Saturday, July 27, 2013

Tyler Cowen Is Wrong: Technopessimism Is Bunk

By Paul Solman

The developed world enjoys the benefits of running hot and cold water, refrigerators and electric stoves, all of which have been around for generations. But can we innovate beyond that? Can today's inventions -- the iPod, for example -- even compete with those "low-hanging fruit" that dramatically altered our homes and daily lives? In a 2011 Making Sen$e report, which you can watch above, George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen, author of "The Great Stagnation," argued that we're in an "innovation drought" where the rate of progress has slowed.

That's just not so, economic historian Joel Mokyr of Northwestern University argues Friday on the Business Desk: innovation has not peaked. Inventors may have already plucked the "low-hanging fruit" -- big inventions in everyday use -- but the thing about technology is that it's ever-evolving, allowing us to constantly climb even higher.

In 2011, we also visited the MIT Media Lab for some tangible evidence that innovation is still booming. You can see some of what we saw here.

But with innovation comes concerns that human workers will become redundant, with the profits for new inventions going only to the high-skilled few. In our 2012 report "Man vs. Machine," which you can watch at the end of this post, Singularity University's Vivek Wadhwa, who's made a reappearance on the Business Desk this week, predicted that "the convergence of these technologies will create jobs in areas we can't even think of." The workforce, he has argued on the Business Desk, has to keep adapting.

Responding to "technopessimists," (also the subject of a story in this weekend's New York Magazine), Mokyr picks up on Wadhwa's prediction. He too foresees new technologies creating new jobs, the nature of which we cannot yet even imagine. After all, technology's double-edged sword -- that new inventions create new problems, such as labor force disruption -- is what constantly pushes us to further innovate.

Joel Mokyr: One of the most unjust misattributions is the famous statement "everything that can be invented already has been," supposedly uttered in 1899 by Charles Holland Duell, commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office.

In fact, Duell wrote the very opposite: "In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold."

The true Duell turned out to be correct: the 20th century was indeed a century of huge technological progress. Indeed, only the growth of science and technology can explain how the industrialized world in the 20th century was able to survive a seemingly endless chain of man-made disasters, from two world wars, economic depressions, financial panics, inflations and the rise of totalitarianism. Many observers expected the Western world to sink into barbarism and darkness, much like had happened after the decline of the Roman Empire in Europe. Instead, despite its many economic woes, material life in 2013 is immeasurably better than ever before, not just in the industrialized rich parts of the planet, but in most economies.

Yet today, once again, we hear concerns that innovation has peaked. Some claim that "the low-hanging fruits have all been picked." The big inventions that made daily life so much more comfortable -- air conditioning, running cold and hot water, antibiotics, ready-made food, the washing machine -- have all been made and cannot be matched, so the thinking goes.

Entrepreneur Peter Thiel's widely quoted line "we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters" reflects a sense of disappointment. Others feel that the regulatory state reflects a change in culture: we are too afraid to take chances; we have become complacent, lazy and conservative.

Still others, on the contrary, want to stop technology from going much further because they worry that it will render people redundant, as more and more work is done by machines that can see, hear, read and (in their own fashion) think. What we gained as consumers, viewers, patients and citizens, they fear, we may be about to lose as workers. Technology, while it may have saved the world in the past century, has done what it was supposed to do. Now we need to focus on other things, they say.

This view is wrong and dangerous. Technology has not finished its work; it has barely started. Some lessons from history may show why. For one thing, technological progress has an unusual dynamic: it solves problems, but in doing so it, more often than not, creates new ones as unintended side-effects of the previous breakthroughs, and these in turn have to be solved, and so on.

1 comment:

  1. Thiel and Andreessen debated this topic at the 2013 Milken Institute: