The Next Age of Invention

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

The future of technology is likely to be bright, Joel Mokyr says, because past pessism has been wrong:

The first thing to note is that the twentieth century experienced probably as many headwinds, albeit of a different kind, as Gordon foresees for the twenty-first. Industrialized nations fought two massive world wars and experienced the Great Depression, the Cold War, and the rise of totalitarian regimes in much of Europe and Asia. In the past, such catastrophes might have been enough to set economies back for hundreds of years or even to condemn entire societies to stagnation or barbarism. Yet none of them could stop the power of ever-faster innovation in the twentieth century to stimulate rapid growth in much of the industrialized and industrializing world.

Keep in mind, too, that economic growth, measured as the growth of income per capita (corrected for inflation), is not the best measure of what technological change does. True, technology increases productivity by making it possible to produce goods and services more efficiently (at lower cost). But much of what it does is to put on the market new products (or vastly improved ones) that may be quite inexpensive relative to their benefits. Many of the most important inventions of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries are things that we would not want to do without today; yet they had little effect on the national accounts because they were so inexpensive: aspirin, lightbulbs, water chlorination, bicycles, lithium batteries, wheeled suitcases, contact lenses, digital music, and more.

Further, our outdated conventions of national income accounting fail to capture fully the many ways in which technology can transform human life for the better. For instance, national income calculations do not count “leisure” as a valuable good. People who are not working are not producing, and this is simply “bad,” in Gordon’s view, because they are not adding to economic output. But it may well be that a leisurely life is the best “monopoly profit,” as Nobel Prize winner John Hicks already noted in 1935. And thanks to new technology, leisure—even involuntary leisure such as unemployment—can be more enjoyable than ever before. At little cost, anyone can now watch a bewildering array of sports events, movies, and operas from the comfort and safety of a living room on a high-definition flat-screen TV. If the technology of the twentieth century did anything, it vastly augmented our ability to have a good time when we are not working. Yet, while the average individual in an industrialized country nowadays has far more leisure hours and many more enjoyable things in his or her life than the typical person did a century ago, such things hardly show up in the national income statistics.


  1. Steve Johnson says:

    “And thanks to new technology, leisure — even involuntary leisure such as unemployment — can be more enjoyable than ever before. At little cost, anyone can now watch a bewildering array of sports events, movies, and operas from the comfort and safety of a living room on a high-definition flat-screen TV.”

    Unemployed, sitting on a couch staring at a large television is the opposite of being undervalued.

    It’s mindless and degenerate and destroys the only important thing a person can have — virtue. What does sitting idly in front of entertainment that’s built to pander to the worst instincts of people do to improve their courage, honesty, industry or strength?

    That’s the story of the 20th century — and the beginning of the 21st century — asserting that things are getting better in the face of evidence that’s plain to see if you haven’t been anesthetized that things are actually getting much much worse.

  2. Oh, Steve, your insistence on outmoded and frankly ridiculous measures of value like courage, honesty, industry and especially strength (ableism much?) flies in the face of the tremendous advances in ethical theory over the past 50 years. The man on the couch is absorbing vastly more hedons than some poor fellow sweating away at making or doing something.

    More seriously, funemployment might almost be fun, were it not for the student loan Debt of Damocles hanging over the heads of many of my peers. About 1/4 of my college acquaintances (pretty universally 3.2+ GPA, science/engineering BS or MS degrees) are unemployed, and at least half are underemployed, even a couple years after we graduated. More than half (myself included) have experienced long periods of unemployment.

    It’s not fun. My wife was unemployed for a long stretch last year and was not approved for benefits of any kind, not even for the medicines she relies on to be able to breathe without difficulty. Methinks Mr. Mokyr is speaking from an orifice other than his mouth.

  3. Toddy Cat says:

    That techno-optimism is way past it’s sell-by date. This ain’t 1955, Jack Kemp is dead, and anyone who thinks that a wheeled suitcase somehow makes up for record-low labor force participation is not on the same planet as the rest of us.

  4. Space Nookie says:

    This reminds me of the viewpoint that sees vegetarianism, small homes, and bicycling as a repackaged poverty. They may not be able to afford a family, a car, or meat in their diet, but hey, it’s a more earth-friendly lifestyle and thus, Progress!

  5. Rollory says:

    “because past pessism has been wrong”

    This is not THINKING. This is not reason.

    This is cargo cult.

  6. Toddy Cat says:

    “This is cargo cult.”

    Yes, Nassim Taleb has made a career out of displaying the flaws in this kind of thinking. We might actually have a bright future, but only if we make it happen. The idea that we can all just sit back and chill while the gods of the magical marketplace shower goodies on us is beyond absurd.

  7. Al Fin says:

    Remember: You are not done until you say you are done.

    As Toddy Cat says, the future is only likely to be bright for us if we make it happen ourselves.

    Bad things can just happen. Good things usually require a bit of help.

    No one explained to us what “raging against the dying of the light” would entail. I suppose we will have to make it up as we go. Perhaps if we perform well enough the road will be made clear for a technological cornucopia of sorts.

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