Niall Ferguson – Killer Apps to explain Western Civilization’s success

In 1500 the world superpower was undoubtedly China. The Chinese Empire could fit out huge ships 10 times the size of the Santa Maria which travelled half way across the globe to bring back tribute to the emperor in Nanjing.  A beautiful manuscript survives of a giraffe brought from Africa.  The purpose of these journeys was to overawe the foreigners and no doubt they were overawed.  But as Niall Ferguson points out – it was a bit like the Apollo Moon missions.  It was an impressive display of technological prowess but ultimately pointless.

After sailing about and looking impressive, the fleets were pulled back and closed down.  China could see nothing that they lacked and shut doors on the outside.

By comparison, when Vasco de Gama set out at the behest of the king of Portugal to explore the world, he had a very specific goal in mind.  His project was to open up the spice trade and break the monopoly Venice held over the spice trade.  It was a money making scheme provoked by competition.

Ming China from 1368 to 1644 was the world’s most sophisticated economy by any standard.  But following a series of natural disasters, rebellions and invasions, the dynasty collapsed in a decade with the last emperor hanging himself in shame.  China had looked inward and when it faced a crisis there were no external resources to draw on.

The turgid Chinese bureaucracy stifled innovationwhile in the West competition between states led to innovation that built up the power available to Western nations and in a few centuries to their complete domination of the world economy.  Ferguson describes this competition as one of the ‘killer apps’ that explain Western success.

Niall Ferguson is always worth listening to.  The combination of sometimes provocative ideas with a clear and often humorous presentation makes for an entertaining experience.  The idea that there are particular factors that gave the West an advantage and which will be revealed one programme at a time is a neat one.

This programme was a truly brilliant bit of television.  Lots of footage of interesting scenes from the current world and historical tableaux, with a simple single message explained well and fully.  I hope there is going to be a book (of course there will be).  The book will need to be a lot more detailed and go into more depth, as a book can and should.  Ferguson has a good track record on this so I will look forward to it.  In the meantime I am looking forward to the rest of the killer apps in the rest of the series.

See my review of Ascent of Money here.

Civilization: Is the West History? – Channel 4: “- Sent using Google Toolbar”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *