The Original Killer App
For many years, researchers have attempted to explain the waves of innovation that crashed upon the West during the century and a half after 1700. From the steam engine to the industrial production of chemicals to the manufacture of machines with standardized parts, no sector of the economies of Britain, France and the United States was left untouched. Yet during this period, nowhere else in the world did anything similar occur. Could the explanation lie in a dominant new information technology – a killer app?
The standard account of the Industrial Revolution emphasizes the gradual evolution of institutions; for example, the rule of law and the recognition of property rights. From the late Middle Ages through the Early Modern period, it is argued, periods of economic growth allowed certain groups in Western society to wrestle privileges away from their sovereigns in return for tax revenues. Rising individual incomes in turn provided an incentive to substitute technology for human labor. However, this “institutional” argument cannot explain the spatial distribution of innovation during the century and a half in question. Between 1700 and 1850, fully 90 percent of the world’s important innovations were developed in three clusters of cities in central Britain, northern France and the north-eastern United States. What did these regions have in common that allowed them to diverge in such spectacular fashion from the rest of the world?
In The Singularity of Western Innovation: The Language Nexus, Leonard Dudley focuses on the effects of language standardization. Following Benedict Anderson (1991, 2006), he reminds us that virtually all of the books published in Britain, France and North America during the seventeenth century were produced in these three urban clusters. During the process, printers operating in decentralized fashion were able to standardize the written English and French languages and publish the results in the first monolingual dictionaries. Over the following years, largely through the school systems, these standardized written – and subsequently spoken – languages gradually spread from the printing centers to the rest of the population. This shock helps explain why after 1700, for the first time in human history, people from different backgrounds and different towns and cities repeatedly succeeded in cooperating to develop new technologies. A famous example is the collaboration of a Scot, James Watt, with a native of Birmingham, Matthew Bolton, to discover better ways of transforming heat from coal into mechanical energy through improvements to the steam engine.
Why did nothing similar occur in other three great Eurasian civilizations prior to the late twentieth century? The advantage of the West in standardizing its national languages, Dudley argues, was to have inherited a writing system that compressed the sounds of speech into a few dozen characters that could be reproduced cheaply with movable type. In China, it proved too costly to apply typography to the many thousands of different characters in Mandarin script. Under the block-printing system that the Chinese used instead, the high fixed cost of producing the first copy greatly reduced the number of books that could be issued economically. As for the Mughal and Ottoman Empires, they remained prisoners of scribes who had mastered an incompletely phonetic writing system that was difficult to reproduce satisfactorily in print.
Applied to Europe and its extensions alone, language standardization led to unprecedented divergence between the great civilizations. Dudley suggests that in the West, the three centuries after 1600 were characterized by forces of nationalism, industrialism and imperialism. In Britain, France and the United States, powerful national states emerged. Through innovations to industrial production, their citizens grew increasingly wealthy. When equipped with spinoffs from these new technologies, their military expeditions were able to defeat much larger Asian forces. By the end of the Industrial Revolution, most subjects of the Ottoman, Indian and Chinese Empires were in fact living under Western tutelage. The age of globalization had begun.
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso, 1991, 2006.
Leonard Dudley is Honorary Professor at the Université de Montréal, Canada. He received his PhD in economics from Yale University, USA, and his principal research interest is technological change. He is the author of The Singularity of Western Innovation: The Language Nexus (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).