Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Information spillover....................

The Entry of the Crusaders in Constantinople   Eugene Delacroix   Oil on canvass  1840

  The sacking of Constantinople in 1204 was one of those historical quakes that send tremors of influence rippling across the globe.  Dynasties fall, armies surge and retreat, the map of the world is redrawn.  But the fall of Constantinople also triggered a seemingly minor event, lost in the midst of that vast reorganization of religious and geopolitical dominance and ignored by most historians of the time.  A small community of glassmakers from Turkey sailed westward across the Mediterranean and settled in Venice, where they began practicing their trade in the prosperous new city growing out of the marshes on the shores of the Adriatic Sea.

     It was one of a thousand migrations set in motion by Constantinople's fall, but looking back over the centuries, it turned out to be one of the most significant.  As they settled into the canals and crooked streets of Venice, at that point arguably the most important hub of commercial trade in the world, their skills at blowing glass quickly created a new luxury good for the merchants of the city to sell around the globe.   But lucrative as it was, glassmaking was not without its liabilities.  The melting point of silicon dioxide required furnaces burning at temperatures near 1,000 degrees, and Venice was a city build almost entirely out of wooden structures.  (The classic stone Venetian palaces would not be built for another few centuries.)   The glassmakers had brought a new source of wealth to Venice, but they also brought the less appealing habit of burning down the neighborhood.
     In 1291, in an effort to both retain the skills of the glassmakers and protect public safety, the city government sent the glassmakers into exile once again, only this time their journey was a short one - one mile across the Venetian Lagoon tot he island of Murano.   Unwittingly, the Venetian doges had created an innovation hub:  by concentrating the glassmakers on a single island the size of a small city neighborhood, they triggered a surge of creativity, giving birth to an environment that possessed what economists call "information spillover."  The density of Murano meant that new ideas were quick to flow through the entire population.  The glassmakers were in part competitors, but their family lineages were healthily intertwined.   There were individual masters in the group that had more talent or expertise than others, but in general the genius of Murano was a collective affair:  something created by sharing as much as by competitive pressures.

-Steven Johnson,  How We Got to Now:  Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

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