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20160326 Learning by Doing


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The main idea of this book is that inventions that have impact on civilization, even small ones, are not a product of lone geniuses, but rather complex results of various efforts of multiple people doing some improvements big and small. We should understand the complex nature of inventions and promote all individuals’ active participation in the process regardless of how insignificant their role looks like. Moreover, not only inventions, but also all and any meaningful improvement in processes and technology require skills, efforts, and deserve good remuneration because skills level requirements while different in reality are much less significant than usually perceived and even what is considered low level unskilled job still provide necessary component into the Prosperity of Nations.



  1. More Than Inventions

Author uses the development of textile industry in USA as source of information for process of development and implementation of ideas. He starts with looking at quality of people employed in this industry over its live cycle and finds that it changed quite dramatically over time. During initial phases it was very high with relatively highly educated girls employed even in low-level jobs, but with development of tools, processes, and technics demand for high quality people decreased. He looks at 4 conceptual distinctions of technology implementation:

  1. Technology vs. Original Inventions
  2. Mass vs. Elite Knowledge
  3. Knowledge vs. Ideas
  4. Dynamic vs. Static Technical Knowledge.
  1. The Skills of the Unskilled

Here author analyses learning curve and concludes that the most important part of learning is doing. Here is a nice graph to demonstrate this:

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There is important caveat here that it is not possible to achieve results via theoretical learning only.

  1. Revolutions in Slow Motion

Here author supports his thesis by presenting data that scientific / industrial revolutions generally are not really short-term events, but rather long tern developments. Here is a nice table demonstrating this:

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  1. Standard Knowledge

This chapter is about standardization of knowledge. It begins with story of periodic table, which greatly simplified learning of chemistry and analysis of chemical processes. Then he looks at live cycle of knowledge and at process of establishment of dominant design, as usual using example of QWERTY. Another very interesting point in this chapter is that future development is unknown and could not be predicted even by the best experts as it demonstrated by example with AOL and Time Warner.


  1. When Does Technology Raise Wages?

This chapter looks at dynamics of wage changes in relation to technology implementation and maturity, again using example of textile industry. The most important part here is discussion of relation between wages and unique and not easily transferrable or obtainable skills. Individuals with such skill normally get nice premium on their use.

  1. How the Weavers Got Good Wag

This chapter uses history of weavers and how their wages changed based on skills. Here a small table summarizing it:

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  1. The Transition Today: Scarce Skills, Not Scarce Jobs

The main point of this chapter is that so far robots do not push people out of work, despite logical inference that it should eventually happen. Even bank teller did not really disappear; only their number just stopped growing. People just had to switch to different occupations and the main problem is skill mismatch when job market demands are changing faster than people are capable to meet them.


  1. Does Technology Require More College Diplomas?

This chapter looks at notion of formal higher education being the key for success. It used to be true when jobs where less specialized so any college graduates had general skills required. Now however general college education is not enough, market requires specific skills that people fail to acquire because resources are directed to colleges. Here is a nice table demonstrating this:

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  1. Whose Knowledge Economy?

This is about current situation when everybody becomes a knowledge worker, whatever area he/she is working in. It looks specifically at manufacturing and concludes that huge growth of productivity is the main cause. It uses recent history of steel production of demonstrative the case.

  1. Procuring new Knowledge

This chapter looks positively at government procurement programs as a way to build useful specific and applicable knowledge for population. The cases here are from defense and health industries.

  1. The Forgotten History of Knowledge Sharing

This chapter is very interesting by its analysis of knowledge sharing between inventors and innovators. Author makes pretty convincing case for a fresh look at patent laws and cases when strict intellectual property could be not that good for innovation.

  1. Patents and Early-Stage Knowledge

This is continuation of intellectual property discussion with main point that explosion of litigation brings a serious threat to process of the new knowledge creation. Here is the related graph:

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  1. The Political Economy of Technical Knowledge

This chapter is about legal and political approaches to innovation in Japan and USA and how it could promote of stun development.

  1. The Skills of the Many and the Prosperity of Nations

The final brief chapter is the restatement of main thesis of the book that knowledge and skills widely distributed among population and new useful knowledge is not developed by superior geniuses, but rather is result of conscious or more often unconscious cooperative efforts of people each of which just trying to improve their own live and be more effective and efficient in doing whatever they are doing. The result of these efforts is prosperity of population or lack thereof when political and/or ideological circumstances prevent people from doing it.


I am petty much in synch with ideas of this book. I also believe in superior effectiveness and eventual efficiency of independent efforts of free people comparatively to top down directed and bureaucratically organized effort of people included into hierarchical structures. The only partial disagreement I have is with idea that the new technology just shuffles people from one activity to another without removing need in their work. I strongly believe that ongoing development of computer technology and especially Artificial Intelligence eventually would lead to complete elimination of humans from routine activities in all areas from manufacturing to R&D research. It is bound to happen and for foreseeable future it would be stressful and painful process of finding new methods for functioning of human society without sale of labor as its economic foundation. Humanity was relatively successful in its switches from hunting gathering to militaristic-agricultural and then to industrial and informational methods, so it should manage to do well while switching to labor-less economic foundation when all human activities are voluntary and not dependent neither on direct coercion of slave or indirect coercion of wage earner.

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