Big tech: don't be dazzled by the fancy stuff!

Humble inventions that really change the world — if they’re cheap enough, says Tim Harford, former Brain Bar headliner and author of The Undercover Economist.

The new Blade Runner film has persuaded me to watch the original again. Wonderful movie, but there’s something odd about it. When our hero Deckard falls for ‘Rachael’, he already knows that Rachael is a highly intelligent organic robot, so sophisticated that she can hardly be distinguished from a human. Yet Deckard likes her, and asks her out on a date — using a graffiti-scrawled public payphone.

That payphone is jarring, but in fairness to Blade Runner, we often make such mistakes when imagining new technologies. We wrongly assume that a technology like ‘Rachael’ could somehow appear, yet little else would change.

And we’re hypnotised by the most sophisticated objects, missing humble ideas that quietly change everything.

For example: when I embarked on my latest project — a book and BBC series about Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy — everyone told me that I simply must include Gutenberg’s movable type printing press. It was revolutionary of course, but when I came face-to-face with a 1450s Gutenberg Bible, with its twin black columns of dense Latin text, I realised that there was another story to tell: the story of humble paper.

Paper had been invented 1500 years earlier in China and long used in the Arabic world, where literacy was common. Yet it had taken centuries to spread to Christian Europe, because illiterate Europe no more needed a cheap writing surface than it needed a cheap metal to make crowns and sceptres. Paper caught on only when a commercial class started to need an everyday writing surface for contracts and accounts. ‘If eleventh-century Europe had little use for paper,’ writes Mark Kurlansky in his book Paper, ‘thirteenth-century Europe was hungry for it.’

When paper was embraced in Europe, it became arguably the continent’s first heavy industry. Fast-flowing streams (first in Fabriano, Italy, and then across the continent) powered massive drop-hammers that pounded cotton rags which were being broken down by the ammonia from urine. The paper mills of Europe reeked as dirty garments were pulped in a bath of human piss. Paper opened the way for printing. The kind of print run that might justify the expense of a printing press could not be produced on parchment; it would require literally hundreds of thousands of animal skins. It was only when it became possible to mass-produce paper that it made sense to search for a way to mass-produce writing, too.

Not that writing is the only use for paper. We use paper for everything from filtering tea and coffee to decorating our walls. Paper gives us milk cartons, cereal packets and corrugated cardboard boxes. In quilted, perforated form, paper is soft, absorbent and cheap enough to wipe, well, anything you want. Toilet paper seems a long way from the printing revolution. And it is easily overlooked — as we occasionally discover in moments of inconvenience.

But many world-changing inventions hide in plain sight in much the same way — too cheap to remark on, even as they quietly reorder everything. We might call this the ‘toilet paper principle’.

Other revolutionary cheap-as-toilet-paper inventions include: barbed wire, the cheap fencing material which allowed the colonisation of the American west; the lossy-yet-convenient MP3 music format; and the shipping container, a simple steel box that supercharged global trade.

Of course, some innovations — such as electricity — truly are revolutionary, producing effects that would have seemed like sorcery to previous generations. Such inventions fit our instincts about what ’new technology’ should look like: unlike paper and shipping containers, they are mysterious and complex, like the organic robot Rachael.

Yet even here we think too much about the amazing technology, and too little about the workaday social and organisational changes needed to unlock its potential.

Electricity should, by rights, have blossomed in US manufacturing in the 1890s, but in fact it wasn’t until the 1920s that electric motors really delivered on their promise, and productivity surged.

The reason for the thirty-year delay? The new electric motors, which replaced steam engines, only worked well when everything else changed too. Steam-powered factories had delivered power through awe-inspiring drive-shafts, secondary shafts, belts, belt towers, and thousands of drip-oilers. Replacing the single huge engine with a huge electric motor changed little.

Electricity triumphed only when factories themselves were reconfigured. The drive-shafts were replaced by wires, the huge steam engine by dozens of small motors. Factories spread out; there was natural light, and room to use ceiling-slung cranes. Workers had responsibility for their own machines; they needed better training and better pay. The electric motor was a wonderful invention, once we changed all the everyday details that surrounded it.

In 1990, the economic historian Paul David suggested that what was true of electric motors might also prove true of computers: that we had yet to see the full economic benefits because we had yet to work out how to reshape our economy to take advantage of them. Later research by economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Lorin Hitt backed up the idea: they found that companies which had merely invested in computers in the 1990s had seen few benefits, but those who also reorganised — decentralising, outsourcing and customising their products — had seen productivity soar.

Overall the productivity statistics have yet to display anything like a 1920s breakthrough.

In that respect we are still waiting for Paul David’s suggestion to bear fruit. But in other ways, he was proved right almost immediately. People were beginning to figure out new ways to use computers, and in August 1991, Tim Berners-Lee posted his code for the World Wide Web on the Internet so that others could download it and start to tinker. It was another cheap and unassuming technology, and it unlocked the potential of the older and grander Internet itself.

American factory owners reconfigured their factories; perhaps the true gains from computing are yet to be unlocked, as we reconfigure our workplaces and our lives.

I am as clueless about the future of technology as anyone — but I’ve learned three lessons by looking at its past. One: don’t be dazzled by the fancy stuff. Two: humble inventions can change the world if they’re cheap enough. Three: always ask, ‘To use this invention well, what else needs to change?’

(On the cover: advertisement of the Nintendo Entertainment System from the early 1990s)

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