New Ambitions, New Institutions
Each new ‘technology of ambition’ leads to new institutions that amplify the ambitions of people drawn to the technology.
To illustrate, let’s consider the three historical ‘technologies of ambition’ discussed above.
By the late medieval period many more people wanted (and were needed to) read and write. Literacy could no longer be confined to the scriptoria of monasteries. As a result, cathedral schools and universities emerged. Cardinal Wolsey attended the relatively recently opened Magdalen College School and Magdalen College. (Both were founded within a couple of decades of his birth).
As armies became more professional, an elite cadre of officers was needed to run them. Military schools emerged. Napoleon’s rise to prominence was accelerated by his studies at the École Militaire (it was founded a couple of decades before his birth).
Finance — and its cousin, management — emerged as ‘technologies of ambition’ in the twentieth century. Business schools followed. Like its predecessor institutions, the business school became a magnet for talent and ambition.
In each case, the institutions provide three things. One, a mechanism for acquiring the skills associated with the ‘technology of ambition’. Two, a social network of like-minded and like-skilled ambitious individuals. Three, a means to accelerate an individual’s next steps, such as providing privileged access to a set of resources or positions.
Crucially, these institutions play a role in taking ‘technologies of ambition’ mainstream. Initially the tool is restricted to a very small number of people and usually acquired by accident of birth or circumstance. We might call this ‘pre-mainstream’ — e.g. when only monks were literate.
After the institution develops, the technology becomes a tool that is accessible to a larger, albeit still elite, group. This group typically seeks to acquire knowledge of the technology deliberately and succeeds or fails on the basis of merit, more or less. At this stage, we can say the technology is ‘mainstream’ — e.g. by the time there was a literate professional class.
This is the transition that technology entrepreneurship now needs to go through. History suggests that, relative to today, many more ambitious individuals will seek to start technology companies in future.