A Pessimistic view of Technological Progress

las vegasA pomo-mo age

As formulaic, as boring and predictable as Hollywood Box office success has become, every once in a while some do break out the box producing something out of the ordinary but at the same time popular. Some go the route of completely disregarding popularity as an indication of success with some success, some use this as just an exercise in indulging the artists’ excesses of ego and screaming about one’s own genius from the rooftops except no one quite agrees and such status cannot be self-bestowed, buildings only come to bear your name after you’re dead and gone. The Hollywood formula nowadays involves that super location of all settings that almost guarantees success and is a criterion in equal footing to the superstar leading guy or gal – both most of the time. That location is of course Vegas, I’m thinking of Last Vegas, Hangover, Ocean Eleven, Twelve e.tc.

Vegas makes for a perfect location for a plot line where anything can and does happen, it is a metaphor of the age we currently live in. The Po-Mo age is characterised by a constant tearing down and building then tearing down again to rebuild ad infinitum, so that to the eye everything in this setting is always changing but their replacements are not exactly radically different, just not the same thing- the term same difference comes to mind.

Compared to what?

There’s a phenomenon that can be observed when travelling on trains. On stopping at a station with another train on the other platform travelling in the opposite direction, if one of the trains is to start moving, it is often difficult to determine which one is; the train you’re in or the one on the other platform. Takes a while to figure this out but not too long. However, to a different observer from another reference point, say a spouse waving goodbye whilst standing on the train platform, it is clear which train is moving and which is at a momentary standstill.

When comes to Technological progress, there are diametrically opposed views on how much progress has been made, but to correctly determine which is right we must ask the question – progress, compared to what?

On the one side of the argument is the Silicon valley type where only the paranoid survive, the slow get left behind. It ain’t no Aesop’s Fable round there and the Tortoise is often run over by a 2-tonne truck of rapid change. So maybe Bill Gates is right when he said that “the idea that Innovation is slowing down is stupid“.

Compared to the Industrial Revolution(s)

The objections of those on the other side of the argument is that rapid change is real in today’s technological development, but even the one-eyed will be a king amongst the blind so compared to what like I said earlier. This is the age of computers, this is the number one thing we can point to today as our major achievement, yet if this invention as I would refer to it, is to be properly evaluated it must be placed side by side to inventions similar to it in the ages gone. Such evaluation was done by Robert Gordon in a paper here:

[This] analysis links periods of slow and rapid growth to the timing of the three industrial revolutions (IR’s), that is, IR #1 (steam, railroads) from 1750 to 1830; IR #2 (electricity, internal combustion engine, running water, indoor toilets, communications, entertainment, chemicals, petroleum) from 1870 to 1900; and IR #3 (computers, the web, mobile phones) from 1960 to present. It provides evidence that IR #2 was more important than the others and was largely responsible for 80 years of relatively rapid productivity growth between 1890 and 1972. Once the spin-off inventions from IR #2 (airplanes, air conditioning, interstate highways) had run their course, productivity growth during 1972-96 was much slower than before. In contrast, IR #3 created only a short-lived growth revival between 1996 and 2004. Many of the original and spin-off inventions of IR #2 could happen only once – urbanization, transportation speed, the freedom of females from the drudgery of carrying tons of water per year, and the role of central heating and air conditioning in achieving a year-round constant temperature.

So, economically speaking the inventions of the earlier ages have had much more of an effect than those of now (See chart 3 of the economist article here). Without even trying to measure economic growth, simply pointing at the credit crunch is enough to point out the fact that most are not better off from today’s progress.

What is Progress?

We could also go the existential route too by questioning the very essence of the word ‘Progress’ itself as John Gray does in The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. Incidentally, this is the same author is credited for predicting the credit crunch.

Another objection to progress as we are witnessing in this age is that it could also possibly cause greater inequality as those in possession of the know-how in this age get increasingly richer whilst the Luddites and late adopters slowly get turned to wine under the foot of this age’s economic victors. This idea as critiqued here, does not account for human resilience, just as Malthus’ earlier version of it could not predict the arrival of GM crops. So should we expect the cab drivers whose livelihoods are threatened by driverless cars and Uber apps will painlessly, eventually find alternative ways to earn a living because they have transferrable skills like … !’#? OR would they have to retrain themselves to do something else different to what they have spent years the honing skills and gaining experience for.

Flashing lights and no substance

And so the bright lights of Vegas keeps blinking, the machines keep spinning, jangling to announce Jackpots and a good time was had by all even though we cannot quite recall what happened last night. Realisation of a shotgun wedding or seeking an explanation for why you now have a baby in your possession soon ensues when morning comes. We must remember too that there are real losers in vegas, serial entrepreneurs who don’t quite make it big, yet will always find venture capitalist who will back them one last time in the hope of hitting one jackpot.

The oft-used word ‘innovation’ implies that today’s developments are building on blue sky efforts of our forebears that we greedily commercialise without any regard for their adverse social effects. As fast as we can to innovate today, our best ideas still pale in comparison the inventions of the Industrial revolution(s).

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