Time travel and technological change: a response to Tyler Cowen
Over at Marginal Revolution, the economist Tyler Cowen proposes an interesting intellectual parlour-game*. If you could travel to some distant point in the past, say 1500AD, what could you do to improve the future and help people living in 2013?
Since many of Tyler's readers share an interest in economics and technology and have libertarian sympathies, there are a lot of suggestions like "introduce a patent system", "invent limited liability corporations", "introduce vaccination" or "tell doctors and midwives to wash their hands". (There's a lot of counterfactual history too, and Hitler and Lenin and Moctezuma and Cortez are assassinated several times over.)
These technological ideas are generally bad answers, but they're bad in an interesting way** that tells us something interesting about how innovation happens.
Consider hand-washing. Getting people to wash their hands routinely in 1500 in the past would probably have made a big difference to mortality rates, economic growth and, through the wonders of compound interest, the prosperity of the world today***. The problem with this as an answer is: how would you make this happen? Let's say you set yourself up as the Renaissance's Ignaz Semmelweis. You tell some people about the germ theory of disease. You run some trials to show that germs are bad (if your iPhone has some battery left you could use "Randomise Me", the app Nesta is developing with Ben Goldacre to help people run their own simple randomised controlled trials. I hear reception in the C16th is patchy though). Perhaps you make a microscope to show people - it's not too hard.
But you then face two big barriers: actually persuading large numbers of people to do what you say and wash their hands, and finding a way to provide enough soap and clean water to make it possible. Even today, 150-odd years after Semmelweis's discoveries, handwashing is still just bedding in (one study shows that even infectious disease experts attending a conference about microbes in the middle of a flu pandemic regularly failed to wash their hands after visiting the loo.) And how do you provide soap and clean water in 1500? Our sewerage systems took decades of public works and vast amounts of labour and money to build. Making, distributing and selling soap is a hugely complex business, and took years to evolve. And without soap and clean water, handwashing doesn't work.
We see this again and again with great ideas. Without all the right supportive conditions and systems, they don't work. Leonardo Da Vinci thought up the helicopter, but without steel mills, kerosene and precision engineering, it was just a curiosity. The Ottoman philosopher Taqi Al-Din dreamt up a steam engine for rotating kebabs in the C16th (I'm not making this up), but this didn't lead to Suleiman the Magnificent building railways. Terry Pratchett fans may remember Twoflower, the immensely rich, fat tourist who tries to sell insurance ("In-Sewer-Ant\") to the people of the Discworld - without an effective legal system they gleefully bought his fire insurance policies and then torch their own homes. Most ideas need a lot of context to work.
So then, what would my answer to the question be? What idea could you usefully bring back in your time machine? As far as I can see, there are two possibilities. Something that depends as little as possible on wider social and economic context****, or one of those very rare ideas the context for which existed for some time, but which inexplicably took a long time to be discovered.
The first category includes things like mathematics. You could teach Cardano calculus, giving mathematicians a hundred-year jump on themselves. The real question here is whether better mathematics would have done much to advance human progress - after all, for most of the Industrial Revolution, science followed engineering, not the other way around.
The second category is much smaller. Some of the posters at Marginal Revolution have argued the Bessemer Process for making high-quality steel qualifies. It was invented in the 1850s, but could plausibly have worked half a century before. The Bessemer process cut the price of steel by a factor of 85%, and allowed everything from skyscrapers and bridges to modern weapons. It's one of the most important technologies of the last three centuries. Fifty more years of very cheap steel, plus the wonders of compound interest, could very plausibly increase the prosperity of the world today. But we're a long way from the kind of change-the-course-of-history interventions that sci-fi writers imagine.
What does all this speculation mean in real life. On one level, not much - it's all a bit of fun. But there is a moral for anyone who is trying to improve things in a complex system. Let's say for example, you're trying to improve the quality of life of older people: a big concern of many governments and businesses around the world. Simple ideas - a new gadget, a new policy - will stand or fall not on how clever they are in themselves, but in how they fit into the wider systems that people live in. Our transport systems, our pension systems, how we think about paid work, how we provide medical care. Without a broad perspective, and the right attention to detail across the system, the most brilliant innovation will go the way of Leonardo's helicopter. If you're interested in the question of innovation in complex systems, take a look at this think-piece on systems innovation by Geoff Mulgan and Charlie Leadbeater, and let us know what you think.
* You might suppose that economists have better things to do in the midst of a deep financial and economic crisis than to propose parlour games on the Internet. On the other hand, it's possible that one reason that economic growth in rich countries is flagging is because we're not measuring the benefits of things like widespread internet access, free Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and all that. By this logic, it's your economic duty to engage in silly online discussions.
** As distinct from being bad in the way that careless counterfactual history usually is. Would preventing the death of Franz Ferdinand really have stopped a bloody European war at some point in the 1910s? It's an interesting question to ask, as Niall Ferguson showed, but the answer is probably "no".
*** This applies not just to doctors and midwives, but also to anyone with flu, anyone who prepares food, etc.
**** The benefits also need to be pretty self evident. You could perhaps have mitigated the appalling human cost of the Great Depression if you could have convinced people of modern macroeconomics in 1929 - but simply pulling a copy of Keynes's General Theory from your Tardis probably wouldn't have worked.