Terry Hurlbut on the Great Stagnation

30 07 2012

Terry Hurlbut, a conservative blogger in the United States, has responded to my earlier post about the “who invented the internet” controversy. Hurlbut appears to disagree with my assertion that the rate of technological advancement appears to be slowing. He wrote:

Smith also says that technology is stagnating. Well, if TV and movie producer Irwin Allen’s Grand Missed Deadlines are all you have to look at, you might think that. (Time travel in 1968, suborbital commercial flight in 1983, and trans-galactic pioneering in 1997 are Allen’s prize examples. Nor was Allen the only one with a grandiose vision of where technology would lead, or how fast.) But users of smart phones and smart tablets (iPad, etc.) might beg to differ. So, too, might those who have high-speed Internet connections, that have left Plain Old Telephone Service behind completely when connecting to it. Government, you didn’t build that, either. In fact, the government wishes that nobody built the dizzying variety of channels where people can get their news without a de jure or de facto government filter.

The technologies we have today, make us free. Government helped, if at all, only as part of its proper function: to provide for the common defense. That is right and proper, but not necessary. Watt’s steam engine, Edison’s electric light, Morse’s telegraph, and Bell’s telephone all came to be without government help. So the right answer still is: Government, you didn’t build that, or else you didn’t have to.

In asserting that technology isn’t advancing as quickly as it was before the 1970s, I was drawing on Tyler Cowen’s important book the Great Stagnation not TVs and movies. I recommend that Hurlbut read it. In this book, which was published in Kindle last year, Cowen argued that there have been relatively few big, daily-life changing technological advances since the 1970s. The immediate response from critics was —“Hey wait, you’re making this argument in an e-book. That disproves your own argument!!!” I must admit that this was my _initial_ reaction when I heard Cowen’s thesis. Then I read the book and was converted to his view. When Cowen’s book was published last year, there was a huge debate about the extent to which the internet had really contributed all that much to human welfare when compared to say, the earlier advent of air conditioning. See here.  Cowen pointed out that the type of people who likely participate in a debate about the social value of the internet are precisely the sort of unrepresentative humans who derive a great deal of utility from it (academics and journalists) and thus inclined to over-estimate the importance of the internet. For the average person, the internet is probably less important than air conditioning.

Anyway, let me address Hurlbut’s core argument. Hurlbut does not appear to believe that the funding of basic and applied science is a core function of the State. I believe that funding science is a public good: the private sector has no interest in funding scientific discovery that might possibly result in a commercial technology in a generation or a century, so it is necessary for the government to get involved. There are certainly many things that government do today that could be left to the private sector, but funding science isn’t one of them. The same might be said about funding education, which is another core function of government. It is no coincidence that the world’s high-tech companies tend to be clustered around leading universities. These universities, whether public or nominally private, are all supported by the taxpayer. I would suggest that this funding is money well spent. Technological progress at the time of James Watt was largely unconnected to academic science. The same was still true, albeit just barely, during the early stages of the career of Thomas Edison. The situation is radically different today, which means that today’s technology entrepreneurs are indeed beneficiaries of past public investments in academic science.

Some of my readers may be interested in the online debate that The Economist magazine recently held on this issue.

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2 responses

30 07 2012
Creation Man

First, you misspelled my name. It’s Hurlbut, not “Hurlburt.”

Second: having just admitted that the State did not always fund any sort of research (other than, perhaps, in weapons), you seem to say that now that we see it happening, it should go on happening. I could simply observe that you get your own share of the loot and leave it go at that. But it’s enough that you have failed to answer one simple question:

If the telegraph, the electric light, and the telephone all came to be without public funds, what has changed in the last century that would make those inventions impossible?

Let me remind you, in closing, that Samuel F. B. Morse telegraphed “What God hath wrought.” Not “What government hath wrought.”

31 07 2012
andrewdsmith

Terry, I’m sorry that I spelled your surname incorrectly.

“I could simply observe that you get your own share of the loot and leave it go at that.”

I don’t quite know what you mean by that.

You asked “If the telegraph, the electric light, and the telephone all came to be without public funds, what has changed in the last century that would make those inventions impossible?”

The biggest change is that corporate R&D is now much more closely linked to abstract scientific knowledge. Many, but not all, of the breakthrough innovations of the First Industrial Revolution were achieved by men who had little to no training in the academic science of that era.That’s not true of people working on the technological frontier today. Scientific knowledge is a public good. I’m certain that you won’t deny that point.

Moreover, some of the big technological innovations of the First Industrial Revolution were accomplished with government money. The Board of Longitude comes to mind.

To return to my original point, Gordon Crovitz’s piece was factually inaccurate. Luckily some of the participants, such as Vint Cerf, are alive and able to correct him.

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