June 30, 2014, by Kelly Cookson
China’s next age
Article by Paul Kirkham, researcher in the field of entrepreneurial creativity at Nottingham University Business School.
The discoveries that emerged during the Age of Exploration finally put to rest the idea that all wisdom came from the “ancients”. The realisation that knowledge could be found elsewhere or even created – and therefore that progress could be continuous – marked the beginning of modern times.
Francis Bacon, the Western philosopher credited with establishing the inductive method of scientific inquiry, was among the first to recognise this shift. In Bacon’s opinion the three greatest inventions were the magnetic compass, printing and gunpowder.
Interestingly, each of these came from the East. Why it was the West that seemingly took them, developed and refined them and used them to dominate the rest of the world remains a matter of debate. Western alphabets may have been more suitable for printing, but why did Western navigators armed with guns and guided by the compass needle succeed so much more dramatically that their Eastern counterparts?
What the West was unaware of at the time and still scarcely appreciates today is that the Chinese mariner Zheng He led seven massive expeditions to Arabia and East Africa a century before the endeavours of his more renowned European counterparts helped define the era. The Europeans’ tiny flotillas and single ships would have looked pathetic next to his great fleets of warships and trading vessels.
So why did these voyages stop? One reason seems to be that a change of administration led to a change in policy. China’s legacy of exploration died with Zheng He. In Europe, by contrast, entrepreneurial seafarers could tout their projects from one royal house to another.
Another explanation is that Zheng He’s expeditions may not have been cost-effective. Tremendously expensive to undertake, they resulted in scant reward. Whereas Europeans sought silks and spices that were worth several times their weight in gold, there was little of value for Chinese traders. Basically, the West had nothing to offer that was worth the effort of such an epic journey.
As a result, for a long time knowledge exchange between East and West was a one-way street. The East was the innovator, the West the imitator – and the West did very well out of this arrangement.
Take, for example, the astonishing trade secrets of the silk industry. In England the climate meant manufacturing had to rely on imported skeins of silk fibre, but the market for fabrics drove improvements in weaving technology that came to better fruition with wool and then cotton. Similarly, attempts to replicate fine porcelain drove pottery manufacture – this, after all, is why we call ceramics “china” – which, like textiles, proved central to the early industrial revolution.
Why didn’t China invent the telescope?
Perhaps the first Western innovation that really piqued China’s interest was the telescope, which was introduced by Jesuit missionaries in the early seventeenth century. The military and astronomical applications were obvious, so why had the great Chinese civilisation – which had a keen interest in both – not come up with such an invention?
One theory is that the technology that provided the high-quality optical glass from which lenses were made was simply not present in China. A major force behind the glass industry in Europe was the market for high-status drinking vessels – which in China was catered for by the porcelain industry. There was nothing to be seen through the bottom of a tea bowl.
Analogously, it is very likely the West failed to invent gunpowder because of a lack of bamboo. When bamboo is burned the sap and air trapped in the segments can expand and explode, and from this primitive technology it is a reasonably short step to pack the segments with a substance capable of expanding even more rapidly. Pao chuk – or “bursting bamboo” – was the earliest form of firecracker and appears to have been the progenitor of all pyrotechnics. No bamboo, no gunpowder.
Clearly, then, some inventions are highly contingent. There is a strong element of chance as to where, when and even if they occur. If China’s precocity in explosives was in part a geographical accident then it was another accident that its precocity in porcelain precluded developing optical glass.
The Information Age
Yet now, at least in theory, we all share what we might call the same epistemic base. In other words, we all have access to the vast array of existing knowledge from which new knowledge can be built. Past “ages” have always varied from continent to continent and even country to country, but the age of the internet – the Information Age – has at its heart a technology that enjoys almost universal coverage.
With an estimated three quarters of the global population now online, the ability to sift through the secrets and treasures of the world is unprecedented. The publication of new material and discoveries is both relentless and geographically all-enveloping. The so-called “death of distance” is all but complete, taking with it the traditional constraints on cooperation and collaboration.
But the Information Age is not without its drawbacks. The first problem is sheer scale. Google chairman Eric Schmidt has posited that the same amount of information that was produced between the dawn of time and around a decade ago is now generated every two days.
The second concern is a direct result of the first: how do you find the good stuff amid such an extraordinary superabundance? Certainly not by following the sort of lowest-common-denominator, thumbs-up/thumbs-down, crowd-sourcing heuristics that tend to saddle us with little more than novelty dance crazes and pictures of kittens.
If the worldwide web represents the collective mind of humanity then we would do well to discern its likeness to the mind of the idiot savant. It may be ordered, but it is not necessarily understood. All the information in the world is fundamentally useless if it cannot be curated and processed.
China cannot afford to be lazy
Given the events of the past 35 years or so, it is especially important that China grasps the full implications of this truth. The epoch of isolation is long gone, as are the ill-deserved futility of Zheng He’s travels and the asymmetrical exchange of knowledge that characterised the years following the Age of Exploration. As an established economic titan and an emerging superpower, China is now desperate to maintain its extraordinary ascent; and it could be forgiven for deciding that plundering mankind’s new-found and all-availing epistemic base offers the best means of achieving its aim.
The temptation to adopt such an approach must be particularly strong in light of the fact that, whereas the West was once the imitator, it is the East that now excels in the art of appropriation. Replication is comparatively undemanding and, certainly in the short term, potentially profitable. Yet there is a colossal difference between merely having a wealth of data and actually knowing what it all means; between the accumulation of information and the application of intelligence.
This being the case, China, to put it bluntly, cannot afford to be lazy. It must not be seduced by the apparent facility of the Information Age. Like the pioneers of the Age of Exploration, it needs to fully embrace the notion that progress is continuous. In short, it needs to foster a culture of innovation.
History has shown us the most radical inventions are not to be found easily: they involve combining elements of widely disparate technologies and contexts. To employ a library metaphor, these are not to be discovered on the same shelf or even in the same room. To use a search-engine metaphor, they might not be at the top of the first page: they could be two, three, four or more clicks away.
This means China will need to think broadly and loosely. It will need to avoid the lure of rapid conclusions and quick fixes. It will need to be open-minded without being vacuous. To quote Carl Sagan, the celebrated American polymath: “If you are only sceptical then no new ideas make it through to you. If you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of sceptical sense in you then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones.”
This “exquisite balance”, as Sagan termed it, is as crucial now as it was during the time of Zheng He’s trailblazing expeditions – maybe even more so. How successfully China is able to strike it will be literally pivotal to the next phase of the Dragon’s own remarkable journey.
From an article originally published in China Daily.