Re: poly: World Economic History

From: Carl Feynman <>
Date: Wed Jun 10 1998 - 08:37:24 PDT

At 08:21 AM 6/6/98 -0700, Hal wrote:
>Robin Hanson, <>, writes:
>> Doubling Time Dominant Period DT factor WP factor
>> ------------- ------------------------- --------- ---------
>> 500,000 yrs 1M B.C. to ~300K B.C. ? 9
>> 140,000 yrs. ~300K B.C. to 5000 B.C. 4 6
>> 860 yrs. 5000 B.C. to 1700 155 196
>> 58 yrs. 1700 to 1900 15 11
>> 15 yrs. 1900 to 2000 4 37
>Can we identify these periods with technological innovations?

I prefer to identify these periods with development of new methods of
innovation. If each was simply marked by a new technological innovation at
its beginning, that would produce a spike in the growth rate, which would
drop off after the invention was fully exploited. In order to produce
sustained growth, a new method of innovation has to be developed. So, some
guesses at the methods of innovation in each period:

1. (<140,000 BC) Evolution toward better tool-using abilities. I read a
book on cognitive archeology (whose title I can't recall, dammit) in which
an archeologist claimed that stone tool production showed virtually no
variation with geography, and only a very slow improvement with time until
about 100,000 years ago. It was his claim that language had not been
developed during this period, and tool use was constrained to knowledge
that could be learned by imitation and the evolution of innate 'handiness'.
 If this theory is true, it could explain the very slow growth rates during
the early period: 20,000 human generations required for enough cognitive
improvement to double GWP. Or maybe not; the data this far back is
extrmely speculative.

2. (<5000 BC) During this period, language permitted the development of
more complex technologies and cultural innovations, like spearthrowers,
clothing, canoes, and trade. The colonization of Australia and the
Americas accounts for one factor of two. Search on "neolithic revolution"
to find out more about the transtion from this stage to the next.

3. (<1700 AD) The development of agriculture made the improvement and
diffusion of domesticated plants and animals the main avenue of growth.
You might think that the slow accumulation of technological and cultural
progress accounts for growth during this period. But I don't think so.
All pre-industrial civilizations were up against malthusian limits, with
periodic famines a major limiting effect on population. As far as I know,
until the 19th century, the breeding of plants was in the hands of millions
of individual, ignorant farmers and herdsmen, and was hence unaffected by
whatever culture the ruling class got up to. So, food supply improvement
permitted cultural improvements, but not the other way around. 860 years
sounds like a reasonable doubling time for yield of crops and animals: 860
generations of wheat, 215 generations of cattle...

4. (<1900 AD) The development of long-distance sea travel permits the
rapid spread of good ideas around the world, and the development of
regional division of labor. This coincides with the conquest of the world
by Western Europe. (this one is kind of shaky...)

5. (<2000 AD) The recognition that rational methods could be applied to
the solution of technical problems made development immensely faster. We
can see signs of this in Ben Franklin's practical inventions (mid-18th
century), the development of thermodynamics for steam engines and
electromagnetism for telegraphs (early 19th century), the creation of
schools of engineering (MIT founded 1860), and Edison's invention of the
R&D lab (late 19th century).

Caution: rampant speculation ahead!

Note that each stage has a characteristic lifestyle for most of the

1. Hunter-gatherer, incapable of speech.
2. Talking hunter-gatherer.
3. Subsistence farmer, consuming most of own production.
4. Farmer growing items for participation in economy.
5. Industrial worker.

There are still a few people in stage 2, and billions in each of the
subsequent stages. Each stage takes a long time to squeeze out the
previous stages. So we can look around us for occupants of the next stage.
 Most of us won't have to look very far, because we are them: we are
information workers in a bit-centered economy. If the proverb that an
internet year equals seven ordinary years is true, we can say that the new
doubling time is two years, and the DT factor is 7. If there are 6,000,000
people in the new economy, and 6,000,000,000 in the old one, it will take
roughly 20 years for the new economy to become dominant.

Stage 7 will become dominant sometime between 2024 and 2038, and will have
a doubling time between a week and six months.

Further than this, I cannot see; it's too bright.

--Carl Feynman
Received on Wed Jun 10 16:05:52 1998

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