Gifts of Athena by Joel Mokyr

Industry was not the fuel of the industrial revolution: it was knowledge. Mokyr divides knowledge into two categories: propositional knowledge (beliefs) and prescriptive knowledge (techniques). The former is the focus of pure science: learning about the workings of our universe for its own sake. The latter is the application of propositional knowledge to business and life to produce wealth and increase human happiness.

Besides the size of these knowledge bases, there is also the flow between them (academia and industry often have very little overlap), as well as the "tightness" of the knowledge (how well people really understand it).

I thought the most interesting section was the one on household knowledge. It described the rise of the cleaning revolution circa early 1900s. The discovery of the relationship between cleanliness and health sparked a revolution in people's thinking and actions. The application of this knowledge typically fell to housewives, who did not acquire the knowledge from traditional sources (i.e., a formal school or vocational training) nor are households in competition with one another the way that businesses are, and thus the dynamics and spread of knowledge was very different. (Competition means that businesses which apply incorrect knowledge are forced out of businesses by those more in touch with the epistemic base. Households do not go out of business, except in the most extreme sense of death from bacteria or infectious disease.)

Much of the knowledge flowed to these households through the new medium of mass marketing. Much of this marketing played up the angle of the duty of a housewife to protect her loved ones through cleanliness of the house. Often this was posed as an all-out battle against germs, probably to the extent that the knowledge was vastly overapplied.

Rating: 2 of 5
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