Criticizing Pundits’ Sloppy Analogies Is Blogs’ Killer Ap

Niall Ferguson writes that in his view, the “West first surged ahead of the Rest after about 1500 thanks to a series of institutional innovations that I call the ‘killer applications.'” He lists them as competition, the scientific revolution, the rule of law & representative government, modern medicine, consumer society, and the work ethic.

These are all nice things, but they have nothing to do with any normal use of the term “killer ap.” The idea of a killer ap is that you have a hardware platform that can do a bunch of stuff. But particular pieces of software (“killer aps”) persuade people they want to buy it. Nobody bought a Sega Genesis because of the tech specs, they bought it because they wanted to play Sonic The Hedgehog. The iPhone does lots of stuff, but it was the glorious look of Mobile Safari that convinced people they wanted an all-touch device. Ferguson seems to be aiming at, if anything, the reverse idea — an effort to identify the key underlying drivers of western success. But beyond the specific problems with the analogy, even trying to think of what Ferguson could possibly have meant seems to me to highlight the deep problems with trying to use business buzzwords to explain macro-historical trends. Is western civilization really a hardware platform? Does it make any sense to try to think about it in these terms? (No).