December is the darkest month. You either set the Yule log alight, or celebrate the darkness. This could just as easily have been the title of my birthday posting for modern electronic warfare, but, if you were young when I was (and, statistically speaking, it is likely that you were: welcome to roughly the biggest birth cohort ever, he said, 49 years too late!), you remember this:
Spy stories were just tired enough for gentle network parody. I was too young to get that it was gentle parody. To nine-year-old me, that clip was as mysterious as The Prisoner still is. With the difference that the point of the mysteries of The Prisoner is that they are mysteries, while Get Smart was mysterious because I was too young to get it. The Prisoner isn't meant to be solved. Get Smart is just another network parody.
Where, not to push the epistemic point too far while my original point likes fallow, funny spies run around saying pompous things like, "The owl of Minerva flies at dusk." Which is why I went with a hotlink to Kim Carnes' Crazy in the Night instead.
The epistemic point is not going away, though. A big book in the blogosphere right now is Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee's The Second Machine Age. As a Boseruppian, I am predisposed to dislike this book --which I may or may not eventually get around to reading. My basic thesis is that we are hitting the bottom of a long downhill, the end of a storing-up of technological capital centering on the era of the last world war. If this is true, absolutely the last thing we have to worry about is robots taking our jobs. The robots (and slaves) will be doing the work because the (relatively few) people who could be doing it have all gone Croatan (1,2).
Never mind crazy theorising, though. If I am to offer anything to the conversation, it is going to be history of technology. Brynjolfsson and McAfee do start with history of technology, of course. The introductions to their book that I have read focus on the "delayed" start of the Steam Age. The fact that there were steam engines in 1712 gives anyone who loves him some Vernor Vinge since the 1990s and is waiting for the Singularity like some characters in a Beckett play --and Oh God in the New Year's eve morning darkness I see nightmares of first year English again --- where was I?
Oh, yeah. All the over--produced American lawyers of the last few years are making a living doing doc review and are worried that the Google is coming to take away their jobs. And if first them, moments later it'll be all the knowledge workers. It will be like when slide rules got rid of all the engineers, or when printing got rid of the historians by making all the old scrolls and codices available to everyone so that some idle English gentleman could produce a bigger and better history of ancient times than Herodotus, who was actually able to travel and cultivate the owners of all those scrolls in ancient times and become a real historian.
That's sarcasm, there, of course. The job of the historian did not go away with printing, or with the railroads and the telegrams and such that allowed Ranke to outdo Gibbon, or with the ---but I am going to try not to get ahead of myself again, here. This is supposed to be a technical appendix, and I will get to the technology that rises to the surface in December of 1943 in a moment. First, though, some historical nuance, because that is what you look for from a historian.
I have objected to the basic thesis before. An usurpation took place in Britain in 1688, placing an uneasy dynasty on the throne of England. Thereafter, it would be fair to call every war of the Eighteenth Century down to the Napoleonic wars a "war of the English Succession." That made the regime willing to spend to win, and one of the things that they had to do in the 1700--1715 round was maintain an army in the low Countries, which meant earning foreign exchange in the Low Countries. To do that, they had to export to that market, and to do that, they had to subsidise export industries such as coal. As the price of coal went up, it became feasible to cut coal at the bottom of flooded colleries by pumping out the water with steam engines. Of course the Savery and Newcomen engines were inefficient! One of the big problems of operating them was that they had to be securely seated in the midst of great mounds of highly flammable coal slack at the bottom of pits! Because while coal slack cannot be sold on the market, it is a dangerous, highly flammable material that gets in the way of mining operations and has to be got rid of somehow. For example, you can burn it. In a contained stove, of course, for safety reasons. Not that those safety reasons are met by using a stove in isolation, but you can always cool it by putting a pot of water on top. Which then evolves lots of steam. You see where I am going, here? With all due respect to them, Savery and Newcomen were patent trolls, taking credit for a technology that circumstances essentially forced our way.
Now let's move ahead sixty years. Somehow, in spite of having a massive public debt hanging over it, the British economy manages to expand like topsy. There's a "navigation" craze. Basically, canals thread the countryside, taking products such as, for example, coal, to market. Their locks are pumped by water mills in one of those operations that pretty much forces a person to think about the laws of conservation of energy. At this point, the limit on the economy is becoming the amount of water that can be pumped back up the runs by "engines." It is limiting the amount of coal that can be brought to market. So now we want to pump the water back up into the mill pond using the minimum amount of coal. . .
Let me now quote myself, a paragraph gone: "Somehow, in spite of having a massive public debt hanging over it, the British economy manages to expand like topsy." That's your lede: not James Watt inventing the condensor. Ask yourself: what endogenous trends within the economy are driving technological adoption? Do not look around for heroic innovation to change it from outside.
But, but, what about knowledge work, you ask yourself. What about those lawyers, whose research is now being done by "brilliant machines?"
Now it's technological appendix time.