September 15, 2001

A Talk on the Coming of the Information Age in Very Long Historical Perspective

CITRIS Kickoff: The New Economy

For perhaps 9000 years after the beginnings of agriculture the overwhelming proportion of human work lives were spent making things: growing crops, shearing sheep, spinning yarn, weaving cloth, throwing pots, cutting down trees, copying books, and so on, and so forth. Technology did improve enormously over those 9000 years: contrast the clothes-making technology at the disposal of Henry VIII of England with that of Rameses II of Egypt three thousand years before; contrast the triple-crop paddy-irrigated rice- and water-control-based agriculture of the Yangtze Delta in eighteenth-century China with the scratch-the-soil-with-a-hoe agriculture of two thousand years before. But as Thomas Robert Malthus first wrote in the 1790s, rising populations had put enough pressure on scarce natural resources to offset the benefits of better technology and keep living standards nearly constant for the people if not for the elite: American President Thomas Jefferson in 1803 A.D. certainly enjoyed a higher standard of living than Roman Consul Marcus Tullius Cicero in 63 B.C. But did Jefferson's slaves enjoy a higher standard of living than Cicero's? A large amount of archeological evidence has not yet found significant differences.

For the past two hundred and fifty years, since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the productivity of those workers who make things has exploded. Hand-spinners in the eighteenth century took 50,000 hours--20 full work-years--to spin 100 lbs of cotton into thread (Freeman and Louca (2001), and spinning of one sort or another took up perhaps 5% of total labor-time. Today it takes 40 work hours to spin 100 lbs. of cotton: a more than thousand-fold amplification of productivity in this one task...

Posted by DeLong at September 15, 2001 05:20 PM | TrackBack

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