18 December 2007

Social Invention & the Fourth Economy

1. Social Invention & Progress

In the earliest grades, children learn that technological inventions fuel progress. Things like the wheel, the iron plow, the automobile, and computer obviously made ours a different world.

Less obviously, social inventions are essential to progress. Tribes, city-states, nation-states, and international organizations have made it possible for larger groups of increasingly specialized people to cooperate to create a new world. Like microwave ovens, churches, governments, banks, and corporations have also made ours a different world from the one in which our ancestors lived.

We're about to enter a new economy, one in which the act of social invention (a broader application of the notion of entrepreneurship) will become as normal as the introduction of new products. At first, this will seem disorientating, but our grandkids will think it is normal. It will be a period of unprecedented prosperity and individual freedom.

2. Waves of Social Invention

Social invention often looks like revolution. When innovators change how people worship, or challenge the king’s authority, innovation will probably be violent. Indeed, the acceptance of change without violent resistance is a fairly novel experience in humanity’s history, and a big reason that the pace of progress is accelerating.

Social invention can occur in a wide variety of domains, from Macarena dance moves to currency arbitrage. Some of this innovation is random and in some of it one can discern a pattern.

Between about 1300 to 1700, a wave of social and technological inventions produced the first economy. As land, or natural resources, was the basis of wealth in this economy, one can simply refer to this as an agricultural economy. Technological inventions like the seed drill and steel plow enabled farmers to produce more and new technology like the compass made it possible for anyone to sell their products more widely, capturing a higher price as trade emerged across even oceans. Meanwhile, social inventions like Martin Luther’s challenge to the papacy and Henry VIII’s making himself the head of the Church of England were key to the eclipse of the nation-state over the church. This maelstrom of innovation produced an agricultural economy, the first market economy in lieu of a traditional economy.

Once natural resources were being traded widely (think of Italy without the tomato, Ireland without the potato, and England without tea and you begin to get a sense of how transformed Europe was by the flow of new products across oceans), the next step in creating value was processing. Wood and wool has less value than lumber and textiles. Processing natural resources into finished products was the work of the industrial revolution. This, too, required a panoply of technological and social inventions. Democracy did for the nation-state what the Reformation did for the church – dispersing power in the dominant institution outwards to a wider group.

In the last century, the most advanced countries have hosted the latest wave of technological and social inventions, culminating in the information economy. Technology like the computer and telephone, coupled with innovations like the modern corporation and university have produced the most advanced economy yet.

3. Social Evolution is Not Done Yet

But this most recent economy will not be the last. The pattern of invention and revolution since about 1300 suggests that we are on the cusp of one more wave of innovation. One more economy, one more society, has yet to emerge. As with every new economy before it, this one will transform our philosophy, our dominant institution, the social order, and the individual. And unlike the emergence of the first economy that took place over a period of hundreds of years, this one will emerge in about half a century.

Read the rest of the posting here at The Next Transformation.

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