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You appear erudite and very confident in your interpretation of history. So could you explain to us why you assign greater historical importance to energy than information technologies such as paper and the printing press, which amplified and spread the crucial cultural shift towards scientific methods and experimentation? I favor the latter since energy has always been available--We simply lacked the knowledge to harness it efficiently.

If I may, I'd like to recommend a couple of books about the present and possible futures of human progress as well:

E.O. Wilson. Consilience. https://www.amazon.com/Consilience-Knowledge-Edward-Osborne-...

Nick Bostrom. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. https://www.amazon.com/Superintelligence-Dangers-Strategies-...

Well, so long as we're on the China theme, there's the point that China, not Gutenberg, came up with paper, printing, and moveable type.

The question of why China didn't take the leap to a fully technical civilisation is ... an interesting one. It's called "The Needham Question" and was essentially what Needham was trying to answer in producing Science and Civilisation. Responses remain ... unsatisfactory.

If you're interested in printing and media (a topic I've been exploring in some depth), there's the rate of growth of publishing in Europe. Buringh & van Zanden provide an account of European manuscripts and books from 600 - 1800:

Buringh, Eltjo; van Zanden, Jan Luiten (2009), "Charting the "Rise of the West": Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe, A Long-Term Perspective from the Sixth through Eighteenth Centuries", The Journal of Economic History, 69 (2): 409–445, doi:10.1017/s0022050709000837

From memory, the count in 1400 was roughly 30,000 volumes in all of Europe. That's not titles, that's total instances of all books throughout the continent.

By 1500, roughly 200 million, by 1600, ~525m, and nearly 1 billion total books by 1800.

Books were still tremendously expensive in the late 18th century. I believe Wealth of Nations sold for about 5L per copy, which was about a quarter of a labourer's annual wage.

Four factors had a huge impact in the 19th century:

1. Iron-framed presses. Sturdier and higher-output than a wood press.

2. Cheap pulp paper. I believe this came online in the 1830s.

3. Steam-powered presses. Output increased from on the order of 120 impressions/hour to thousands, then 10,000 by mid-century.

4. Literacy. Books do little good if you cannot read. Increased industrial work had created a demand for functional literacy and universal education amongst the masses. Europe's literacy rates rose from ~25% to 90%+ over the 19th century.

The relationship of technology to capability and/or science is ... interesting. Science doesn't always lead technology, and quite often follows it. Thermodynamics is a key example -- it was born of steam engines, and not the other way 'round. (Yes, there are counterexamples.)

There's also the early plateau of a great many inventions and innovations: automobile innovation hit a peak in the 1920s (measured by patents, as well as rate-of-performance or -efficiency metrics), aircraft only shortly after. The DC-3 was first produced in 1935 and remains in active service. Robert J. Gordon (Rise and Fall of American Growth) refers to it as "the most perfect aircraft ever built".

The development of fossil fuel resources required a bootstrapping process, and as with most such processes, a correct sequencing. Coal begat pumps begat steam pumps begat iron begat railroads begat telegraph begat Bessemer steel and dynamos begat electric motors begat oil drills begat tank cars begat pipelines begat internal combustion engines begat steam turbines begat gas turbines.... (Somewhat out of sequence, though you get the general drift.)

The vast majority of all power generation (electrical or traction) still comes from the Otto 4-cycle, Diesel, Parsons-derived steam turbine, or Curtis-derived gas turbine. All of these are 19th century technologies. (Charles Curtis's gas turbine sneaks in just under the wire: 1899.)

There's more than just fuel-based engines, to technology, mind. But the "unlimited potential" of Moore's Law exponentiating capabilities are limited to a small subset of mechanisms.

I've been trying to construct an ontology of technological mechanisms, earlier work linked below lists 7 elements, I'm now up to nine:

1. Fuels and fuel-based systems.

2. Power transfer and transformation. Shafts, levers, wheels, belts, electricity, magnetism, ...

3. Materials: capabilities enabled by virtue of material properties, and constrained by their limits and abundance.

4. Systemic (scientific) knowledge.

5. Process (technical) knowledge.

6. Organisation: Management of both human and non-human systems: governance, military, religion, law, business, finance, and cybernetics.

7. Network and dendritic structures. Comms, transport, trade, information, and electronic networks.

8. Information: sensing, measurement, processing, storing, and transmitting, through natural or augmented means.

9. "Hygiene". I'm still looking for a good word, but essentially, side-effect, unintended consequence, and negative-outcomes management. Pollution, sink exhaustion, systemic disruption, "bite-back".

I'm actively soliciting suggestions or criticisms.

I'm familiar with Wilson (love his work) and Bostrom (somewhat less enchanted).



