Provisionally saying goodbye from the year 1990

My editorial

I think that yesterday, in my update in French (see ‘Que s’est-il passé aux alentours de 2007-2008 ?’), I finally nailed down that central fact about renewable energies, the kind of fact to base a scientific publication on: around 2007 – 2008, something changed in the proportions between renewable energies and the overall consumption of energy – the former started growing faster than the latter. Still, I have to bring a small correction to what I wrote yesterday: a similar episode of faster growth in the sector of renewables was to observe in 1991 – 1992 as well. Interestingly, both break-through episodes in the growth of renewables’ market took place concurrently to major socio-economic shake-offs. In 1991-1992, it was the Big Reshuffling in Central and Eastern Europe, the short financial crisis of 1990, and soon after, another financial hiccup in Asia. In 2007-2008, the prime suspect as for the mechanics of change is, of course, the global financial crisis, although this time, a more interesting landscape emerges: it is precisely during 2007 – 2008 that the global supply of money exceeded 100% of the global GDP, on a durable trend, and the urban population in the world exceeded 50% of the total, once again well launched on a long term ascending trend. That second variable looks interesting. If you follow my writing for some time, you have probably noticed I am slightly obsessed with certain social metrics, the kind to use as control variable in a model in order to distinguish between various types of social structures. Those metrics serve me to introduce, kind of via kitchen door, qualitative distinctions into a quantitative model. The percentage of us, humans, living in towns and cities is kind of correlated with the density of population, but just kind of. In my own database, over n = 9 455 ‘country-year’ observations, those two are Pearson-correlated just at r = 0.240, so nothing to write home about. In a simple, linear regression, the density of population explains just 1,4% of the total variance observed in the urbanisation ratio. Nothing to write home about neither. You have countries like Australia or Canada, where most people, and when I say ‘most’, it is like 80%, and yet, their density of population still leaves a lot of empty geography available.

As interesting as this variable of urban population could be, my current focus is slightly different. I am talking about a specific change over time. I am talking history, and history requires a specific point of view. I feel like poking my head over someone else’s shoulder, preferably someone specialized in the history of technology. And so I come by that article, written by Lewis Mumford, about the link between technology and political order (Mumford 1964[1]). Lewis Mumford went as far as claiming that the whole development of human technology, since the first bloody piece of flint had been sharpened, is like a permanent tension between technologies associated with autocratic politics, on the one hand, and those accompanying democratic orders, on the other hand. Whenever a technology requires centralized pooling of resources, or works just fine with centralized control, it naturally flirts with autocracy. Conversely, when a given technology leads to more autonomy in dispersed, local communities, when it mobilizes local resources locally rather than pools them, then we have a ‘democratic’ technology. Interesting a point of view that we have here, especially regarding renewable sources of energy. You can find by yourself, with the International Renewable Energy Agency ( ) that Europe is quite different from other regions of the world with respect to the system of distribution in renewable energies. In Europe, practically any generating facility is connected to the power grid, and there seems to be no off-gird renewable energy whatsoever, whereas on other continents, the off-grid power systems seem to be serious drivers of market development in renewable energies. In Lewis Mumford’s terms, Europe is energetically autocratic, whilst other continents have quite a bit of energy out of democratic structures.

 I jump in time, twenty years ahead, into 1984, and I find that paper by Donald MacKenzie, a humorous reflexion on the mutual links between technology and social orders (MacKenzie 1984[2]). In social sciences, by this corner table, where economists, sociologists, and historians tend to drink together, a concept has emerged since more or less Karl Marx’s ‘Capital’:  it is something called ‘technological determinism’. In means that technologies and social structures mate and reproduce together. A bridge that allows free passage of buses transporting poor people – to cite an original MacKenzie’s example – mates preferably with a social structure open to receive said poor people travelling by buses, and rejects the advances of an elitist social structure, where poor people just stay on the other side of the river. Whilst Donald MacKenzie didn’t come to any firm conclusions about technological determinism, and rather opened than closed the path of reflection, the idea of technologies breeding with social structures stirred that evolutionary cord in my mind. If they mate, they must have mating preferences, which, in turn, creates hierarchies based on how attractive a technology looks to a social structure or vice versa. An interesting path further down this road is sexual differentiation. When it comes to mating, you basically have male and female, with all the respect due to other instances. The male organism is specialized in packaging and sending its own genetic code in a way that does not (always) kill the recipient. Them viruses haven’t figured it out yet. Maybe they need another couple of billions of years. Anyway, the male organism Federal Expresses its genetic code to the female organism, which, in turn, has that special ability to combine its own genetic code with the parcel received from the male, and to develop (literally) on the idea. In the couple ‘social structure and technology’, the former is more likely to have those female properties than the latter. I mean, social structures can mix technologies but technologies cannot really mix social structures. Well, well, well, professor MacKenzie, did I read your mind, recently? This is exactly what I came up with in that article,  currently in review with ‘The Journal of Economic and Social Thought’. I think I have already said it at some point, but it always warms my heart to know that I am not totally insane in my scientific ways.

