Technopessimism

31 07 2013

In the last few days, we’ve seen a lot of discussion online about technopessimism (i.e., the theory that we have entered a period of slow technological progress). Technopessimism has been an important theme in debates about economic policy since 2011, when Tyler Cowen published The Great Stagnation. [ I blogged about the book at the time]. Cowen had some semi-hard numbers to back up his point that technological progress slowed down in the mid 1970s, but his main evidence was anecdotally.  Cowen noted that everyday life in the US changed profoundly during the lifespan of his grand mother,  who was born in a farmhouse lit by kerosene lamps and who died in an era of colour TV, heart transplants,  and microwave ovens. According to Cowen, the technologies of everyday life haven’t changed much since the 1970s with the exception of IT.

Technopessimism is popular for several reasons. First,  it seems to explain our current economic malaise: in the West and Japan, the growth has been,  at best anaemic since the 2008 GFC.

Second,   the US political context,  technopessimism is useful because it allows conservatives to change the national conversation away from income inequality and towards technology. There is a near-consenus that the living standard of the typical American family improved rapidly from the 1940s to the 1970s, it increased slowly,  if it all, since then. Progressives blame Reaganite policies,  particularly those that emasculated organized labour.  Conservatives say that a slow down in inventiveness is at fault.

Lastly,  the future hasn’t delivered the breathtaking technologies promised in the sci-fi produced during the long boom after 1945. It’s 2013 and I still can’t take Pan-Am to the moon. If this is the future,  where is my goddam flying car?

Joel Mokyr,  who is revered in economic history circles for his brilliant work on the history of technology during the Industrial Revolution,  recently appeared on the PBS Newshour to refute the technopessimists. He made some good points. I really liked the sentence in which Mokyr alludes to Digital Humanities: “Above all, no scientific research today, from English literature to economics to nanochemistry, is even thinkable without computers.” However, I found that the most powerful argument for refuting the technopessimists was missing from his remarks.

The best reason for techno optimism is that an increasing proportion of the human brains on the planet are being given the opportunity and the incentive to contribute to scientific and technological progress.  A few hundred years ago, only a tiny proportion of the world’s population lived in countries where technological innovation was legal, respected,  and financially worthwhile.  Moreover,  even in Westerns Europe and North America, the technical talents of  half the potential inventors,  the women,  were largely squandered, (although we know from patent records that there were an increasing number of female inventors , especially after the passage of Married Women’s Property Acts), Many of the men who could have grown up to be inventors died from childhood diseases or from dumb wars like the First World War. (I would imagine that there is some wonderful household gadget that is missing from my life because a brilliant potential inventor got killed off on the Western Front).

The worldwide diffusion of liberal democracy to progressively more countries has meant that a larger proportion of the human race now live under systems that reward innovation. That means more people can get to work on solutions that can be shared world wide. (I’m writing this on a device that was designed in South Korea). Gender and racial equality,  along with subsidized education,  have prevented brainpower from going to waste. Thanks to better nutrition and the Flynn Effect,  there is more brain power to go around. Today’s world is remarkably peaceful, which means that all relatively few of today’s high IQ brains get ruined by bullets.

Taking all of these broad structural factors into consideration,  I am cautiously optimistic about the future. Yes, there are problems with US patent law, as the Becker-Posner blog recently pointed out. Yes, excessive protection of Intellectual Property is probably slowing progress down a bit. However, as a civilization, we are getting the fundamentals right and we should expect technological progress to continue.

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3 responses

1 08 2013
Ludovic Cailluet

Thank you for this piece that I enjoyed. Just for the sake of the argument your flying car is available here (http://www.airventure.org/news/2013/130729_only-at-oshkosh-jetman-and-a-flying-car.html) but does not seem to convince many aviators (at least).

1 08 2013
andrewdsmith

Flying cars seem to be perennially at the experimental stage.

1 08 2013
Ludovic Cailluet

bad cars, bad planes compromising in the design is never very good in product development. In addition, to pilot is not to drive, much more complex

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