Whatever your view of Ha-Joon Chang, his new book is certainly worth a read if you get the chance from what I gathered at the lecture. Here is an excerpt of his interview with the Observer on the subject matter of which innovation matters more in the bigger scheme of things:
Is it really true that the washing machine has changed the world more than the internet?
When we assess the impact of technological changes, we tend to downplay things that happened a while ago. Of course, the internet is great – I can now google and find the exact location of this restaurant on the edge of Liverpool or whatever. But when you look at the impact of this on the economy, it's mainly in the area of leisure.
The internet may have significantly changed the working patterns of people like you and me, but we are in a tiny minority. For most people, its effect is more about keeping in touch with friends and looking up things here and there. Economists have found very little evidence that since the internet revolution productivity has grown.
And the washing machine was more transformative?
By liberating women from household work and helping to abolish professions such as domestic service, the washing machine and other household goods completely revolutionised the structure of society. As women have become active in the labour market they have acquired a different status at home – they can credibly threaten their partners that if they don't treat them well they will leave them and make an independent living. And this had huge economic consequences. Rather than spend their time washing clothes, women could go out and do more productive things. Basically, it has doubled the workforce.
The washing machine is just one element here. Other factors have contributed to the liberation of women – feminism, the pill and so on.
Yes, but feminism couldn't have been implemented unless there was this technological basis for a society where women went out and worked. Of course it's not just the washing machine, it's piped water, electricity, irons and so on.