Last Friday my fellow Progressive Pulse contributor, Charles Adams, rightly took issue with our Prime Minister’s claim that a free market economy ‘was the greatest agent of collective human progress ever created.’ We are now familiar with May’s ability to spout nonsensical and frequently hollow statements but this was a peach even by May’s standards (though we do now live in a world of ‘alternative facts’ so I suppose this is yet another example). Charles made the convincing case for science and technology being the greatest agent, while also recognising that we could equally argue that it could be mathematics, written language, medicine and so on. The point being that it clearly isn’t a free market economy.
Picking up on Charles’ blog, and his point that ‘productivity roughly equals prosperity’ in particular, what struck me about May’s claim – and thus the limited knowledge/bias of those who wrote it – was that it has been widely recognised for decades that it is technological innovation and change that sit at the core of capitalism. Indeed, approaching the subject from entirely different ideological perspective both Marx in the 19th century and Schumpeter in the early 20th century argued this point and demonstrated why. And Schumpeter, Kondratieff and others also noted that significant technological change and innovation appears to emerge in clusters or ‘waves’ over time.
As a bit of an appendum to Charles’ blog I thought it useful, therefore, to share just one example of a summary of what those significant developments and waves have been (adapted from Dodgson, et al. 2008). Note that the beginning and end dates don’t signal that at that point the particular key carriers and key industries disappear or even cease being important. Clearly they don’t, as the third and fourth waves illustrate. The central argument is that during these periods key industries and carrier sectors were/are crucial to that particular wave of technological development before being superceded by another set of key industries/carriers.
1770s – 1840s: Early mechanisation (key carriers: textiles, water power, canals)
1840s – 1890s: Steam power and railways (key carriers: steam engines, machine tools, railways, steamships)
1890s – 1950s-60s: Electrical and heavy engineering (key carriers: electrical and heavy engineering, synthetic dyes, electricity)
1920s – 1990s: Fordist mass production (key carriers: motor transport, airlines, consumer durables, petrochemicals, process plant, plastics, highways, armaments, aluminium)
1970s – ?: Information and communication technology (key carriers: computers, telecommunications, software, CIM, new materials [materials engineering], ISDN, IT services)
2000s – ?: Life sciences (key carriers: biotechnology, space/satelites, environmental technologies, ?
It’s worth adding that when I first wrote about this subject back in 2012 for an Open University postgrad course it was still relatively unclear as to what the key technologies and industries of the current wave of technological innovation and change were going to be beyond those few I list above. Clearly artificial intelligence (AI) could now be added – or at least it would be if we believe all the hype (remember the ‘paperless office’ anyone?). No doubt readers can add others now we’re a few more years into the 21st century. But one that wouldn’t be added is the free market, although we could have an interesting debate about the relationship between that and technological change and innovation.