« In defence of the labour theory of value | Main | Inequalities that matter, & don't »

December 13, 2017


Dave Timoney

You picked two questionable examples of technological regress.

Concorde was never the future. It was always the last gasp of an outdated conception of blue-riband travel reserved for the elite (which lives on in the space travel dreams of Branson and Musk). Progress in aviation has meant democratisation - more people being able to fly - which has required significant technological progress, just not the sort focused on raw speed or "elegance".

Postal services started to reduce in frequency in the late 19th century as a result of telegraphy, which captured the market for urgent, high-value messsages. In the 1880s there were typically 6 deliveries a day in most big UK cities (12 a day in Central London). By 1900 this had reduced to 4.

The spread of telephones would further reduce deliveries over the 20th century, not because most people had them (only 1/3rd of households had a phone by 1970) but because businesses were early adopters and much of the original mail volume was commercial (i.e. B2B).

The spread of email and text messaging has reduced physical mail to largely marketing (i.e. B2C), but it has also reduced the unit profit because volume mailers insist on volume discounts. The commercial challenge for Royal Mail is the fall in the number of (high-margin) stamps sold, not a crisis of productivity.

If you think of progress and regress in serial terms (first one, then the other), and if you measure it via the single dimension of frequency, then the postal service has regressed for longer than it has progressed. This is clearly the wrong way to look at it.


Cash points are not the future they are the past. Its all card and contactless now.


«If there are big incentives for rent-seeking rather than innovation, we’ll get less of the latter.»

Perhaps our blogger's examples are poorly chosen, but various engineers tell me that there is a widespread regression in engineering knowledge, because:

* Engineering knowledge depends on both education and practice.

* The firt-world engineering communities of practice have been offshored, except perhaps for financial engineering, but there technological progress just means finding way to self-deal on increasing leverage and finding regulatory arbitrage opportunities.

* The third-world engineering communities do exist, but they are driven solely by cost and the opportunity to use less advanced technology that is far more labour intensive because of the large overabundance of skills and labour.

* Without practice in the first-world because of offshoring, and without practice and even education in the third-world because advanced tech is not economically appropriate there, much advanced engineering technology is being lost, despite valiant efforts by the japanese and german to keep them alive.

Some engineers think that for mid-range tech only newly-developing countries have kept the know-how alive, and for several aspects of advanced tech it has simply been lost, and the know-how to do some stuff will have to be rediscovered.

Put another way, the singular obsession of first-world CEOs is to squeeze cash flow to buy back their enormous stock option grants, and as fast as possible because their tenure only last a several years, and advanced tech and communities of practice and the fixed costs that they require are not "affordable" for that.


«The firt-world engineering communities of practice have been offshored»

An interesting detail is that the second-world (ex-soviet) communities of engineering practice have also been heavily damaged by the collapse of the soviet education system and industries, with some exceptions, usually deliberately by first-world policy aiming at making second-world countries technologically dependent on first-world ones (the "plantation" model). But that did not work out totally well :-).

For an example of a relatively older aspect of this debate, one of my favourite quotes from D Landes, "The wealth and poverty of nations":

«Of all things Western, what do you dread most?" asked the Satsuma daimyo Shimazu Nariakira of his councilors. European guns and ships, came the answer.
"No," said the daimyo. "It is cotton cloth. Unless we begin preparing now, we shall soon be dependent on Westerners for our clothing."
In an effort to prepare, the han began to distribute better cotton seeds, purchased better spindles and looms (not yet powered), built a manufactory near Kagoshima, and set unemployed samurai to work there. The result: cotton goods costing half as much as before. .... In 1867, it opened a mechanized cotton mill.»

From JB Priestley's 1934 "English journey":

«And then there began to appear, at places like Blackburn’s Technical College, which is of course kept going with public money, certain quiet, industrious, smiling young men from the East, most anxious to learn all that Lancashire could teach them about the processes of calico manufacture. They sat through their courses, missed nothing, smiled at their instructors for the last time and disappeared into the blue ... there also disappeared into the blue a good deal of Lancashire’s trade with the East.»


Why not institutional regress? It seems to me that perhaps Britain happened onto an effective legal framework for finance sometime in the 19th century, and that the US adapted that framework to create its own effective framework in the 1930s. Then from the 1980s on, we've been steadily tearing down a legal framework that was far from perfect, but more or less worked.

Now we have a legal framework for finance that facilitates its self-destructive impulses. In short, institutional regress.


