The Lever of Riches

by Joel Mokyr

This is an early book by Mr. Mokyr presenting his research on the role of technological creativity in economic progress. We all know that technology advances the economy, but that relationship is not as clear as it seems today. Some technological progress is economically feckless. We don’t realize how iffy technology can be because we live in a world with so much technological creativity that we are dazzled by those few big successes and blind to the many insignificant steps forward. Moreover, in many cases technological progress is so microscopically incremental that we don’t notice any effect until many, many such steps have been made.  

For example, consider the technology of glass. Here’s a technology that has never set off any revolutions; it has slowly crept forward over the centuries. In the last few decades, it has made greater progress and we now have some very impressive forms of glass. The glass on the face of your smartphone is astounding stuff. It is highly resistant to scratching; it is also very strong and does not easily shatter. At the same time, it is thin enough to permit the tiny pressure of your finger-press to register with the electronics. This is truly magical stuff, and smartphones would not be possible without it. But we cannot conclude that this super-glass was the trigger for the smartphone revolution.

I bought this as a Kindle book to see if eBooks had improved much since my last disastrous encounter. Once again I have demonstrated to my satisfaction that eBooks are not adequate for my needs. They’re best suited for novels and other one-shot reading fare. I need to be able to go back to my books for reference, but it’s just too difficult with eBooks. Perhaps this is merely a reflection of my stodginess; with an eBook it is possible to make bookmarks and to search for particular phrases. Perhaps I would find them more useful if I changed my habits. Perhaps I’m too old for this. For me, the eBook just doesn’t have the substance that the physical book has.