posted 16 Dec 2003 in Volume 7 Issue 4
Book review: The Gifts of Athena
Patrick Murphy reviews The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy by Joel Mokyr.
Title: The Gifts of Athena
Author: Joel Mokyr
Publishers: Princeton University Press, 2002
Joel Mokyr is an economic historian, which doesn’t mean he comes cheap. It does mean he’s an academic, but how academic? The Gifts of Athena has about 300 pages of text and 40 pages of bibliography – some 700 books and articles. Mokyr seems to have absorbed them all.
Mokyr is well served by all this learning as he introduces the notion of the ‘industrial enlightenment’, which is the aspect of the enlightenment relating to the spread of ‘useful knowledge’. He is not interested in the social philosophy of John Locke; his interest lies in the social impact of the patent process, which Mokyr recognises as a powerful engine of economic growth.
The patent process sets the research agenda by providing inventors with a menu of things they might build on or steer clear of. It codifies useful knowledge, providing inventors with descriptive information on how products and processes actually work. The process compensates inventors by awarding limited monopolies. The shrewd country lawyer Abe Lincoln said that patents “add the fuel of interest to the fire of genius”. Most important for Mokyr’s purposes, the patent process widely diffuses innovation by making new techniques accessible to all.
It is this continuing diffusion of knowledge that characterises the economy of the West since that burst of technological creativity that we call the Industrial Revolution between 1760 and 1790. Prior to the Industrial Revolution there were periods of heightened innovation that always fizzled out after 40 or 50 years. Mokyr demonstrates, with convincing evidence and illuminating anecdotes, that the Industrial Revolution never stopped happening (albeit under varying monikers, the most recent being the IT revolution of the 1990s).
Make no mistake, Mokyr is thoroughly academic and lays out his history with rigour, including a chapter in which he trots out econometric equations to draw ingenious comparisons between companies and households. This chapter also offers some of the most intriguing statistics in the book, including those on the ‘statistical revolution’ that undergirds public health and epidemiology.
Mokyr is especially strong on the ‘second industrial revolution’, which began around 1860. He shows that it was driven primarily by the systematic expansion of knowledge – directed research. The first R&D laboratory dates to 1868, at BASF in Germany. It represented “a technology for generating technology”. Technology itself became a ‘focusing device’, meaning it posed well-defined problems for engineers and scientists to solve. For the first time we had industry-based science, not science-based industry. It was also during this epoch that statistical evidence was fully accepted as knowledge and subject-matter experts became professionals – mechanics became engineers.
Mokyr’s journey through the knowledge economy isn’t strictly chronological. Following his treatment of the second industrial revolution Mokyr backtracks to the rise of the factory system, which is usually viewed as the division of labour. Mokyr argues that a factory is actually a division of knowledge. Factories permitted knowledge to be more easily shared and codified, and the main function of many factories was the transfer of tacit knowledge over time. In many respects Blake’s dark Satanic Mills were fountains of light. Mokyr’s back-and-forth approach to his material can be disorienting at times, but his sinuous themes bind everything together.
Despite Mokyr’s occasional foray into econometrics, the book is entirely accessible to the lay reader. To those involved in knowledge management, it offers a wealth of historical anecdotes to fortify presentations and white papers. And in a chapter that will resonate with KM practitioners, Mokyr analyses the symptoms and causes of resistance to innovation.
Mokyr cites the eminent 19th century American surgeon, Samuel Gross, as an exemplar of antipathy towards new knowledge. By the 1860s, Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur had proven the bacteriological origin of wound infections and the effectiveness of antisepsis. The iconic American physician would have none of it, and he belittled “the so-called carbolic acid treatment of Professor Lister” in the 1876 edition of his influential surgical textbook.
The consequences of Gross’s surgical unilateralism were grim. Americans didn’t practice antisepsis for almost two decades after it was introduced in Europe. When President Garfield was shot in 1881, the numerous doctors who examined him didn’t think twice about poking his wound and the surgeon general of the Navy stuck the entire length of his index finger into it. Garfield died ten weeks after he was shot, not from the bullet but from infection.
As Mokyr sweeps into the present day, he sounds a tremulous note that this unprecedented 250-year period of economic expansion could peter out. It’s hard to ignore the sense that knowledge management has emerged at an opportune time. For although he doesn’t adopt the term, Mokyr’s book amounts to a persuasive brief for its increasing value.
Patrick Murphy works for the Knowledge Network Program at Unisys. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org