An end to progress? Arguments pro and con

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An economist named Robert J. Gordon, and Erik Byrnjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, had an interesting debate at a TED forum on whether the days of rapid economic growth are over.

Gordon said improvements in world living standards are the result of two historical events that may not be repeated—the first industrial revolution, based on coal, iron and steam, beginning in the late 1700s in Britain, and the second industrial revolution, based on oil, electricity and the internal combustion engine, beginning in the late 1800s in the USA.

Both these revolutions have run their course, he said, and there’s no reason to think that the current technological revolution in information technology will have the same impact.  The i-phone is nice, but it will not change society in the same way that Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone did.

Byrnjolfsson said computer and information technology are in their infancy, and will have as great an impact as the earlier technological revolutions.  Human beings haven’t as yet learned how to work most effectively with the new technology, he said.

Much depends on which one is right.  With rapid economic growth, it is possible for all classes of society, rich, middle and poor, to improve their condition without hurting the others, except maybe in relative terms.  With flat or declining economic growth, the struggle for economic and political power becomes much more of a zero sum game, a sorting of society into winners and losers.

I think the videos are interesting and worth watching, but I also think both speakers fail to emphasize an important thing—that improvement in the material standard of living requires not only progress in science and technology, but public policies that make the fruits of science and technology available to the wider public.

Improvements in public health, for example, are based not only on discoveries about vaccination, antiseptics and antibiotics, but also from public water and sewerage systems, food inspections and mass vaccinations of school children.   Universal telephone service is based not only on a technology, but also on a commitment by AT&T as a condition of maintaining its monopoly position.

Advances in technology don’t automatically abolish poverty.  George Orwell, in The Road to Wigan Pier, which is about unemployed British coal miners in the 1930s, pointed out that every miner’s family owned a radio, a technological wonder unavailable to kings and emperors 50 years before.  And yet these same miners had difficulty putting food on the table.  Not having radios would not have enabled them to pay for it.

Brynjolfsson could be right.  Factory automation could produce a world of leisure and well-being for everyone.  But, depending on who is running things, it could produce a world like that imagined by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in his 1952 novel Player Piano.

I can easily imagine a future USA with amazing information technology, communications technology and virtual reality entertainment technology, not to mention science-fictional war-making and surveillance technology.  And along with this, growing shortages of affordable housing, medical care and higher education, and a deterioration of public services and the physical environment.

I’m neither foolish enough nor brave enough to attempt to predict the future.  I don’t think decline is inevitable.  But all it requires is for us to continue on our present path.  We’re halfway there now.

Click on The future of innovation: Robert Gordon and Erik Brynjolfsoon debate for a summary of their arguments.

Click on Was America’s Economic Prosperity Just a Historical Accident? for more about the declinist debate by Benjamin Wallace-Wells in New York magazine.

Click on Player Piano for Wikipedia’s summary of the plot of the Kurt Vonnegut novel.

Click on Dead Souls for a satirical worst-case scenario by Dmitri Orlov.

Gordon in fact was an optimist.  He foresaw a leveling off of progress, not, as some do, an actual decline or even a sudden collapse.

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