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TECH TALK: Good Books: The Gifts of Athena

January 15th, 2004 · No Comments

If there is one driving, unifying factor that connects us and what we do, it is the relentless pursuit of knowledge. It is knowledge and its application which has seen us progress, and has now put us on a self-reinforcing circle of technological innovation and economic growth. Much of this transformation has been driven in the past few centuries (at least, that is the part which is documented and is understood). Even as we live through a period of remarkable and accelerating change, it can sometimes become difficult to fathom the important role that knowledge plays in our progress.

What is interesting about our times is that for the first time in our history, knowledge dissemination is happening via an overlay of networks that can connect people the world over nearly instantaneously. The Internet connects individuals, information and computers, Google makes the connection between individuals and web pages, and Amazon connects us to repositories of books that we didnt even know existed. What happens in one part of the world is relayed by television networks, email and cellphone nearly instantaneously across cultures and timezones. Even in enterprises, it is the availability of real-time knowledge that is transforming supply chains.

This is the backdrop for reading Joel Mokyrs The Gifts of Athena: Historical Perspectives of the Knowledge Economy. From the books introduction:

The growth of technological and scientific knowledge in the past two centuries has been the overriding dynamic element in the economic and social history of the world. Its result is now often called the knowledge economy. But what are the historical origins of this revolution and what have been its mechanisms? In [the book] Joel Mokyr constructs an original framework to analyze the concept of “useful” knowledge. He argues that the growth explosion in the modern West in the past two centuries was driven not just by the appearance of new technological ideas but also by the improved access to these ideas in society at large–as made possible by social networks comprising universities, publishers, professional sciences, and kindred institutions. Through a wealth of historical evidence set in clear and lively prose, he shows that changes in the intellectual and social environment and the institutional background in which knowledge was generated and disseminated brought about the Industrial Revolution, followed by sustained economic growth and continuing technological change.

Mokyr draws a link between intellectual forces such as the European enlightenment and subsequent economic changes of the nineteenth century, and follows their development into the twentieth century. He further explores some of the key implications of the knowledge revolution. Among these is the rise and fall of the “factory system” as an organizing principle of modern economic organization. He analyzes the impact of this revolution on information technology and communications as well as on the public’s state of health and the structure of households. By examining the social and political roots of resistance to new knowledge, Mokyr also links growth in knowledge to political economy and connects the economic history of technology to the New Institutional Economics.

The place where knowledge matters most is for the Indians living in rural areas.

Tomorrow: Knowledge and Rural India

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