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Book Review: Author Tim Harford’s “Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy” deserves Plenty of Plaudits

But economist, columnist and author Tim Harford does not only seek here to list of 50 specific inventions but also to tell us the singular stories behind their inception

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Tim Harford
Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy cover. Facebook
  • Author Tim Harford has written a new book titled ‘Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy
  • Tim Harford is also an economist and a columnist

New Delhi, August 22, 2017: The i-Phone may seem the pinnacle of human endeavour, ingenuity and technological prowess — but while Steve Jobs deserves the plaudits, the range of technologies making it possible were a collective effort, facilitated by a surprisingly unexpected benefactor. Such tales are discussed in Tim Harford’s “Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy.”

When we think of the wonders of our modern world, we may cite these flashy hand-held devices that enable us to communicate, entertain ourselves and find information instantly. But they are merely one facet, for our lives now owe to a range of inventions and discoveries stretching from the humble plough to Google, and from the elevator to intellectual property, and achieved in several unusual and unexpected ways.

And while the i-Phone does make a list of 50 such inventions, so do concrete, clocks and infant formula as well as limited liability companies, public key cryptography and the welfare state — and many others, including some which may seem surprising.

But economist, columnist and author Tim Harford does not only seek here to list of 50 specific inventions but also to tell us the singular stories behind their inception — the iPhone especially — and how they affected us socially and economically from the beginning of civilisation to workings of the world economy now. Or rather in laying its foundations.

These 50 inventions, he says, range from those “absurdly simple” to ones which became “astonishingly sophisticated”, “stodgily solid” to “abstract inventions that you cannot touch at all”, profitable right from their launch or, while others were initially commercial disasters.

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“But all of them have a story to tell that teaches us something about how our world works and that helps us notice some of the everyday miracles that surround us, often in the most ordinary-seeming objects. Some of these stories are of vast and impersonal economic forces; others are tales of human brilliance or human tragedy.”

Harford, known for his “Undercover Economist” series, does stress that he doesn’t seek to identify the 50 most economically significant inventions for some seemingly obvious entrants — printing presses, airplanes, computers — are missing. And there are good reasons why.

He also promises that while zooming in closely to examine one of these or pulling back to notice the unexpected connections, will provide answers to questions like the link between Elton John and the promise of a paperless office, how an American discovery banned in Japan for four decades affected women’s careers there, which monetary innovations destroyed Britain’s Houses of Parliament in the 1830s.

Harford also explains how all these inventions have two facets — they may not be always benign — in the longer run, or ensure a “win-win” scenario for all.

While it is easy to see inventions as solutions to problems, he warns against seeing them as only solutions, for they “shape our lives in unexpected ways — and while they’re solving a problem for someone, they’re often creating a problem for someone else”.

These attributes are best shown by the case of an ostensibly well-meaning American inventor who is responsible for poisoning our environment twice-over though his two contributions were initially helpful, and then by both the beneficial and baleful impacts of the plough — or banks for that matter.

Harford also shows that there is more to an invention than its inventing, and even for any one of them, “it’s often hard to pin down a single person who was responsible — and it’s even harder to find a ‘eureka’ moment when the idea all came together”.

Dealing with such aspects in the brief interludes between the inventions, placed in no discernible chronological or thematic order, Harford also seeks to put them together at the end to pose the vital question of how we should think about that often used and often misunderstood buzzword “innovation” today.

“What are the best ways to encourage new ideas? And how can we think clearly about what the effects of those ideas might be, and act with foresight to maximise the good effects and mitigate the bad ones?” he asks.

But as his incisive but illuminating and entertaining sojourn through centuries of human activities and endeavours show, there are no easy or definite answers. (IANS)

Next Story

HP Unveils World’s Smallest Convertible Spectre x360 in India

The new HP Spectre x360 is a beautiful and powerful machine that ensues commitment to innovate for the consumers and equip them with the right tools and technology to unleash their potential

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HP
The HP device offers an integrated functionality with USB-C port placement angled in the right corner for improved cord management and the power button on the left corner of the device to avoid accidental power shut-offs. IANS

PC and printer major HP Inc on Thursday launched world’s smallest convertible Spectre x360 13 for tech-savvy users in India that comes with quad-core 10th Gen Intel chip, up to 22-hour-long battery life and 90 per cent screen-to-body ratio, for Rs 99,990.

Weighing just 1.27 kg, the ultra-slim HP device offers quad-core 13-inch convertible, HP Webcam Kill Switch, dedicated mute mic key and optional HP Sure View display, the company said in a statement.

“At HP, we innovate to improve and we reinvent because we want to keep pushing the paradigms of excellence. The new HP Spectre x360 13 is the outcome of our efforts that will set new benchmarks of design and performance in the PC industry,” said Vinay Awasthi, Managing Director, HP Inc. India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

The “Webcam Kill Switch” keeps users safe from webcam hacking with a physical on/off switch to electrically turn off the webcam when not in use.

The device houses the company’s first 4K OLED 13-inch diagonal display with “True Black HDR” for perfect blacks, anti-reflection display for outdoor viewing, and factory colour calibration for amazing viewing experiences.

“The new HP Spectre x360 is a beautiful and powerful machine that ensues from our commitment to innovate for the consumers and equip them with the right tools and technology to unleash their potential,” said Vickram Bedi, senior Director, Personal Systems, HP Inc India.

HP
PC and printer major HP Inc on Thursday launched world’s smallest convertible Spectre x360 13 for tech-savvy users in India that comes with quad-core 10th Gen Intel chip, up to 22-hour-long battery life and 90 per cent screen-to-body ratio, for Rs 99,990. IANS

The device offers an integrated functionality with USB-C port placement angled in the right corner for improved cord management and the power button on the left corner of the device to avoid accidental power shut-offs.

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The device comes in two colours: Nightfall Black with Copper Luxe accents and Poseidon Blue with Pale Brass accents.

One can easily log into the device using Windows Hello with standard features like HP’s smallest IR camera at 2.2 mm and a fingerprint reader, conveniently located on the keyboard deck. (IANS)