Technology and Human Capital Formation

Ann: a conference in London, 19-21 June

Technology and Human Capital Formation in the East and West
S.R. Epstein Memorial Conference
London School of Economics, Department of Economic History, London, UK19.06.2008-21.06.2008, Morishima Room, Suntory-Toyota Centre, LSE

Since 2003 scholars from 5 disciplines and 28 universities located in 10 countries, have collaborated in the Global Economic History Network (GEHN), funded by the Leverhulme Trust and sponsored by the London School of Economics. When Leverhulme funding expired, other sponsors allowed the GEHN initiative to continue. This conference seeks to investigate a range of industries that could be recognised as global in scale, scope and location before the industrial revolution in an attempt to analyse the particular technologies associated with those industries and the way in which the workforce acquired the expertise necessary to perform their often complicated tasks. The topic for the conference was inspired by the work of S.R. (Larry) Epstein, who died unexpectedly on February 3rd 2007.

For several years Larry Epstein worked on a project that he hoped would reshape the study of technology and skills in the pre-industrial era.
His approach was distinctive in two related ways. First of all, Larry concentrated on small product and process innovations. In his view, technological development before the Industrial Revolution was a cumulative process of micro-innovation produced by numerous anonymous craftsmen, rather than a sequence of macro inventions typified by the steam engine and associated with celebrated men like Newcomen and Watt.
He recognized that, for centuries before the industrial revolution, technological change emanated from dedicated craftsmanship located in urban communities of practice and organisation. In such a world where technological development is primarily the result of the application of skills, their transfer becomes crucially important. In Larry's own work, two dimensions of diffusion were emphasised. First he insisted on the significance of tacit knowledge and institutions which shaped the formation of human capital for the manufacturing industry. Furthermore, he also maintained that the circulation of skilled labour was the single most important avenue for the diffusion of skills and product and process innovations.
Larry worked mainly on European history, but was keenly aware of the need for global comparisons, and contributed to numerous conferences on global economic history. This memorial conference has been designed as an occasion to elaborate and test some of Larry Epstein's seminal ideas in a global context. It has been set up as a three-day event. Papers will be pre-circulated to allow maximum time for discussion during the conference itself. Contributors are expected to address the issues outlined above from their own perspective and region of expertise, but to try to include comparisons from other parts of the world, to allow debate to range across the various industries of Eurasia. We are hoping to bring together papers on such diverse industries as shipbuilding, silk making, cotton textiles, porcelain, printing, building, and brick making, and to publish the papers as a tribute to our friend and colleague, as well as more general reflexions on human capital formation.

The reasons behind the renaissance in global history are familiar. The means and the media of modern transportation and communication have opened up discourses (in English) around and about the world that are re-shaping identities and transforming behaviour, especially among younger generations. Students arrive at universities more curious about 'other' cultures and are now less easily persuaded to feed on diets of national or western histories. Alas, academe is not constituted to offerthe long run, geographically unbounded and ecologically informed access to properly processed historical knowledge that could satisfy their ecumenical interests and nourish a truly cosmopolitan sensitivity for the 21st century. Clearly the chronologies, confined preoccupations and spatial parameters with which national histories have traditionally been delivered are ready for reform. To be recognized as contemporary syllabuses could make space within higher education (in both history and the social sciences) that will analyse major environmental, economic and geopolitical forces at work in the evolution of humanity as a whole; and thereby offer a prospectus that might avoid the condescension of cultures, the myopia of fore-shortened time spans and the arrogance of nations, implicit in dominant styles of writing, studying and communicating historical knowledge.

Although this new field is now developing everywhere, most of the academics involved are scattered in departments around the world and continue to operate as recognized specialists on European, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, African and South American studies. As aspirant global historians they are aware of gaps in the published literature, the absences of calibrated data to facilitate comparisons of economic trends across continents and centuries, and acutely conscious of the methodological, epistemological and pedagogic problems they have encountered in attempting to persuade colleagues, students and university administrations that the field is not only contemporary, but can be constructed and communicated at intellectual levels, comparable to those attained in research and teaching on the economic histories of America, Europe, the United Kingdom and Japan.

Preliminary Programm