«engineering communities of practice have been offshored, except perhaps for financial engineering»
«advanced tech and communities of practice and the fixed costs that they require are not "affordable" for that»

Part of the reason Hinkley Point is (perhaps) going to be built by french-chinese businesses is that the relevant know has apparently simply being lost in the UK, UK bidders just would not be able to do it.

Conversely the thatcherite governments of the past 35 years have enthusiastically promoted very advanced technologies like PFI, LIBOR, London property, PPI, and they must have been right, because they have been much more productive and safer investments than low-tech vulgarities like power stations.


Chetan Murthy

And then there is the case of scurvy:



Changing priorities can look very much like technological regression, or progress, depending on where you stand.

You can't zap over to New York in four hours on Concorde, but many more people can travel, much more cheaply, more safely, quieter, burning less fuel, and on time more often. Those indicators are important!

And it's telling that specific fuel consumption, cost index per passenger mile, accidents, noise, and weather delays all improved hugely while we stopped bothering so much about Boy Stuff like speed.

Dave Timoney


Re "various engineers tell me that there is a widespread regression in engineering knowledge". That's anecdata, not data. If it were true, we'd have engineers staring dumbfounded at high speed trains wondering where to shovel the coal. In fact, there has been a steady expansion in engineering (and more broadly STEM) graduates as a result of the expansion of higher education since the 90s.

"The firt-world engineering communities of practice have been offshored". No they haven't. While manufacturing has declined, it has also undergone a change in composition which means it now employs more qualified engineering practitioners. The work that has typically been off-shored is low-skill fabrication, admin and support services. Dyson is an example of this, with engineering R&D based in the UK and manufacturing in Malaysia.

"The third-world engineering communities do exist, but they are driven solely by cost and the opportunity to use less advanced technology". This obviously conflicts with your previous claim. In fact, there are plenty of high-tech engineering communities in the third world because there is a global boom in demand for engineering: think of all that new infrastructure across Asia, Africa and South America.

"Part of the reason Hinkley Point is (perhaps) going to be built by french-chinese businesses is that the relevant know has apparently simply being lost in the UK". British-made reactors were based on two designs, first Magnox and then AGR (Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor). Neither were particularly successful (high cost, few exports). Hinkley C is being built by the French and Chinese because they both have experience of EPR (European Pressurised Reactor) technology. We haven't lost the knowledge because we never had it in the first place. We went up a blind alley.

George Carty

9/11 was key to the final downfall of Concorde, both because several of Concorde's most loyal customers died in the attacks, and also because the increased security measures which resulted eroded Concorde's time advantages over private jets. Private jets weren't affected by the new security measures, could be rented for a price comparable to that of a Concorde flight, and were (most importantly to wealthy people who place a high value on their time) were available on-demand rather than adhering to a fixed schedule.

The first French nuclear power stations used UNGG reactors which (like the British Magnox reactors) were graphite-moderated, CO2-cooled reactors running on natural uranium. In both cases, the American monopoly then existing on uranium enrichment technology was a key driver in the choice of technology, plus perhaps also the hope that a single reactor design could be used to produce both electrical power and weapons-grade plutonium.

However, the American PWR technology was inherently far simpler than graphite-moderated designs, and was able to achieve vast economies of scale due to the US Navy's use of nuclear power in submarines and aircraft carriers. The French saw the writing on the wall and decided (when planning their big nuclear build-out in the '70s) to dump their own reactor designs and used standardized versions of American technology, while Britain hoped it could make graphite-moderated technology competitive. The AGR operated at a higher temperature than PWRs (which not only improved its thermodynamic efficiency but also made it possible to use existing turbomachinery designed for coal-fired power stations), but its efficiency advantages couldn't overcome its far higher capital and decommissioning costs.

Interestingly, the British and French policies with respect to nuclear energy were pretty much the opposite of their policies with respect to foreign and military policy: the French embraced America while the Brits kept their distance!

marcel proust

Intangibles: My recollection from 30+ years ago, or so, is that this was the story Bernanke told about the Great Depression*: with each bank that failed, the knowledge it had about its customers (borrowers) disappeared. With the failure of large numbers of banks, the economy could not generate business credit at as low a cost as before and production necessarily declined.

*“Nonmonetary Effects of the Financial Crisis in the Propagation of the Great Depression,” American Economic Review 73.3, pp.257-276, 1983.


