The diffusion of the printing press in Europe, 1450-1500

These maps are just too pretty not to re-post. They come from Jeremiah Dittmar’s fascinating new paper, Information Technology and Economic Change: The Impact of the Printing Press.

The diffusion of the printing press, 1450-1500. Source: Jeremiah Dittmar.

There’s a good summary of the paper at Vox, but the take-home message is probably in two parts. Firstly:

  • First, the printing press was an urban technology, producing for urban consumers.
  • Second, cities were seedbeds for economic ideas and social groups that drove the emergence of modern growth.
  • Third, city sizes were historically important indicators of economic prosperity, and broad-based city growth was associated with macroeconomic growth (Bairoch 1988, Acemoglu et al. 2005).

And secondly:

I find that cities in which printing presses were established 1450-1500 had no prior growth advantage, but subsequently grew far faster than similar cities without printing presses. My work uses a difference-in-differences estimation strategy to document the association between printing and city growth. The estimates suggest early adoption of the printing press was associated with a population growth advantage of 21 percentage points 1500-1600, when mean city growth was 30 percentage points. The difference-in-differences model shows that cities that adopted the printing press in the late 1400s had no prior growth advantage, but grew at least 35 percentage points more than similar non-adopting cities from 1500 to 1600.

Alex Burns on attention cascades

Over at his blog, Alex Burns has an excellent post on Google Ngram and its ability to map long-wave “attention cascades”:

I chose the literature on the Graeco-Armenian magus George Gurdjieff and the Russian journalist Pyotr Uspenskii (Ouspensky) for several reasons. It is a structured ‘body of work’ with primary sources, pupil narratives, and second- and third-generation commentaries. This segmentation means it can be compared with a range of authors and topics using bibliometrics, historical research, and anthropological methods. It anticipated themes of the 1960s Age of Aquarius and 1970s environmental movements. It grew endogenously after some specific events, such as the timed release of Gurdjieff’s authorised writings and the early popularity of Ouspensky’s neo-Theosophical writings on consciousness, mathematics, and comparative religion. The fluctuations in Google’s Ngram Viewer can be interpreted, in part, as the rise-and-fall of what Ouspensky called the ‘Fourth Way’ in the Human Potential movement and other subcultures. Continue reading

John Naughton on the internet

Writer and academic John Naughton. Soucre: Memex 1.1

The Observer has a great feature article by John Naughton on the internet. It shows Naughton’s typically lateral, playful prose style, and also mentions the work of Neil Postman, a writer who Naughton and I appear to both admire:

Many years ago, the cultural critic Neil Postman, one of the 20th century’s most perceptive critics of technology, predicted that the insights of two writers would, like a pair of bookends, bracket our future. Aldous Huxley believed that we would be destroyed by the things we love, while George Orwell thought we would be destroyed by the things we fear.

Postman was writing before the internet became such a force in our societies, but I believe he got it right. On the one (Huxleyan) hand, the net has been a profoundly liberating influence in our lives – creating endless opportunities for information, entertainment, pleasure, delight, communication, and apparently effortless consumption, to the point where it has acquired quasi-addictive power, especially over younger generations. One can calibrate the extent of the impact by the growing levels of concern among teachers, governments and politicians. “Is Google making us stupid?” was the title of one of the most cited articles in Atlantic magazine in 2008. It was written by Nicholas Carr, a prominent blogger and author, and raised the question of whether permanent access to networked information (not just Google) is turning us into restless, shallow thinkers with shorter attention spans. (According to Nielsen, a market research firm, the average time spent viewing a web page is 56 seconds.) Other critics are worried that incessant internet use is actually rewiring our brains.

On the other (Orwellian) hand, the internet is the nearest thing to a perfect surveillance machine the world has ever seen. Everything you do on the net is logged – every email you send, every website you visit, every file you download, every search you conduct is recorded and filed somewhere, either on the servers of your internet service provider or of the cloud services that you access. As a tool for a totalitarian government interested in the behaviour, social activities and thought-process of its subjects, the internet is just about perfect.

There’s plenty more to stimulate your thinking in this stylish piece. You can check out Naughton’s blog here.

Is Wikileaks’ Julian Assange Australia’s most influential journalist?

I think right now, globally, the answer is “yes.”

That is, if you think he is even a journalist.