Right, so if we have a quick camp fire between me, professor Lewis Mumford, and professor Donald MacKenzie, interesting hypotheses can be roasted. That sudden acceleration in the market for renewable energies is likely to be connected to some major, structural, social change. In that change, a new type of female social structure, overflowing with sexual attraction, could be having that embarrassing, yet always enriching experience with many new, male technologies at once, and a new tribe of technological babies could be just colonizing the surroundings. As political systems in the world seem to be going towards simplification and to be withdrawing from business strictly spoken , the transition towards renewable energies could be, in spite of the European love for big, strong power grids, a technological democratisation.

Good, but I am going to be slightly more prudent with those time jumps, now. Dire consequences emerge. So I advance just very gently, four years ahead, to 1988, and I grab that article by Michael S. Mahoney, about the history of computing technology (Mahoney 1988[3]). This is a weird feeling. I am reading an article written in the past, and containing a lot of predictions and speculations about something that was future, back then, in the past, and which, in the same time, is both past and future for me. One sentence has particularly attracted my attention in this paper (page 14): ‘What would it mean for a microcomputer to play the role of the Model T in determining new social, economic, and political patterns?’. The Model T in question refers, of course, to Ford Model T, or the simple and affordable version of something revolutionary. Clearly, the computing technology, mating with those attractive, blond social structures around it, has engendered a whole clan of Models T. I am writing with one, right now, and a few minutes ago I had a conversation with my wife using another one. Still, as applied to renewable energies, that metaphor of Model T is truly informative. The change in dynamics of the market of renewable energies, observable in 2007 – 2008, concurs with the beginning of the end of expensive photovoltaic modules. As I study the annual reports of big companies, like Canadian Solar or First Solar, they all point to 2007-2008 as the moment when the prices of solar modules just took a deep, and prolonged dive.

I make another two, year-long strides in my research, and I land in 1990, and I find that article by Paul A. David (David 1990[4]). This is another piece of literature in that larger stream, which wanders into the ambiguous and foggy realm of carryovers from technological change into improvements of productivity. In 1990 it was already obvious that technological change and growth of productivity are not necessarily going hand in hand. Professor David tries to provide an explanation by equating modern technological changes to the historical ones.  His message is the following: technology and society need time to adapt to each other, and the more complex the technology, and the more branching it can grow into other technologies, the more time the social structure needs to become familiar with. Paul A. David states something that initially looks like a paradox: the more revolutionary a technology seems, due to its novelty, the more time we need to swallow it. In fact, there is no such thing as technological revolutions, because the deeper the change, the longer it takes. Professor David’s argument makes me wonder, where are we, in terms of slow revolutions, with the technologies of renewable energies. Is our social structure just beginning to wrap itself around those solar modules and windmills? Or is it already a mature relationship?

Right, science is fun, but it’s time for me to attend to my other commitments. Provisionally, I am saying goodbye to you from the year 1990.

[1] Mumford, L., 1964, Authoritarian and Democratic Technics, Technology and Culture, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Winter, 1964), pp. 1-8

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press on behalf of the Society for the History of Technology

[2] MacKenzie, D., 1984, Marx and the Machine, Technology and Culture, Vol. 25, No. 3. (Jul., 1984), pp. 473-502.

[3] Mahoney, M.S., 1988, The History of Computing in the History of Technology, Princeton, NJ, Annals of the History of Computing 10(1988), pp. 113-125

[4] David, P. A. (1990). The dynamo and the computer: an historical perspective on the modern productivity paradox. The American Economic Review, 80(2), 355-361.