I was curious even before seeing your comment so I checked and found this: Mechanical printing press was not widely adopted in East Asia until the 1800s. Woodblock printing was probably much less efficient and the number of books available was perhaps one or more orders of magnitude fewer than in Europe until the 19th century. [1]

My hypothesis: A lack of inexpensive and widely accessible books before the 19th century slowed down China's scientific and technological progress substantially. (Other cultural and governance factors undoubtedly played a role as well.)

By the way, I am not sure if we can say China did invent the modern world. Most of the scientific methods and mindset we inherit today largely evolved and took a mature form in Europe. Without which, most advanced technologies cannot be built upon.

Your 9-factor framework appears well thought out. Any plan to publish its details in full?

I would add Biological-medical systems which allows us to harness the nature of other living beings (taming, breeding, etc.), mitigate their harms (pesticides, antibiotics, etc), and deeply alter them and ourselves (genetic engineering, CRISPR, etc.) [2].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_printing_in_East_As...

[2] http://nautil.us/issue/18/genius/super_intelligent-humans-ar...

China's utilisation of printing may not have been fully realised. Moveable type, especially, seems to have had only limited use. China's lettering system makes mechanical reproduction much more complicated than an alphabetic system with orders of magnitude fewer characters. And even in the West, thresholds such as creating linotype machines (which literally cast a "line of type") was a tremendous breakthrough in the process of rapidly converting text to printing plate.[1]

I'm still getting up to speed on history, but a big factor was an, IIRC, 14th or 15th century decision to turn inward. For various reasons, China was governed as an integral unit, unlike Europe which was divided amongst many autonomous governmental units -- don't like the (political) weather? Move 20 (or 200) miles. Happened frequently, and was relatively easily done due to ample coastlines and river systems (water was the air and highway network of the day). So right about the same time China was shutting down its invention engine, Europe was firing up.

Francis Bacon lists the compass, printing press, and gunpowder as the three inventions of modernity. All three came from China.

And, if you want to apply my ontology, the compass is information and sensing (magnetic north). Along with time measurement, it made for vastly improved navigation -- not so much a value add as a loss-minimisation -- England launched a bounty for an accurate shipboard clock after a fleet sailed onto the rocks -- the US repeated that feat in the twentieth century off the coast of Santa Barbara in steamships moving by dead reckoning through fog.... Printing is information storage and distribution. And gunpowder is something of a mix of fuel and power transmission. Range weapons offer the advantage to hunters, or warriors, of putting yourself out of range (or reach) of your quarry (or enemy's weapons). Risk mitigation.

China's approach to a number of areas is ... distinctly non-western. Philosophy, science, engineering, and moral philosophy or social sciences, are all distinctly different from the West. Again, I'm not as versed in this as I'd like to be, but the distinctions I've seen so far are pretty fascinating. And I'll definitely give you that the western traditions and philosophy of science appear indigenous. Francis Bacon, his earlier near-namesake Roger, Isaac Newton, Darwin, Linnaeus, Lyell, Faraday, and others, turned Western science and traditions differently.

I'm trying to sort out how to structure and describe the ontology. I've been collecting examples, looking for alternatives (or precursors -- none so far, I may have finally had an original idea), holes, etc.

Your biological-medical area is one I'd classify generally under "process knowledge". See Needham's classification (the Wikipedia article spells it out) for his view, I've got another encyclopedia I'm planning to raid for a western view -- that's on my worklist for synthesis and assimilation.

Genetic engineering is under information:

Information: Sensing (natural and artificial senses), language, speech, writing, maths, logic, formal logic, algorithmic processing, programming, genetic engineering, AI.

The techniques of, say, building and operating printing presses, telegraphs, telephones, radio, TV, computers, genetic analysis, etc., are under process knowledge. That's the physical element of information as opposed to the logical and informational component.



1. And the linotype process actually involved three generations of copying just to get to the printing plate, a fourth before the final published article was complete: matrix, cast into a type line "slug" which was set into the page form, to create a matte, which then created the actual print plate which impressed the final paper.

There's an excellent documentary on Linotype typesetting here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=6wHiddZOfa8

And if you're interested in the history of information, I suggest The History of Information, which is mind-bogglingly good (it's run by a long-time antiquarian bookseller). Warning: time-sink.


Just to be clear, the modern world I referred to was the product of industrialization that mostly matured in the 20th century, with automobiles, airplanes, antibiotics, and the likes. Most, if not all, of which were developed upon the foundation of European scientific methods and mindset. Compass, woodblock printing, gunpowder played some roles but less pivotal than many other technologies based on science.