From the Village Voice piece on Assange:

Assange was born in 1971, in the city of Townsville, on Australia’s northeastern coast, but it is probably more accurate to say that he was born into a blur of domestic locomotion. Shortly after his first birthday, his mother—I will call her Claire—married a theatre director, and the two collaborated on small productions. They moved often, living near Byron Bay, a beachfront community in New South Wales, and on Magnetic Island, a tiny pile of rock that Captain Cook believed had magnetic properties that distorted his compass readings. They were tough-minded nonconformists. (At seventeen, Claire had burned her schoolbooks and left home on a motorcycle.) Their house on Magnetic Island burned to the ground, and rifle cartridges that Claire had kept for shooting snakes exploded like fireworks. “Most of this period of my childhood was pretty Tom Sawyer,” Assange told me. “I had my own horse. I built my own raft. I went fishing. I was going down mine shafts and tunnels.”

You can read the whole of Raffi Khatchadourian’s piece, the best profile of Assange yet, at the New Yorker.

Special series on innovation theory: 1: Everett Rogers and the diffusion of innovations

Welcome back to A Cultural Policy Blog. As regular readers will know,  I’ve been offline lately, busy with research on a new paper on cultural innovation theory. This week, I’m going to bring you the fruits of my labours with a special series of posts on innovation theory as it applies to arts and culture.

Today we begin with the classic text in the field, by one of the most important figures in cultural sociology of the later 20th century: Everett Rogers.

Rogers’ book ,The Diffusion of Innovations (5th edition cover shown above), is both the standard text and the best introduction to the field of innovation diffusion. It boasts an astonishing 27,331 citations on Google Scholar, which by some reckonings makes it one of the most-cited works in the social sciences.

Everett Rogers’ intellectual biography helps us understand one of the important features of this field, which is that it has emerged from agricultural science. Rogers studied at Iowa State University and became interested in rural sociology; his doctoral supervisor was George Beal.

A key early paper in the field was by Bruce Ryan and Neal Gross, whose famous 1943 paper on the uptake of a special type of hybrid seed corn in two rural mid-west farming communities is described by Rogers as the “paradigmatic” text in the field:

Ryan came to Iowa State with a intellectual interest in nonrational aspects of economic decision makin, influenced by the work of Vilfredo Pareto, and by [the now largely forgotten US anthropologist] R.B. Dixon and other scholars of cultural change, through what he refers to as a quasi-minor in anthropology at Harvard (Ryan interview, 17 May 1991). Ryan did not have a farm background, and was somehwat ill at ease in the Iowa State environment of studying down-to-earth agricultural problems. Ryan designed the hybrid corn study so as to accomdodate his theoretical interests in sociology, with the practical concerns of boosting agrifucltural production at Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture. Ryan chose hybrid seed corn as an innovatiojn of study because “the development of a geneticallly and economically superior seed type was a scientific achievement of great economic consequence” (Ryan and Gross 1950, 667). Hybrid corn was the most important innovation then diffusing among midwestern farmers, and it had spread very rapidly in the previous ten years.

Below is the original graph from Ryan and Gross’ paper, in all its analogue glory:

The original "Figure 1" from Ryan and Gross' 1943 paper on the diffusion of hybrid seed corn in two Iowa farming communities. The original caption reads: "Percentages of Farm Operators First Hearing of Hybrid Seed Corn and Percentages First Accepting It, by years"

As you can see, while some farmers were what would be known today as “early adopters” (a term which, as far as I can determine, was actually coined by Rogers and then taken up by marketing academics), some decided to use the hybrid corn after seeing it in  use on their own community; others held to their old ways and never adopted the innovation at all.

The result of combining the two bell curves you can see above, and rotating the axis, is the famous “S”-shaped curve of innovation diffusion, which has been found to characterise the adoption of innovations generally, from mobile phones to oral rehydration therapy.

Rogers himself went on to perform many diffusion studies, as well as synthesizing much of the discipline in his reviews and texbooks as diffusion research itself diffused out to fields such as marketing, communications, public health and political science. Innovation diffusion is a five stage process, Rogers tells us, with feedback loops at all stages that help to decide whether and how quickly a particular innovation spreads.  This idea and many others that Rogers developed, including the concept of “opinion leaders” (highly networked and influential individuals in a particular community, an idea Rogers took from Paul Lazarsfeld‘s seminal studies of voting patterns in US presidential elections) and the role they play in helping innovations to catch on, have rapidly become some of the most important in contemporary social science, even making their way into hugely popular works by writers like Malcolm Gladwell.

In an important 1995 paper for Science Communication, Rogers both describes the development of the field and relates it to seminal texts from what is now often known as science and technology studies, most notably Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Communities and Diana Crane’s Invisible Colleges (in which Crane examined the development of rural sociology and performed an early network analysis of the important authors in the field).  This gives us a clue as to where Rogers looked when he examined the sources of innovations – something I’ll dive into tomorrow.