Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Benefits (or Unintended Consequences) of "Evil"

As humans, we have a tendency to judge history in black-and-white terms - and often reduce its actors to cardboard two-dimensional Bollywood characters

History, however, is remarkably oblivious to such judgements and, in fact, often contradicts them... Almost like a gushing river that makes no distinctions to what comes in the way... and inadvertantly architecting the new topography - in which "good" begets "evil", and vice versa - and in which, we humans live...

My favourite story of such "Law of Unitended Consequences" is this story of the Great Plague (I developed it from various sources... to make a question for an end-term exam!!! ;0):

During 1347-1350, Europe was devastated by the Great Plague. The plague had started in 1346, in the central Asian port of Caffa, in what is now known as Ukraine. Many Italians, who were escaping the tartars, carried the germs of the disease with them when they landed back in Messina in Southern Italy. The spread of the disease was so quick that by 1347 it had reached Dublin in Ireland. Between 1347-1350, the plague killed 1 out of every 3 Europeans.

For all its devastation, the plague was also a catalyst for a huge social change and economic growth in Europe. The death of one third of the workforce led to an accute shortage of workforce - and so, resulted in a dramatic increase in the wages. Till then, the common worker was paid back in basic barter, e.g., food, clothes, etc.

But with increased wages, this was no longer possible. People had now to be paid in money, leading to more currency in circulation, which was available to more number of ordinary people. Money, on the other hand, also allowed people to become mobile, since currency could be exchanged for food, clothes, shelter, etc., anywhere.

This freed people/artisans from being confined to one place, and encouraged migration of skills to places where they could earn more. Thus, urbanization increased, and with it, also specialization, since guilds of artisans – tool-makers, weavers, metal-workers, etc. – started getting organised in cities.

The scarcity, accompanied with high demand, for skills had another unrelated consequence. It increased the demand for eyeglasses (or spectacles)!!!. This was an invention that was made in 1262 by Alessandro di Spina in Pisa (Italy), but had not found much utility till then. Eyeglasses increased the average working life – and productivity - of ordinary tradesmen two-fold.

By 1450, thousands of eyeglasses were being exported from Italy throughout the Europe. It received further boost when Guttenberg invented the printing press, and thus launched the 1st Information Revolution, ushering a plethora of non-religious functionally useful text (e.g., "how to make pasta") - thus increasing demand to read.

...over period of time, eyeglasses facilitated the emergence of precision engineering, which itself led to the spring-driven clock. With clocks, it became possible to measure productivity, which was a major driver for industrialisation... etc., etc.

Moral of the Story (At an intelectual level):
Life/history is not linear... There are no "happily lived ever after" or predictable "domino's effect". It is all Yin-&-Yang...

Moral of the Story (at a personal level):

There is so much good
in the worst of us
And so much bad
in the best of us
That it hardly becomes
any of us
To talk about
the rest of us.

1 comment:

Ajay said...

Wow. That was a wonderful post. Never got a chance to read so much from my history texts . U r absolutely right about the Yin and Yang. :)LOL