«a steady expansion in engineering (and more broadly STEM) graduates»
«While manufacturing has declined, it has also undergone a change in composition which means it now employs more qualified engineering practitioners.»
«there are plenty of high-tech engineering communities in the third world because there is a global boom in demand for engineering»

There is no denying that the *quantity* of engineering has surged, the question is whether engineering know-how has been lost. My argument is that the rising global numbers of engineers have coincided with a regression in engineering know-how, because communities of practice are essential, because engineering is half-art half-science, and:

* The communities in the more advanced countries no longer do the practice.
* The communities in the developing countries have only developed their know-how at lower technological levels, "because costs".

There is an argument made famous by Mr. Xi, that chinese biro factories have to import the ballpoints (from Germany) because they don't have have the know-how.


«British-made reactors were based on two designs»

This demonstrates a deep misunderstanding of what advanced engineering how-to is about, what a community of engineering practice means: it is not fancy engineers doing new better designs. Engineering communities of practice have know-how about how-to cast large pieces without flaws, how-to achieve consistent low tolerances, and for example what kind of materials and process work best for making cheap ballpoints. Engineering communities of practice have tacit knowledge, schools of thought, traditional approaches, about both processes and products. Engineers can inspect an engineering product in their field, be it a power station or sometimes even just a cable, and say "Looks like a typical X design, but looks manufactured in Y because those slight imperfections in that area are typical of how Y do their processes". Sometimes they can even figure out the specific plant where something was made.

Part of those are taught in textbooks, some is not, because it depends on constant "practice" in a "community". One or the either have been lost for much advanced know-how. In the first-world the "community" has been lost, in the developing world the "practice" has never been gained as they focus on mass production at a cheap price point that does not require the advanced know-how.
In political economy there is the concept of a "cluster", and the essence of a cluster is that it is where a "community of practice" develops. It can be high fashion in northern Italy, financial self-dealing in London, flat panel TV in Taiwan, scalable-losses social-media startps in San Francisco...

Once upon a time fancy german, french, italian engineers with postgraduate degrees would pretend to poor immigrant labourers to be hired by engineering workshops in the clusters of northern England and Scotland to at least watch their communities of practice at work, glean some of the know-how that made the product that they were trying to imitate the highest-tech and quality.


«The work that has typically been off-shored is low-skill fabrication, admin and support services.»

That was and is the usual buffoonesque propaganda by the right-wing rentiers who have energetically destroyed the UK engineering communities of practice: that just like the factories if IC, RACAL, GEC, BMC, etc. were left with their "low-skill fabrication, admin and support services" and the shiny headquarters with their high-value R&D, marketing, finance function were moved to the affluent M25 area, they would stay there as the factories were shifted from the north to the primitive areas of Shenzen, Seoul, Toyoda, Kwantung, etc., where the ignorant locals could most make plastic sandals and toys and utterly depended on the designs made by their imperial masters in the M25 area.

This simply did not happen, because there is a big difference between developed and poor countries. Developed countries even if poor can develop their own engineering communities of practice, their own R&D labs, their own headquarters, their own brands.


«with each bank that failed, the knowledge it had about its customers (borrowers) disappeared.»

That's a very good example of what a "community of practice" means and the tacit knowledge it embodies.

«With the failure of large numbers of banks, the economy could not generate business credit at as low a cost as before and production necessarily declined.»

Ahem, that's not quite what happened, even if from a "reality based" point of view it would have made sense, what actually happened:

* Business credit became far less important as deliberate policy was to balloon collateralized asset speculation credit because it helped pushed up leverage and thus book profits while giving the mere appearance of being less risky (collateralized with beach-front property in Arizona! :->).

* It was not at "as low a cost as before", but at "as low a [RISK ADJUSTED] cost as before".

* That the risk-adjusted cost of credit could not be as low as before did not matter because risk stopped mattering, because it was effectively shifted both forward in time and onto the state's budget.

That has happened in England too: the high "community of practice" know-how of bank branch managers has been replaced by low-quality formulaic assessment, and branches have become shop-fronts, because government policy has been to push banks to balloon up credit without looking too closely at its quality. This has made a couple generations of asset strippers very, very wealthy.


BTW I am not denying that first-world (and even second-world) economies have retained in some sectors some "communities of practice" with advanced engineering know-how, especially in Japan and Germany and France and northern Italy; and some developing-world economies have grown "communities of practice" in some sectors with advanced know-how, some of them surpassing the know-how of first-world economies.

But the example of Dyson is misguided: he can be praised for determination and marketing skills, but neither his company's processes nor products are particularly noteworthy.
The "Which?" magazine consistently rates Dyson well, but also consistently Miele, Samsung, Panasonic, Hitachi are top rated. Surprise! :-)


«Now we have a legal framework for finance that facilitates its self-destructive impulses.»

