Monday, January 26, 2009

Joseph Needham and China history

I've just finished reading Simon Winchester's "Bomb, Book and Compass" which introduced me to the lifelong ambition of a brilliant scientist to document and then attempt to answer why China once lead the world in invention and progress and then around 1500 AD ceased and slipped ever backwards until about 15 years ago.

The answer came in the epilogue and I believe it contains a frightening message for Western society. It would appear that all reason for invention was subsumed by the ambition for anyone bright enough to rise up the ranks of the all important empire bureaucracy. The need for progress diminished accordingly, indeed change was seen to be positively dangerous to anyone involved in maintaining the Emperor's status quo. Ironically, communism was no different, Mao simply becoming an authoritarian emperor in a drab tunic.

It would seem that Asia is gaining the upper hand. China now "owns" much of the West and is learning what the West needs. Much of the manufacturing that used to be concentrated in places like Birmingham, UK or Pittsburg, PA has been lost to China but to a large degree the products are still designed in the West. How long will it be before China takes over the R&D?

I would think that the recession we find ourselves in can only accelerate the transfer of power toward China. More and more jobs in Europe are already moving into bureaucracy. Does this mean that Western innovation will cease?