Industrial Literacy: The Big Ideas, Part I

Written by Lea Degen on August 5, 2021

This article is the first part in a series meant to highlight deeper lessons that a study of industrial progress can provide. Presented here are the high-level ideas that help make sense of the worlds of the past, the present, and the future. Uncoincidentally, these are also lessons that have immense educational value for the student, serving as instances of, or analogies to, key features of the human condition that extend beyond the issue of material progress.

These ideas are the subject matter of the emergent field of Progress Studies. Many of these lessons are tacit (and occasionally explicit) in Progress Studies for Young Scholars, a high-school course created by Jason Crawford of the Roots of Progress, in collaboration with Higher Ground and the Academy of Thought and Industry.

Knowledge and Tools Can Get Lost throughout History

Throughout the PSYS course, we learn about processes known by one civilization, like the Roman’s use of cement or the Gallic reaper, but were forgotten with the fall of that civilization. Another tragic example is the Library of Alexandria, the largest knowledge base of its day, whose contents were destroyed when an intolerant religious power took over the region and ordered to burn all works that dissented with the prescribed faith.

Civilizational knowledge is not automatically carried forward to future generations. Tacit knowledge, never made explicit, either through neglect or the sheer impossibility of doing so, must be passed on from generation to generation to be maintained. The maintenance and growth of this body of undocumented knowledge is itself an achievement, as demonstrated by our periodic failure to do so.

Feedback Loops: Progress Begets Progress

Feedback loops happen when processes interact with themselves; the output “feeds back” into that same process as an input.

Feedback loops can be positive or negative. The economic growth of the past few centuries is a paradigmatic example of a positive feedback loop in human life. By many metrics, this growth has been exponential, benefitting from compounding effects. It is like a rocket that accelerates ceaselessly to cover great distances more and more quickly. The steep curves we see in graphs that measure economic growth illustrate the past few centuries’ staggering increases in wealth:

This broad economic feedback loop is perpetuated by similar instances of positive feedback loops in science, technology, and industry.

Surplus wealth created through better tools and processes enables organizations to make more investments: in workshops where inventors tinker, in speculative business ventures, and in scientific research to produce technological advances. If any of these are successful, and new tools and knowledge are gained, the reward is more surplus wealth. Wealth creates time and space for innovation, which in turn creates more wealth. A positive feedback loop is at work, pushing the engine of our economy forward.

It is also important for us to note the specific tools that have enabled these domain-spanning feedback loops. In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, steam, iron, coal, and locomotives reinforced each other’s production by lowering their respective costs and increasing demand. Nowadays, we encounter software whose sole purpose is to write software; machine tools that make further machine tools. [1]

Another type of feedback loop is so-called economies of scale, production systems where low costs and high-volume production work together to perpetuate increasing levels of efficiency. When referring to economies of scale, we are talking about the efficiency of large operations, which increases with the scale of the operation itself.

Economies of scale are most easily understood through examples. Consider steel production: the cost per ton of steel is lowered if it is produced in one big blast furnace rather than in many small ones. It is also cheaper to keep the furnaces running 24/7 since it takes time and material to initially heat it up. When there is enough demand for steel, the increased revenue allows steelmakers to build bigger furnaces, lowering their production costs, which enables them to sell steel for less. With decreased prices, producers of other goods will increasingly adopt steel to manufacture their goods so those products may also decrease in price. This further increases the demand for steel and the cycle continues.

Reinforcing cycles also exist on the consumer side. Cities are such an example. If more people move to a city, it often becomes a more attractive place to live. There are more opportunities to find jobs, attend events, make friends, or look for partners. Hence, big cities tend to grow bigger (up to a point). Broadly speaking, when the value of a good or service (cities included) increases through increased adoption, we are looking at a so-called network effect: the network gains value by adding more participants, which in turn draws more participants, which in turn adds to the value of the network.

Lastly, we rely on feedback in building up ourselves.

Feedback loops are how we learn, whether we call it trial and error or course correction. In so many areas of life, we succeed when we have some sense of where we stand and some evaluation of our progress. Indeed, we tend to crave this sort of information; it’s something we viscerally want to know, good or bad. As Stanford’s Bandura put it, "People are proactive, aspiring organisms." Feedback taps into those aspirations.

The Material Interconnectedness of Society

Feedback loops are an instance of a broader truth: things are connected. Each part of the economy affects the others, whether directly or indirectly. Changing one variable in a system affects the other variables as well. Thus, in making modifications to anything in a so-called complex system, we need to pay attention to the second or third-order effects that flipping one switch may have on the machine as a whole.

The Importance of Serendipity

When reading about the origins of many of our most important inventions and discoveries—Penicillin, radioactivity, or X-rays—we often notice a non-linear path towards discovery and invention. The scientific method is an organizing principle for how to think and conduct good research. However, it is not a certain formula for finding the next breakthrough. Rather, it is an abstract method that adds value to many creative, non-obvious inputs and components. Thus, what often drives new spurts of innovation, adding missing ingredients to an ongoing scientific process, is serendipity: chance interactions between researchers, a spontaneous modification of an experiment, even accidents that reveal something profound.

