Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Corporation Is Responsible For The Enlightenment

So argues Gonzalo Lira in a new article entitled "Why Corporations Matter, Part I" that has been picked up by It's a mix of economics, history and epistemology and it's quite fascinating. Here's a teaser:
The Antikythera clockwork was a mechanical device, made of bronze and iron gears, that was manufactured by the ancient Greeks in the second century B.C. It was lost in a shipwreck around 150 B.C., and recovered from the bottom of the Mediterranean in 1900. But it was only in the last couple of decades, with the help of sophisticated imaging equipment, that scientists have realized what the rusted hunk of metal actually is:

The Antikythera clockwork is a computer. And a very sophisticated and exact one at that.

It was used to predict eclipses and other astronomical events. Because of its complexity and design sophistication, it probably wasn’t a one-off: The Antikythera clockwork was likely the culmination of at least a few decades’ worth of development by the ancient Greeks—which means that whoever made the Antikythera clockwork had the knowledge to make other, exceedingly useful devices, including clocks and calculators, with a myriad of practical applications.

Nevertheless, the technology that made the Antikythera clockwork possible was lost—it was only in the XIII century that mechanical clockworks were developed in Europe once again. Something to compare to the Antikythera clockwork in complexity, sophistication, compactness and accuracy did not come to be until roughly the XVI or XVII century, depending on your metrics—1,700 years after the ship carrying the Antikythera clockwork went down.

Why was the technology lost?

Actually, that’s the wrong question: Vital bits of knowledge and technology have been getting lost all the time, ever since human beings figured out how to make their own food.


However, it’s with the Enlightenment starting in 1602 that, suddenly, we have had a geometric progression of technological development: Technology building on technology slowly at first, but then accelerating in a smooth, uninterrupted curve. Indeed, the very idea of “progress”, so reflexively familiar to us today, so never-ending in our imagination, didn’t even exist until the Enlightenment.

This notion of open-ended, never-ending progress has only been possible because there has not been significant loss of technology since the start of the Enlightenment.

People might object and say that technology was lost before the Enlightenment because there was war, disease and famine—but there’s been plenty of war, disease and famine since the start of the Enlightenment. Yet we’ve somehow managed to hang on to our progress.

The question is, Why? Why has there not been a substantial loss of technology and culture over the last 400 years? It’s happened in every other period of history, in every other culture in history—except in Europe, starting about 400 years ago, and spreading out of Europe to eventually encompass the world.


I’ve been bitching about corporations as of late—I’ve been bemoaning the current era of corporate anarchy and “street-gang corporatism” that seems to have enveloped our society. I’ve been openly wondering whether the United States is descending into a fascist police-state ruled by corporate interests.

But that doesn’t mean I think corporations are the root of all evil. Quite the contrary:

I posit that the invention of the corporation made the progress of our civilization—and the explosion of humanity’s numbers—possible. I would argue that without corporations, the Enlightenment would not have happened, and the civilization we currently enjoy would not have come into existence. I would further argue that, without the concept and practice of the corporation, today we would be living the bad bits of the Middle Ages.
Read the rest at Lira's blog, or over at ZeroHedge where it has been mirrored.

Right or wrong, this effort by Lira is sure to throw "left-libertarians" into a fit!

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