Saturday, July 08, 2017

"Undercover economist" Tim Harford on the technologies which really change things

If you only read one article on the internet this week, make it

"What we get wrong about technology"

on the Financial Times site by Tim Harford, author of "The Undercover economist."

Tim argues that it is not the miraculously impressive new devices and techniques which make you think of Clarke's law ("Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic") which really change things but the simple, cheap basic things like paper, batteries, shipping containers and barbed wire.

An extract:
"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. In his book 'Stuff Matters' Mark Miodownik points out that 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. It can be sandpaper, wrapping paper or greaseproof paper. 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”.


Anonymous said...

Batteries are simple!

Jim said...

vacuum flasks are magic, they keep hot things hot and cold things cold. But the magic bit is how they know.

Chris Whiteside said...

By comparison with many more complex and glamorous inventions batteries are indeed simple.

But many of those more glamorous and obvious inventions would not work, or would not work as well, without batteries.

Anonymous said...

Chris you're wasted in politics, you should be solving one of mankinds real problems that to you is simple - efficient energy storage.

Chris Whiteside said...

Like Tim Harford I am an economist rather than a physicist, engineer or chemist.

I said that batteries were simple in relative terms rather than absolute terms. The "By comparison with" clause is important.

E.g. I would describe a battery as simpler than, say, a car, a computer or an aircraft, not least because all the latter contain many betteriesw as well as lots of other things.

The fact that I have an opinion on this assessment of relative complexity - not absolute complexity - certainly does not mean I claim to be an expert on how to make or improve batteries!