Saturday, June 8, 2013

Wonderous Times

Just how cheap is technology?

If you check out this article from China Daily that Mike Elgan turned me on to, you'll see that an entrepreneur named Huang Jie in Kaşgar (Kashgar), in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region of China, is offering a tablet computer for two sheep. Now, his goal is twofold - to cut out the middleman, so that residents can buy technology goods less expensively, and to sell those technology goods to more people.

Which is interesting, even if it seems a bit silly to some of here in the industrialized West, for whom directly trading livestock for goods sounds a bit like Little House on the Prairie or something.

But here's what struck me about this.

When King Offa of Mercia, who reigned from 757 to 796 AD, adopted the Frankish standards of silver coinage; based on the old Roman libra, solidi and denarii; the solidus became the scilling (later shilling) a unit of account (not an actual coin) worth 12 pence (denarii). Now, during the Carolingian period, it was common for items to be spoken of in terms of their values in scillings or sols/sous (the Frankish equivalent). In most places (Kent, in England, being a notable exception) one sou/scilling/solidus was worth one sheep.

According to Osprey Publishing's The Age of Charlemagne, the cost of equipment for a mounted warrior prior to the time of Charlemagne was about 45 sous. Or, roughly 45 times the value of one sheep. The book doesn't provide a breakdown of what was worth what, However, some library research from a few years back provided me with a list of prices, denominated in livestock and apparently from Kent, for the equipment listed in the Osprey book. Knowing what a scilling could buy in Kent (it's amazing the kind of trivia you can find on Wikipedia) allows for a simple conversion, and we learn that for two sheep, a warrior could obtain what Osprey tells us is the absolute minimum needed to be an effective fighting man - a lance and a shield. (The conversion requires that we make some supportable assumptions, but this is long enough as it is, so I'll spare you the details.)

Late eighth-century England and modern China are several thousand miles and more than a millennium apart, but that's kind of the point. A Carolingian lance, rather than the piece of jousting equipment of the late mediaeval or renaissance that we commonly think of today, was simply a long cavalry spear - a straight shaft of wood with a dagger-like head at one and, and maybe a smaller metal point or ferrule at the other. And a shield was simply a big domed sheet of wood, with a metal boss at the center, a metal rim, often covered with a layer of leather and/or paint. And while "authentic" replicas of these items are expensive, because the period processes used to make them are labor intensive, modern replicas are of much higher quality, and are only moderately pricey from specialty catalogs. If mass-produced for some reason, they'd be a dime a dozen.

A tablet computer, on the other hand is a marvel of engineering that required dozens, if not hundreds of highly-educated specialists to design. The materials needed to make one can be rare, and many of them require technological marvels of their own simply to dig up out of the ground. While "dark ages" arms making required some limited infrastructure, modern electronics require it on a grand scale. Even though the devices are likely made in China, Kaşgar is on the other side of the country from China's industrial centers. From there to Shanghai is a longer distance than from Kent to Tabriz in Iran (let alone, say, Seattle to New York City). And that's not counting getting the materials to the factories in the first place.

While it makes for an inexact comparison, we can, after a fashion, compare the efficiency gains that we've made over the past thirteen hundred years in the difference between what a spear and shield cost an aspiring dark ages warrior and what a tablet computer costs an aspiring techie. The times we live in are truly a marvel.

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