CAPITOL LETTERS (Ep. 1): Industrial Revolutions Herald and hubris
Industrial Revolutions (IR) are manifestations of the delightful concept of “creative destruction” (J. Schumpeter). This means destroying the useless as a force of creation for the useful, not vice versa, that is being creative in destroying. Destruction qua creation is about capitalising and making the most of resources, whereas creativity in destruction sooner resembles blunt vandalism (war, for instance, is creative in its nihilistic annihilation). Apparently, an IR is like TV: it isn’t necessary to understand how it works, what matters is to have the remote at the ready. However, some economists and historians continue to fiddle with the explanatory and predictive mechanism of a phenomenon that has already reached its fourth generation. Thus, for IR 1.0 (manufactured by the British), the main contributing factors identified were cheap energy and somewhat improved wages, coupled with metropolitan freedoms and the extortion of colonies, or perhaps the establishment of a general climate of “bourgeois equality” (D. McCloskey), where the ideas of common people could be expressed and experimented with free from the tyranny of statutes. Debates remain vivid here.
J. Mokyr, perhaps the most pertinent economic historian in all matters concerning IRs, has revisited these realities along several lines. For instance, he pinpoints to the fact that IRs do not show a linear logical flow from science to technology, but rather tend to follow a path of convergent evolution, where mechanics and engineers observe “things that work” and inspire physicists and chemists to discover new fundamental theoretical principles and/or create more accurate instruments to overcome sensory limitations that might hinder work in labs. Furthermore, it is true that all IRs have had what we might refer to as a “general purpose tool”, such as steam power for IR 1.0; electricity as well as mass production and the engineering of interchangeable parts for IR 2.0; electronics, in particular microprocessors, for IR 3.0, and artificial intelligence for IR 4.0. Nevertheless, such tools have never been a novelty in and of themselves, but rather represented a pre-existing factor that got, given favourable fate, to be used to achieve large scale, interconnected, and, yes, entrepreneurial breakthroughs (even if some see many of them as progenies of public/warlike policies/goods).
As both determinants and resultants, the series of IRs has left no area of social life untouched, from the belle-arte, where we’d apparently witness in fact a case of playing against type, to political governance. While IR 1.0, stirring in the steamy fumes of Savery-Newcomen-Watt engines, drew millions of people towards urban centres, it also spurred the artists’ mobility and portability, as exemplified by Stephenson’s locomotive, in close complicity with Rand’s metallic paint tubes. Similarly, from the furnaces of Huntsman, Neilson, Bessemer and Kelly, rise (indirectly) masterpieces of architectural art. Today, we have NFTs, the blockchain unchained forms of artistry pertaining to the incoming Metaverse lives. Despite complaints from the Frankfurt School (Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and their epigones), the IR has wrested art from the clutches of aristocratic, courtly exclusivism and democratised it through new media towards new classes. Yes, there persist dilemmas about art becoming “too” mass-oriented and merchandised in character, as opposed to preserving its personalisation and incorruptibility. Still, it’s a fact that IR has expanded our range of choices.
As for democracy, polis and RI: in terms of principles, the state and its governance have also undergone their share of revolutions (ideological, with a tint of epochs’ technologies), four in the estimation of Micklethwait and Wooldridge: the first with the development of the European, post-Westphalia nation-state; the second with the return of individual rights and government responsibility in the 18th and 19th centuries; the third with the creation of the modern, (excessively) generous welfare state; the (unfinished) 3.5th with a tentatively Thatcherist-Reagan-esque attempt to diminish the state and repair its vital functions (notably, with lessons for the West to be learned from the East). Yet, here we may consider a different kind of revolution of the state/polity in relation with the IR 4.0, namely a (re)instatement of “participative” democracy, previously considered inefficient and too gregarious compared to the sacerdotal operativeness (a poor jest, indeed!) of the “representative” version. Through a combination of prior increasing access to culture and education via friendly interfaces, 4.0 technology might help us be (once again?) truly relevant social contractors with a single click.
(July 4, 2022 – Washington, D.C.)
Photo source: picryl.com.
CAPITOL LETTERS is a series of articles occasioned by the author’s presence in Washington, D.C. as Romanian Cultural Institute Fellow, studying industrial revolutions’ imprint on the cultural sector.
The opinions hereby expressed by the author remain his exclusive responsibility and do not engage, in any manner or measure, the organizations to which he is affiliated or with which he collaborates.