The one sentence summary

The world economy is a weird and wonderful thing, interconnected in billions of ways, understood by no single individual, and with no one in charge.


  • The world economy defies comprehension. A constantly changing system of immense complexity, it offers over ten billion distinct products, doubles in size every fifteen years, and links 7 billion people. Nobody is in charge of it, and no individual understands more than a fraction of what’s going on.
  • This book is effectively 50 short sections, and is impossible to summarise in the normal way, so here is the list of topics, each with a short comment:
  1. The plough: because it enabled people to stay in one place for the first time.
  2. The gramophone: along with all subsequent recording formats, it enables artists to be experienced without going to a concert in person.
  3. Barbed wire: enabled the ownership of land to be designated and enforced, particularly with regard to livestock.
  4. Seller feedback: has allowed many online services to circumnavigate concerns about trust and whether transactions will be honoured.
  5. Google search: has created a total change in the use of libraries and pretty much any kind of reference material.
  6. Passports: originally a form of documentation insisting you be allowed to go through an area, they are now proof of identity and fundamental in protecting country borders.
  7. Robots: a crucial component in the mix of jobs that humans can do, unless they are replaced by a machine.
  8. The welfare state: supports those who in other circumstances would struggle even more.
  9. Infant formula milk: either parent can feed the baby, and nutrition improves around the world.
  10. TV dinners: no need for the conventionally cooked family meal.
  11. The pill: women can have complete freedom to do what men do.
  12. Video games: generate a lot of jobs and money, as well as enticing able-bodied young men to refuse conventional work just to play them all day.
  13. Market research: to find out what people want, rather than just what can be made.
  14. Air conditioning: enabling millions to work in hot climates, generating income for individuals and countries in the process.
  15. Department stores: every imaginable product in one place.
  16. The dynamo: made factories cleaner and safer by converting from steam to electricity.
  17. The shipping container: enabled all goods to be transported around the world reliably, safely, and cheaply.
  18. The Barcode: immediate computer-driven logistics and goodbye to tedious manual stock keeping.
  19. The cold chain: refrigerated storage units that enable vaccines and food to be transported around the world.
  20. Tradable debt and the tally stick: tally sticks were split to represent two sides of a financial deal, and then became a currency in their own right.
  21. Billy bookcase: the original flat pack Ikea product that meant you could build your own furniture.
  22. The elevator: effectively made skyscrapers possible.
  23. Cuneiform: Mesopotamian clay tablet symbols that invented correspondence counting – carved images of items that meant you could verify quantities without knowing how to count.
  24. Public key cryptography: enables online messages and transactions to remain confidential.
  25. Double-entry bookkeeping: enabled people to work out whether they were actually making a profit.
  26. Limited Liability Companies: stopped investors being personally liable for losses, thus encouraging more enterprise (for better or worse).
  27. Management consulting: the somewhat strange idea that people who don’t work in a company know better than those that do. Profitable though.
  28. Intellectual Property: the legal protection of ideas and inventions.
  29. The Compiler: Grace Hopper’s forerunner of computer code.
  30. The iPhone: no explanation needed here.
  31. Diesel engines: revolutionised engine efficiency.
  32. Clocks: timing accuracy makes millions of products and services work safely and effectively.
  33. The Haber-Bosch Process: converts nitrogen into ammonia, which can be used to make fertilisers.
  34. Radar: prevents air and sea collisions.
  35. Batteries: powering machines anywhere.
  36. Plastic: no explanation needed here.
  37. The Bank: no need to carry all your money around and run the risk of being robbed.
  38. Razors and Blades: interrelated products – the receptacle is cheap, the replacements less so. Think printers and cartridges.
  39. Tax havens: keep the money you make and avoid the taxman – legally?
  40. Leaded petrol: originally declared safe, it is now banned almost everywhere.
  41. Antibiotics in farming: less disease, bigger production.
  42. M-Pesa: money transmitted by mobile phone, originated in Kenya.
  43. Property registers: proof of who owns what, creating property markets.
  44. Paper: originally for wrapping, later for writing, encouraging literacy.
  45. Index funds: passively tracking the market to buy a little of everything.
  46. The S-bend: made toilets sanitary.
  47. Paper money: portable, unlike chests of doubloons.
  48. Concrete: especially reinforced, revolutionised construction.
  49. Insurance: protect your assets and replace them in the event of a disaster.
  50. The light bulb: effectively extended daylight hours and enabling all the activities that require it.


  • There is no particular suggestion that all the developments mentioned are intrinsically good. In fact, many are double-edged, and some even detrimental in many respects.