Indeed the English Empire needed a financial centre that financed reliably imperial operations in the colonies, lots of speculation too. But the balance changed.
An USA expert at the time of the debate about regulating derivatives in the USA wrote of post-"Big Bang" London culture:

«Avoid the British experience. As the professional market legislation also proposes, U.K. regulators concentrated on the politically correct goal of protecting small punters, leaving professionals to their own devices. Knowing the relevant history, a U.S. politician worth his or her salt should wonder if the Conservative government’s approach to market oversight has something to do with the number of Tory resumes on the street, and if a vote to duplicate U.K. market regulation communicates this disease, brought on by a rapid succession of Barings, Morgan Grenfell and Sumitomo problems, to name a few. British regulation, now recovering and making adjustments, failed not only to protect the public from the industry, but the industry from itself.»

«In short, institutional regress.»

From the point of view of City people and and their tory political mates, lots of institutional progress: no longer constrained to the service of the Empire, largely free to self-deal at leisure.
Many of them become immensely wealthy. Rejoice! Rejoice!


I don't think it's regression as much as change.

ATMs made sense when you had to have cash to buy things. Nowadays you just need a plastic card or a phone. Many new businesses (e.g. our local barbecue joint) don't even accept cash. Order with an app, pay with an app and grab your stuff.

Air travel has been democratized. It's a volume business. The airlines won't earn an extra penny from a faster plane. Boeing tried offering a faster subsonic jet ten years ago, but never found a taker.

Postal service has been contracting for years.Email, texting and online periodicals have taken away a lot of letters. Postal service is more and more about parcel delivery, especially in low density areas. Outside of major cities, it is Amazon's carrier of choice.

We've lost a lot of technologies, and we are going to lose more. Electric cars need a lot less maintenance than ICEs. Modern computers are much more reliable. LEDs last forever which will do in our ability to change a lightbulb and make those how many does it take to change a lightbulb jokes.

Bill Posters


Technology and engineering reflect economics and politics. We have a global capitalist technology. Has it regressed from a more social democratic technology or is it just different?

Compare Dyson with Numatic International. Don't buy a Dyson cleaner buy a Henry Hoover instead. You're house will be just as clean. Send the money you save to the Labour Party they're going to need every penny. One problem with the UK is everyone has heard of James Dyson, but who is Chris Duncan.

Engineers and technologists currently have shit to shoot at. Fancy hoovers, better ways for teenage girls to bitch at each other, new ways to game the financial markets more efficient ways of distributing porn.

The UK started the industrial revolution and consequently should shoulder a lot of blame for global warming. How about we do something about it.

Nuclear fusion may be within reach if we just spent enough money on it. I guess less than $10 billion globally is spent on it annually. The UK could lead a crash program with annual spend of $100 billion. The effort would drain all the swamps. All the laptop nerds in the city could be employed on something better. Anyone early retired who can still use a slide rule could be put to use. All the poor buggers working for Dyson could be redeployed.

What if it all came to nought?

At least we tried.


I think a potential example comes with "Web 2.0" Browsers, especially Firefox. With the focus on efficient and effective handling of real time information, support for initial web standards, including tables that were used pre-CSS for formatting, has meant that old unmaintained sites are rendered unviewable. This has meant that rather than becoming a historical archive, the web has become focussed on current gossip, rather than capturing knowledge.


I am not a historian, so I am not sure how accurate this is, but this is what I read several years ago. One reason the Renaissance happened is that the knowledge of the ancients which had been forgotten by the West had been preserved in Islam, and as those books became available in Europe, that knowledge was relearned. One question that arises, then, is why the West later surpassed Islamic countries in science and technology. According to what I read, one major reason was the rise of Islamic fundamentalism around 1100, which swept the Islamic world and was, just as Christian fundamentalism is, anti-science and breadth of learning.


As others have remarked, the examples are not well chosen. The Concorde was a political project and almost no one could afford to fly in it anyway, and cash point machines were surpassed by new technology, not an older one.

And the post started cutting down on deliveries decades ago: it is almost funny to read how fast Dickens' characters could mail back and forth in the 1860s. That had already changed by D. H. Lawrence's times.

Having said that, yes, things that are managed by large burocracies work less well now than they did in the 1950s-1980s, and are generally more expensive.

But the clearest indication of decline is the increasing number of misspelled possessive adjective "its", as in "it’s demise", halfway through the post :-)

The comments to this entry are closed.

blogs I like

Blog powered by Typepad