The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Bob Stepno § The structure of journalism today / 2014-03-10 18:42:32

Measuring Development (Maybe Defining It First)

Apropos of a few email threads lately, here’s a passage from Charles Mann (who wrote the book “1491”) quoted by Matt Yglesias (emphasis mine):

David Aviles, Ian Ebert and Lauren Tombari all ask (to quote Mr Aviles), “If [Indians] had such a large population, why hadn’t they developed as much as other countries?” The answer to this very important question is complicated, but part of it surely is that evaluating relative levels of technological development is not so easy, and that it isn’t at all clear that native peoples were less developed in this area than Europeans or Asians. As the historian Alfred Crosby has repeatedly observed, societies tend to measure “progress” in terms of things that they are good at. Europeans were good at making metal tools and devices, so we tend to look for them — Indians didn’t have steel axes and geared machines, so they must be inferior. But many Indian societies were extremely deft about agriculture. Looking at a Europe afflicted by recurrent famine, one can imagine them viewing these societies as so undeveloped that they were unable to feed themselves. It’s hard to say which view is correct.

This is a really good point, and I am guilty as charged re: judging development in terms of the things we’re good at.

But seriously, I am really guilty, and I can’t even think of kinds of technology other than ours (computers, hybrid cars, plasma TVs, DNA sequencers, etc.) worth having or developing in the world today. The best I can muster is something about the ingenuity of the billion-or-so slum dwellers the world over — e.g. they can make water purification systems out of rusty buckets and plastic tarps! — but I don’t really believe it deeply. Or rather, that stuff is cool, but I think they ought to (and do) ultimately aspire to computers and DNA sequencers too!

So whatcha got for me, Snarkmatrix?

September 5, 2007 / Uncategorized


Didn’t you, Dan, and I have a discussion similar to this on the way to class once about how people assume humans are the dominant species on the planet? Something to the effect of “Gosh, squirrels must look at us and think we are such complete idiots for not storing more nuts for the winter.”

Yeah, totally, and “rhinos must think we suck at growing horns out of our faces,” etc.

Of course, what we value or privilege in considering other societies also changes. Our modern discussions about the technological progress of the American Indians were not necessarily most on the mind of Europeans in the 16 century.

Historian Michael Adas suggests this basic timeline (in a book called Machines as the Measure of Man):

*15th-late 17th centuries– religion and culture are the most important metrics for comparing European society to other peoples

*late 17th – 19th century — scientific achievement, in the wake of Newton, is most important (thought religion & culture still matter)

*19th century on — technology!

addendum to dan’s comment-

*21 century on — sustainability!

Well put, Tomas!

Speaking of sustainability — I had the same thought earlier this week vis-a-vis Robin’s sleeper post on rethinking GDP:

Foreign Policy just came out with its Failed States Index for 2007. I think it’s a pretty good metric. The key idea* in reassessing or augmenting national GDP seems to be to take some account of a state’s sustainability — political, economic, environmental.

* The other key idea is that Canada needs to be at or near the top of the list. As a lifelong fan of Canada, I have no objections to this.

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