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Technology (16): Clustering Technologies, Clustering People (v2)

Sorry to email subscribers receiving this twice due to a scheduling error. The extra bit at the bottom is interesting!

The previous post in this series was about how technological revolutions are driven by constellations of complementary technologies. The ninth installment discussed the network of people behind the development of the internet.

The logic of networks of people in the process of innovation (artistic, scientific, technical) goes something like this:

  • People gather around a something new: a new technology or a shared vision or passion;
  • They develop new skills, new techniques, and have (more, deeper, better) new ideas;
  • A scene develops (also here);
  • Genius and Scenius spring to life;
  • Innovation takes off;
  • There’s more excitement, more people, more ideas, more money, more cross-pollination; more possibilities; more innovation.

Stop Press

The impact of these clusters can go far beyond their initial focus, especially if they bring together new or unlikely but productive combinations of people. Here’s economist Jeremiah Dittmar quoting Elizabeth Eisenstein on the clustering of people with different backgrounds and skills as the printing industry took off in the mid 15th Century:

Print cities also enjoyed benefits due agglomeration economies. Eisenstein (1979: 250-151, 521) observes that the printer’s workshop brought scholars, merchants, craftsmen, and mechanics together for the first time in a commercial environment, eroding a pre-existing “town and gown” divide.

It thus produced not just books, but new face-to-face interactions and in the printer-scholar, “a ‘new man’…adept in handling machines and marketing products even while editing texts, founding learned societies, promoting artists and authors, [and] advancing new forms of data collection.” Cities that were early adopters of the printing press attracted booksellers, universities, and students. Adoption of the printing press also fostered backwards linkages: the printing press attracted paper mills, illuminators, and translators…

Jeremiah DittmarIdeas, Technology, and Economic Change: The Impact of the Printing Press


Dittmar goes on to estimate – based on statistical work that’s a bit beyond me – the impact of these “new men”, using the growth of cities with a printing press as a proxy for cultural impact and economic growth:

Examining, for instance, the balanced panel of cities with populations observed 1300-1600 (of which 83 were early adopters and 119 were not), I find that on average print cities grew 14 percentage points faster than their synthetic controls 1500-1600.

Economists have found no evidence that the printing press was associated with increases in productivity at the macroeconomic level. Some have concluded that the economic impact of the printing press was limited. This paper exploits city level data on the diffusion and adoption of the printing press to examine the technology’s impact from a new perspective. The estimates presented here show that cities that adopted the printing press in the late 1400s enjoyed no growth advantages prior to adoption, but grew at least 20 percentage points – and as much as 80 percentage points – more than similar cities that did not over the period 1500-1600. These estimates imply that the impact of printing accounted for at least 18 and as much as 80 percent of European city growth between 1500 and 1600. Cities that were early adopters of the printing press maintained a substantial growth advantage even over the three hundred years running 1500-1800. Even 1500-1800, print accounted for somewhere between 5 and 45 percent of city growth.

Between 1500 and 1800, European cities were seedbeds of the ideas, activities, and social groups that launched modern, capitalist economic growth. The findings in this paper suggest that movable type print technologies had very substantial effects in European economic history through their impact on cities.

Jeremiah DittmarIdeas, Technology, and Economic Change: The Impact of the Printing Press

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