answers for or interested in the technological progress phenomenon will find The Lever of Riches an indispensable source of reference.

You can purchase the book from

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