The best book I read this year was Paul Slack’s The Invention of Improvement. This work of history is a culmination of Slack’s distinguished career as professor of early modern English history at Oxford. I took the book through the bush in Africa and read it under the stars, among the moths, and its density, intelligence, and magical atemporality was nourishing, almost physically so.
The word “improvement” was introduced in early-17th-century England. Slack argues that the word is common only to English and that the peculiarly solid and incremental nature of “improvement,” as opposed to “development,” turbo-charged the English-speaking world.
Seventeenth-century England saw the first moments of science, arising from Baconian pursuit of knowledge, and the beginning of economics, with attempts to quantify harvests, income, and population. Data began to matter. By 1690, ideas beat through the journals and coffee houses of England, Scotland, Ireland, and America like “blood nourishing the body politic.”
“Improvement” led to the Royal Society, the Navigation Act, the planning of cities, and systems of welfare. In London and the Home counties appeared carpets, upholstery, curtains, tea, coffee; not luxury for display only, but “new luxury obtained from the purchase of cheaper items, quickly consumed or worn out, but nevertheless offering rarity, comfort, and pleasure.” In other words, the beginning of a modern individual dressed by material possessions.
The failure of Parliamentary revolution and disappointment of millenarian expectation in England “left improvement — gradual, piecemeal and cumulative progress — in command of the intellectual field.” If England had possessed Peru and canyons of gold it might have been different. But England only had the gains afforded by the muddy plantations of Ulster and Virginia.
The mighty implication of Slack’s scholarship is to identify that “improvement” made to a sugar estate in Barbados, transported from there to the Carolinas, held the kernel of the American Dream, set the course of Western Civilization, and defined progress as the act of taking anything and making it better, bit by bit, forever. That in turn leads to the entwining of pragmatism and utopianism that even now conditions Elon Musk’s thrust of our species out of this world to Mars.
You can look at such a book as Slack’s in two ways: grateful that it exists, that our knowledge is so increased; sad that such lucidity is not compulsory reading in Silicon Valley. For in reading Slack with one eye on the near future, you see the narrowness of the ambit of small screens, and you better understand that blockchain began long ago with minds like Sir William Petty scratching away by candlelight.
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