Thanks for the last link. It's very interesting. I wish they would include biological-genetic information that predates hominids as well.

If you're interested in more of what I'm working on, take a swing by https://reddit.com/r/dredmorbius (I strongly suggest the desktop rather than mobile view).

For biological / genetic information, you might find David Christian's Big Science perspective of interest, though he doesn't go too far into detail on that. I'm watching (well, listening to) his lecture series (posted at the Dreddit, as I call the subreddit, also "The Lair"...), which looks into a lot of this.

You'll probably also find the work out of the Santa Fe Institute fascinating, as I have. http://www.santafe.edu I haven't looked into their work on genetics, excessivly, though I think John Holland touched on that in part, also Geoffrey West. There's W. Brian Arthur (economics and innovation), J. Doyne Farmer (innovation), David Krakauer (intelligence), Sander van der Leeuw (cognition and intelligence expressed through cultural complexity), and more.

On the 20th century industrialisation: I still think you can trace virtually all of that to the 1880s.

Automobiles required metalurgy (frames, chassis, body), fuel (petroleum => petrol / diesel), standardisation (a form of organisation, and hugely underappreciated -- interchangeable parts is a massive win), mechanised assembly (a worker with a 40 HP power allocation is vastly more effective than one without), and a prime mover.

Airplanes happened virtually at the same time as automobiles (1901: Model T, 1906, Wright Flyer), and for the same reasons: high power-to-weight ration petrol-fired engines. It took another few years to figure out which end was forwards (France pioneered what's essentially the modern wings-forward, empennage-aft design). The next problem was construction materials. Odd factoid: Boeing originated in Seattle for access to aircraft buiding materials. No, not cheap aviation aluminium from hydropower plants (that came later), but spruce wood. Light and strong.

Another line of development was plastics -- or essentially, synthetic polymers. That again started in the 1880s / 90s (Bakelite), but the big decade was the 1930s (coincident with major oil finds), where most of our modern plastics come from (PVC, ethelyne, nylon, etc.). Which suggests another set of progression for developments for new materials:

Use it materially (construction, missiles, sealant) => burn it => do chemistry with it. That seems particularly the case with fuel-type materials: wood, coal, oil, gas, and arguably, nuclear fissibles.

Electricity as with engine-driven shaft power simply made a whole slew of things possible. Much of it was (and is) mechanical energy delivery, though electricity also provided light, heat, and signalling capabilities (telegraph, telephone, radio, TV, computers). Which suggests another mode of development (this one just occurred ... and is why I like talking things out).

Another area of development comes from sensors and controls (two categories which play into one another). Metallurgy again is a field of application. Puddling furnaces became steal smelters (Bessemer process), became blast and oxygen furnaces. That required both bulk gaseous oxygen and very find temperature controls, possible through improved monitoring of the melt and understanding of blackbody radiation. And improved metalurgy made for much finer-precision and higher-quality products, particularly high-stress components of reciprocating and turbine engines. Modern aircraft turbine blades are grown from single-crystal tungsten elements.

So yes, improved technology buys you something. But ... only so much. Jet aircraft are faster but only recently more efficient than 1950s-era prop-driven aircraft. Heavy-lifting craft still favour props in many cases.

Or as I put the question a ways back: the Saturn V flight control computers formed an interstage ring above, if I recall, the third stage section. The Launch Vehicle Digital Computer (not quite what I had in mind) runs at approximately one one-millionth the speed of present processors.

Question is: what increased efficiencies other than raw weight savings would swapping out those electronics with modern equipment offer you? How much further could the Saturn V have gone, or how much less fuel could it have used, for a millionfold increase in compute power? And no, I'm not considering a redesign of the craft itself (though a comparison with, say, the Falcon 9 Heavy or ITS, fully greenfield modern LVs, might be interesting), but only what additional compute guidance offers an existing design.

The history with automobiles, aircraft, shipping, and other fuel-powered applications suggests limits to high-end efficiencies. Or you could look at, say, weather forecasting, where a similar millionfold increase in compute power (plus much better data acquisition through satellite and ground stations) has ... roughly doubled useful forecasting look-ahead.

Some problems are just hard.

And back to the 20th century explosion: ICEs, steam turbines, gas turbines, and electric motors (and light) seem to have had the biggest effects. China stopped short of these, for whatever reasons. If there's a set of linchpin innovations, I'd look strongly to them.

Thinking out loud: possibly also Haber-Bosch for lifting food-production limits, though that largely didn't kick in until the 1950s and 1960s (see elsewhere in this thread). But China had a fundamental provisioning problem, highly apparent in what Adam Smith had to say about the country in the 18th century.


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