On the learning path
by M. Rajivlochan

The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present
 by David S Landes. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Pages 576. £ 19.99.

The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the PresentA family of giants, the offspring of Uranus and Gaia, used to rule the earth before the gods overthrew them. These were called the Titans. Full of pride, gregarious, enjoying life and taking care of humans, the Titans fell foul of the gods when one of them, Prometheus, stole fire from heaven and gave it to mankind.

The King of Gods, Zeus, bound him by chains and tortured him for 12 generations for allowing humans access to enabling technologies.

"What if humans use technology to control the universe and overthrow the gods?" This is what the Greek mythology tells us. Whether Zeusís fear has come true remains debatable. But it is clear that over the centuries humans became more adept at using technology and creating new ones.

Their power to control nature too has increased. In the process, they have become increasingly rich. While humans had been using technologies since the earliest time in history, it was in the 18th century that the influence of technology on society changed dramatically.

So much so that by the end of the 19th century it seemed as if a revolution had taken place. The most visible of changes was that people were, on an average, now far richer than earlier and were far more devoted to becoming rich than ever before in history. There were many more people on the earth too.

Some scholars claimed that the number of people living is far more than the number of people who have died throughout human history. By the end of the 19th century, people gave a name to this comprehensive change. They called it "the industrial revolution."

The change had begun in England where a number of technological advances made it possible to increase productivity of land, labour and machine manifold. Soon it spread over Europe and North America. The societies that went with it soon began to dominate those that were outside of the industrial revolution.

In a sense our world, where people can think of continuous growth, have a bellyful of food, ensure adequate shelter and above all have a greater amount of time free, was begotten by the industrial revolution. How this happened, what were the various changes, their impact on the world, all this has been documented in an admirable way in this book by Landes.

He argues that the industrial revolution first occurred in the West because it was already a far richer society than the great civilisations of China and India. More educated, given to experimentation, amenable to critical scrutiny, less violent and more bound by the law, these civilisations constantly learnt from past experience.

Much before industrialisation set in, they had put themselves onto a learning path. The industrial revolution was merely a consequence of this learning. China and India in contrast spent most of their economic, political and social energies in maintaining the status quo and philosophical energies in self-admiration.

It is important, therefore, that we continue to remain on the learning path rather than shun science and technology. Anyone who wants to learn about the history of industrial growth needs to read this book.