In every era, in every area, there emerge individual geniuses. In economic terms the success of society lies in harnessing the output of these individuals, and this seems to come down to three major considerations: Dissemination, Collaboration and Enabling.
Europe had no great advantage in the world of the High Middle Ages. China and the Ottoman Empire enjoyed many advantages over the Europeans. What changed the game for Europe was the printing press, which disseminated information widely.
The printing press was a chinese invention. The chinese long used wood carved block prints to copy books and playing cards etc. They even invented a moveable type block printing press. But the technology was unsuited to the Chinese alphabet. As an example look at the photo of a Chinese typewriter above. It is a laborious and time consuming process to hunt down the correct character and type it onto the page. Touch typing is not an option and speed typing is out of the question.
Out of pure serendipity the moveable type press was perfectly suited to European alphabets. Once it was trialled it became clear immediately that printed books, pamphlets and periodicals were here to stay.
What followed was an explosion in the availability of knowledge. When Petrarch wanted books in the 14th Century he had to delve into the basements of churches all over Europe to unearth old copies of Roman and Greek originals. 150 years later Erasmus was able to buy books from a printer. Universities could expand their libraries from 100’s to 1,000’s of texts.
Universities were the centres of the second consideration; collaboration. Before the arrival of the university collaboration occured only when a wealthy patron collected scholars in his court. Usually this was done by rulers because few people have the resources to bankroll a room full of scholars.
A university is a financial model which takes income from students to bankroll the collaborative research of the senior academics. It is the perfect collaboration engine. These days we also have collaboration in other forms, but behind closed doors. When the military brings “intelligence” together they have no intention of sharing the results widely. Similarly private corporations are motivated to protect their intellectual property from the competition. Only Universities, with the “publish or perish” mantra are motivated first and foremost by collaboration to expand the human body of knowledge.
Enabling is the final consideration of the three. A salutory lesson in how important enabling is lies with the Arabic world. When the first European presses were printing bibles and selling like hot cakes a printer in Venice looked east for a fresh market. He printed a Koran.
When the Ummah, the controlling body of Islam, saw this first attempt they were horrified. As with early bibles the printed Koran contained errors. Instead of working to fix the errors the Sultanate banned printing in the Ottoman Empire. The result of this decision was to plunge the Arab world into a technological backwater. From being one of the most advanced centres of maths, astronomy, physics, geography etc they lost pace against the West becoming the “Sick Man of Europe”.
Enabling academics involves accepting that they can have some theories that people find uncomfortable. During the “McCarthy Era” with Reds under the Beds and the Hollywood blacklist in operation many academics with socialist leanings in the USA found themselves under investigation. That is not the environment that stimulates research.
Today, in particular in the USA, certain pressure groups use social media to “expose” academics in an attempt to close them down. These attacks mostly come from the religious right and many are motivated by a distinctly anti-academic faith based approach to learning which runs exactly counter to scientific method. The 1925 Scopes trial on the teaching of Darwinism in Highschool is the most famous instance, and these attacks persist to this day.
Anti-intellectualism is a universal tool of populism of both the left and the right. Nazis and Communists are equally enthusiastic in the burning of books they dislike. They share this fetish with religous fundamentalists of all creeds.
Beware anyone who opposes the dissemination of information.