Postrel on Progress
By David Henderson
I wish I had been aware of Virginia Postrel’s excellent piece on technological progress when I wrote my post yesterday on electricity. In it, she takes on the views of Jason Pontin, my former editor at the Red Herring, and Peter Thiel, of PayPal and Facebook fame.
Virginia grants Thiel’s point about the danger of regulation:
Political barriers have in fact made it harder to innovate with atoms than with bits. New technologies as diverse as hydraulic fracturing and direct-to-consumer genetic testing (neither mentioned by Thiel) attract instant and predictable opposition. As Thiel writes, “Progress is neither automatic nor mechanistic; it is rare.”
That’s the bad news. But it’s not the whole story. Virginia writes:
These visions [of space flight and flying cars] imprinted themselves so vividly on the public’s consciousness that they left some of the smartest, most technologically savvy denizens of the 21st century blind to much of the progress we actually enjoy.
To which I would add that one of the neatest things we imagined in the 1950s and 1960s was Dick Tracy wristwatches into which you could talk. I used to point out that we don’t have those. We don’t wear them on our wrists. We carry them in our pockets or on our hips and they do far more than Chester Gould, Dick Tracy’s creator, ever imagined. But now we do have Dick Tracy wristwatches.
Moreover, points out Postrel, travel is much faster now. Thiel’s right that airplanes aren’t much faster than they were 40 years ago. But due to technological improvements and the efforts of Ted Kennedy, Fred Kahn, Stephen Breyer, and others to break up the government-enforced airline cartel, air travel is much cheaper. So even for flights as short as 500 miles, it often makes sense to fly instead of drive. Again, although Postrel doesn’t note this, regulation rears its ugly head in the form of TSA. And TSA is slowing travel by taking more of our time at airports and also by, on the margin, shifting some travelers from planes to cars (and, in the latter case, therefore, making travel more dangerous.) But still many of us fly who wouldn’t have been easily able to 40 years ago.
Virginia details more of the wonders of modern life:
Forget the big, obvious things like Internet search, GPS, smartphones or molecularly targeted cancer treatments. Compared with the real 21st century, old projections of The Future offered a paucity of fundamentally new technologies. They included no laparoscopic surgery or effective acne treatments or ADHD medications or Lasik or lithotripsy — to name just a few medical advances that don’t significantly affect life expectancy.
Wait. There’s more:
The glamorous future included no digital photography or stereo speakers tiny enough to fit in your ears. No forensic DNA testing or home pregnancy tests. No ubiquitous microwave ovens or video games or bar codes or laser levels or CGI-filled movies. No super absorbent polymers for disposable diapers — indeed, no disposable diapers of any kind.
Nor was much business innovation evident in those 20th century visions. The glamorous future included no FedEx or Wal- Mart, no Starbucks or Nike or Craigslist — culturally transformative enterprises that use technology but derive their real value from organization and insight. Nobody used shipping containers or optimized supply chains. The manufacturing revolution that began at Toyota never happened. And forget about such complex but quotidian inventions as wickable fabrics or salad in a bag.
Take just 2 of those. We went a week without a microwave oven recently when ours broke down and it was enough of a loss that I wrote an article, forthcoming in The Freeman, laying out the joys of microwaves. And salad in a bag? Don’t get me started! It’s wonderful coming home after a long day of work and preparing a salad in less than 5 minutes. (Why 5? Because we often chop up walnuts and olives to put in it.)
And Virginia forgot to mention eBay. The handle on my wife’s computer case was fraying and she found a new computer case on line–for over $200. So she went to eBay and found the same thing–for $40.
Virginia’s bottom line:
The point isn’t that people in the past failed to predict all these innovations. It’s that people in the present take them for granted.
Technologists who lament the “end of the future” are denigrating the decentralized, incremental advances that actually improve everyday life. And they’re promoting a truncated idea of past innovation: economic history with railroads but no department stores, radio but no ready-to-wear apparel, vaccines but no consumer packaged goods, jets but no plastics.
Even as early as 1997, it was becoming clear that technology was changing many things for the better. I documented much of it for Jason Pontin’s Red Herring in my 1997 article, “The Digital Economic Revolution.”
The attitude that technological improvement is important only if it’s gee-whiz, fly-to-space type technology often leads people to lose their sense of wonder. This is the taking for granted that Virginia Postrel refers to. Here’s what I wrote about that in my 2001 book, The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey:
Think of what we can do nowadays, even those of us with modest incomes. If we miss a movie when it’s in the theaters, we don’t have to wait, the way we used to, until either it comes around again (unlikely) or is shown, years later, on TV, interrupted by ads and missing some of the best parts courtesy of network “censors.” Instead, we can see the uncut version at our convenience on a video recorder that costs less than the earnings from three days of work at the minimum wage. We can rent the movie for a price that is often less than half of what we would have had to pay to see it on the big screen. I know we often take this for granted. One of the joys of capitalism is that we can take its awesome productivity for granted. But it’s good, every once in a while, to have some wonder about the many things that are wonderful. A lot of “wonder robbers” out there think it’s not “cool” to have wonder. But don’t ever let anyone rob you of your sense of wonder. If you’ve already lost it, here’s your chance to reclaim it.
HT to Amy Willis.