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Commentary: Understanding the pace of innovation vs. impact on real life

Posted in the Prior Lake American: Thursday, February 4, 2016 10:30 am

By John Diers

Do you remember “My Weekly Reader”?

In the 1950s, it predicted a great and glorious future for my generation—30-hour workweeks, flying cars and all the rest. Some of that happened; most of it didn’t. In fact, despite all the techno-junk and techno-wonders, my immediate world and lifestyle haven’t changed all that much. There have been improvements, yes, but none of them revolutionary.

Before the PC and the Internet there was the typewriter, the Dictaphone, the calculator, the slide rule, the Dewey Decimal System, the card catalog and the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature. I used all of them. The telephone, in its basic form, has been around for 150 years. I own a cell phone and use it to make calls, but really don’t care about text messaging, apps and all the rest. For me, a quarter and a pay phone would serve just as well. I love maps and learned to use them in elementary school. I have a vehicle location and navigation system in the car, but I never use it and mostly ignore all the other distracting stuff that stares back at me from the dashboard. I flirted briefly with social media but gave up and now consider it an invasive nuisance and would much rather receive, and read, a well-written letter than a tweet. I took up ham radio in 1956, learned Morse and used it for 20 years. At home in the 1950s we had all the major appliances and conveniences that are around today. My parents bought a television set in 1949 and installed central air conditioning in their home in suburban Bloomington in 1953. Amid all the recent consumer technology, I’ve never felt deprived, nor do I think of myself as a Luddite. I simply have no interest, see no benefit and mostly choose to ignore it.

Taken together, I’ve long held the view that the invention of the flush toilet had a greater beneficent effect on humans and the spread of civilization than our current consumer-driven technology. Ironically, 70 years ago that toilet was probably more affordable because hourly wages matched productivity and the top 10 percent were taking home some 34 percent of all incomes. Now, they grab 50 percent. But that’s another story.

This leads up to a new book that I’m reading, “The Rise and fall of American Growth” by Robert J. Gordon, from Princeton University Press. It’s a real tome, 784 pages and 64 tables, but I’m into it and it’s fascinating. Gordon is an economist and economic historian at Northwestern University. For many years he’s argued that the effects and benefits of recent improvements in IT are nothing compared to the major advances of the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution. He further argues that the 19th and early 20th century was a special time in the U.S., combining a technological revolution with the largest mass migration in history, the settling of a continent and the opening up of its enormous resources.

Consider for a moment that if Julius Caesar were reincarnated in 1800 he would have found a world very much like his own. Mobility was all about horses, or sail, or your feet. Illumination was the art of the candle maker. Waterwheels powered factories. The practice of medicine was about bleeding and prayer. Cities were knee deep in manure, both horse and human, and sanitation nonexistent.

In a single lifetime that world vanished, followed by rapid economic expansion when the innovations of the Industrial Revolution came together in the form of the automobile, new metals and materials, automation, electric power, air travel, longer life spans and dozens of other advances that are commonplace today.

Gordon asks the question, have we reached a scientific, technological and economic plateau? The key measure in Gordon’s book (and there are many) is gross domestic product, output per person and output per hour. Gordon uses total productivity, how quickly output grows relative to the capital and labor being used, to quantify innovation’s contribution to growth — a measure of productivity that grew more rapidly between 1920 and 1970 than any time before, or since. Gordon believes the slower growth since 1970 is one indicator that advances in IT are less important than the pivotal changes of the early 20th century. Not only has the growth rate been slower, but also unmeasured (subjective) improvements in the quality of life attributable to computer technology are less significant than in the first half of the 20th century.

Simply put, we have more technology and more stuff, but so what? Innovations will keep coming, but as Gordon argues, it’s important to know and understand the difference between the pace of innovation and the impact of innovation on productivity and the real quality of our lives.

My instincts are Malthusian and pessimistic, which makes me highly susceptible to Gordon’s thesis, but I also believe that change is both linear and exponential, and that we are on the cusp of advances more powerful than those of the Industrial Revolution — understanding the human genome, artificial intelligence and the singularity, the prospect of harnessing nuclear fusion, string theory and the knowledge that life itself, and we, as intelligent beings, may not be alone in a single universe.

The question is whether these advances will have the same effect on all of us as the banishment of the outhouse. A lot depends on whether the benefits and the wealth they create are shared by all, or hoarded by the few.

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com. (Editor’s note: Diers is a community columnist and not employed by, or paid by, the newspaper.)

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