For our Prime Minister: a short history lesson on technological change and human progress

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key industries and carrier sectors were/are crucial to that particular wave of technological development before being superceded by another set of key industries/carriers.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.


  1. Sean Danaher -

    There are many predictions that robotics will make an enormous difference over the next few decades
    Of course prediction as to what technologies/inventions will get traction is notoriously difficult- there was a TV programme Tomorrow’s World which was notorious for always backing the wrong horse
    Renewable technologies may also be a major driver

  2. Ivan Horrocks -

    Those of us of a certain age remember Tomorrow’s Worlds’ predictions only too well, Sean. Mind you, at the time they were always presented in such a convincing way that I generally believed them. After all, if you can’t trust a scientist who can you trust 😉

  3. Tony_B -

    2000+. Nano-sciences (molecular machines, nanoparticles, nano-materials, etc). Some technological processes are more pervasive like Catalysis which contributes >$1Tillion to industrial economies, and has a long history of continuous breakthroughs that are still required to improve productivity and reduce environmental pollution.

    1. Ivan Horrocks -

      Good additions, Tony_B. Agree. Again, perhaps not developing on a widescale basis as fast as predicted, but as it’s not my field my perception may be wrong.

  4. John Hope -

    Your analysis as far as the technology itself is concerned is pretty much spot-on , but the bit that needs adding is the involvement of government investment from the middle of the twentieth century on . The inescapable reality is that government and big business are symbiotic if a catastrophe has any chance of being avoided in any field. Ironically within the privatised sectors the bureaucratic involvement is greater now than ever ; for example if there was a crash on the railway before privatisation the crash would be cleared up within a few days with the Board of Transport overseeing. Now it’s a crime scene and the police and other services are all involved which lengthens the clear up by many days. The ‘ free market ‘ has been a sham for seventy plus years . It only exists in the realm of small and medium size businesses who have no clout with politicians and who do not operate within some sort of cartel.

    1. Ivan Horrocks -

      John, your point about government involvement is why I made my closing comment that the relationship between the free market and technological innovation and change can be debated. In the course material from which I took my blog I wrote extensively on innovation systems in which governments (national, regional, local) play key roles. But that was a bit much to add to a blog I was trying to keep shortish. So, I agree with your argument.

  5. Peter May -

    “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?)”
    Quite. I think the jury is out – and for a long time – on that. Because computers may think – but they cannot feel.
    And also the AI driverless car encounters two lots of pedestrians and a brick wall when it rounds a corner. If it cannot stop in time which to hit?
    Kill itself or others? And what will the insurance co do?
    That’s where rail has a distinct advantage incidentally.
    We’re already on no passenger deaths and very few pedestrian ones (leaving aside the suicides, which the railway seems to attract through no actual ‘fault’ of its own.

    1. Ivan Horrocks -

      Agree, Peter. Plus AI has mostly turned out to be a negative thing for humans in science fiction (see the recent Alien and upcoming Blade Runner 2049), much of which turns out to be closer to reality than we ever expect.

  6. Charles Adams -

    Interesting summary thanks. As for the outlook, some might say that solar+storage becoming cheaper than oil will drive the next Kondratieff wave which is likely to include robots/AI replacing humans in more and more tasks. Is it too hard to imagine your personal robot assistant buying, cooking, serving dinner and clearing up afterwards? However, recent trends do not show much sign of replacing humans with machines. We are not there yet.

    1. Ivan Horrocks -

      Agree on solar and storage, Charles. It’ll be interesting to see how the Musk backed/organised battery storage facility pans out. If he shows it can be done at scale and to cost it’ll be a breakthrough.

    2. Sean Danaher -

      I think personal robots will make a breakthrough in Japan within the next few years with its declining population and need to care for the elderly
      One possible future for the UK after Brexit?

  7. Rob -

    My small business runs a pretty much paperless office…..!!

    1. Ivan Horrocks -

      Rob, my point was not that we didn’t get to the (nearly) paperless office, but that it took at least 20 years longer than was hyped/predicted.

  8. Peter May -

    To reply to Rob: So did mine – but not if a supplier or customer wanted ‘proof’ – which made us very wary. Also my last ‘advice’ from the VAT authorities was I had to keep a paper copy. Now they’ve all but given up inspections perhaps that’s changed…. See, I fear,

  9. Paul Hunt -

    I have no brief to defend any of the claptrap spouted at the Conservative party conference, but I think readers here, in addition (and, perhaps, as a countr-point) to the partisan anti-capitalist and ant-market propaganda, might usefully take account of the introduction to a new online course in economics that has been developed by a large group of well-respected academic economists:

    1. Ivan Horrocks -

      Paul. Just had a brief look at the material you link to. Looks good. Thanks.

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