I am reading a fascinating

by francine Hardaway on October 15, 2003

I am reading a fascinating book that arrived unexpectedly in my mail from Michael Crow�s office. He�s the president of Arizona State University, and known around these parts as a change agent. Getting a book in the mail from a university president confers an awful lot of responsibility on the recipient.

The book is called �The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy,� and the author is a history and economics professor at Northwestern, Joel Mokyr. For those who have forgotten Athena, she was (and probably still is) the Goddess of Wisdom. For those who haven�t read anything written by a professor recently, this book isn�t exactly a Tom Clancy.

I thought I�d better at least start it, because I might run into Dr. Crow at a cocktail party and have to answer multiple choice questions after two glasses of wine. Once I started it, I couldn�t put it down. That is to say, I couldn�t find a reason not to finish it, since it is one of those rare books that illuminate both big and little truths.

From now on, I want you to apppoint me your designated reader: I have read this book on behalf of everyone out there who needs to know what�s in it.

As a busy, literate adult, I�ve come to find out that most books contain only one important truth � the idea that inspired the book. Once you get past the first chapter, in which that one large truth is revealed, the book begins to repeat itself, saying the same thing over and over in different language. With my know-it-all attitude and my time constraints, I usually get about half way through the average business or self-help book and throw it across the room.

But �The Gifts of Athena� is a book that actually develops a hypothesis worth following� that in order to advance an economy, there have to be two kinds of knowledge: �epistimic� or propositional knowledge, and prescriptive knowledge. Propositional knowledge is the theory behind how things work. Prescriptive knowledge is the �how to� knowledge � the user manual. We can stumble on a discovery � nuclear fission � but we also must know how it can be used. Is it a bomb or a power source? Or both?

Take the case of aspirin. A Rev. Edmund Stone drew attention to willow bark, which he thought would serve as a remedy against ague because it grew in damp places and God planted remedies where diseases originated. This was a pretty trivial epistimic base. But it started a chain reaction of innovation. Sixty years later, chemists learned that the effective ingredient in willow bark was salicin. Fifteen years after that, Karl Lowig isolated salicylic acid, which worked to cure ague but had terrible side effects. And then Felix Hoffman stumbled on acetyl salicylic acid � a compound that was effective and had few side effects. When Bayer hit the jackpot with aspirin, scientists STILL didn�t know how it worked.

Only in the 1970�s did the epistimic base catch up with the drug. And with this extension of the epistimic base of an existing technique, more innovation was made possible. Bufferin, Theraflu, whatever.

The example of aspirin shows us that when knowledge is accessible and communal, innovation becomes possible. The expansion of knowledge produces more technology, which expands knowledge further, producing a virtuous cycle. Easy access to epistimic knowledge makes it possible to innovate further.

Before the Industrial Revolution, according to Mokyr, epistimic knowledge was in the hands of the few. It was scant, and difficult to share.

Take the printing press for example. Although it advanced communication for some people, it didn�t cause real economic development because most people couldn�t read. Or if they did, they read the Bible, because access to knowledge was controlled by the Church.

Somehow, around the time the Industrial Revolution began, knowledge became more widely shared, and technology advanced immediately. During this time, the factory arose. Why? Because it became known that it was cheaper to move people to the technology than to move technology to the people. The factory also created discipline in the means of production, and even greater shared knowledge, which led to formal research and development and quickened the pace of innovation.

(Interestingly enough, in this century the cost of moving people has become greater than the cost of moving knowledge, so we are beginning an era of telecommuting. Wonder what the consequences for innovation will be.)

I haven�t finished the book yet, but I think I can see where he�s going: knowledge and innovation, widely shared, feed on themselves. That�s why the semiconductor, once only the miracle of main frame computing, is now a feature on children�s shoelaces that light up, and microwave ovens that sense when the food is cooked. And why the laser is used to cut diamonds and cure nearsightedness. Or why the aspirin is now used to prevent heart attacks. The epistimic base broadens, and the innovation continues.

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