However, while the process of discovery is perhaps less straightforward than those uninitiated to the nitty-gritty of science might assume, discovery is certainly not random or capricious. Often, the flash of insight caused by a spontaneous input derived from a foundation of many known facts that researchers connected in a novel way. There are things that thinkers and inventors can do to increase their chances of novel insight. Creativity can be harnessed in more proactive ways than passively waiting around. Reading widely and watching for subtle disruptions to a commonly accepted model are two such strategies for fostering opportunities for serendipitous discovery.

This is an example of the broader point that it is possible and worthwhile to set up the structures and methods out of which serendipity can arise. Progress Studies as a field, in fact, is greatly concerned with how to do this best. Unusual ideas often result from those people who are moving about at the peripheries of a field, inhabiting different intersections that turn out to produce more insight than staying narrowly confined would do:

Successful scientists have often been people with wide interests. Their originality may have derived from their diverse knowledge… Originality often consists in linking up ideas whose connection was not previously suspected. …

Therefore, reading ought not to be confined to the problem under investigation nor even to one’s own field of science, nor, indeed, to science alone.

Understanding Does Not Cancel out Marvel

The last few centuries saw vast increases in scientific understanding. It is sometimes claimed that our advances and the subsequent inclusion of natural phenomena (such as flowers, or the nighttime sky) into mathematical formulas and physical explanations has taken away their inherent beauty. This approach to one’s environment is seen as reductionist, as one that countermands the kind of appreciation that might be available to a poet or a painter.

However, there is no reason to find less beauty in a flower after learning more about its deeper functioning. Understanding its intricate cellular structure, or the vast number of molecular interactions happening in each moment of its sustained existence does not revoke aesthetic appreciation. If done right, it adds to it. As Richard Feynman asserts:

I think we should teach wonders and that the purpose of knowledge is to appreciate wonders even more. And that the knowledge is just to put into correct framework the wonder that nature is.

As much as we have learned in the last few centuries, countless mysteries remain. We should instill in our students a deep curiosity to learn about scientific explanations of the world around them while also becoming further enchanted with its beauty. This does not require every student to become a professional scientist, but everyone benefits tremendously from a general scientific mindset.

One can appreciate and take pleasure in the achievements of science even though he does not himself have a bent for creative work in science. ... Initiation into the magnificent world of science brings great aesthetic satisfaction, inspiration to youth, fulfillment of the desire to know, and a deeper appreciation of the wonderful potentialities and achievements of the human mind.

Isaac Asimov, Asimov's New Guide to Science, p.15

Furthermore, when it comes to the industrial world, the marvels are often not obvious at first glance—an understanding of the ingenuity that went into devising a specific material or process is precisely what is needed to instill awe in the wonders of the modern age.

Most people take iron in its many forms for granted. Whether in the girder of a skyscraper, the body of a car, or the pots and pans in one’s kitchen—in everyday life, the metal takes on a background role in people’s perception. Often, it goes entirely unnoticed. That is until one learns about its development; the many ingenious process innovations that added up to the product we take for granted today.

Iron is not found in a pure form in nature—only as iron ore. Early days of iron production relied on a process by which iron had to be crushed, layered with charcoal and lime, and burnt in a small furnace for hours at blazing temperatures. With just the right level of air supply and heat, one might get a material pure enough to work with. But the newfound understanding of chemistry in the 1850s surpassed the trial-and-error refinements of previous centuries and enabled ingenious processes that were much more reliable and cost-efficient. Eventually, these got overtaken by even more insights and new toolings, like computers, which enabled more precise production of iron and its different forms—most famously, steel.

Iron’s historical scarcity is another factor that can instill an appreciation for its abundance today—Sumerians and people of Ancient Egypt merely knew iron in the form of meteorites, which granted the material a mythical status. In a world that did not know it was possible to devise processes to attain this metal, iron was seen as a gift from the Gods.

Thus, with newly gained knowledge about the many obstacles that had to be overcome, our present abundance of steel becomes marvelous. Walking the streets of New York City, surrounded by skyscrapers on every side, one can find appreciation for a long line of advances in a hidden material world that one might have never known existed in the first place.

In the spirit of rational inquiry, Montessori recognized the great epistemological shift that had enabled the wonders of the modern age. Mindful of its contingency, she emphasized the need to make this shift’s significance known to the next generation (SAE, pp. 189-191):

…[T]he imagination of modern men is based upon the positive researches of science, whereas the men of past ages allowed their minds to wander in the world of unreality.

This single fact has changed the face of the world.

That method which denotes the redemption of the intelligence ought to be the method by which all new humanity is molded—the formative method of the new generation.

1. Machine tools are machines that are used to shape or form parts made of metal or other materials.