There are, broadly, two views about future technological advances doing the rounds at the moment. I’ve nicknamed them Tech Yeah! and Tech Meh!
Tech Yeah! is the more mainstream of the two. You hear it from the futurologists at management conferences and in the technology sections of the major newspapers. My Twitter stream is full of it. Tech Yeah! says we are on the brink of leap in technology as far-reaching as the industrial revolution only much faster. It will transform the way we live and work. In the process, it will make us more productive and lead to an era of abundance.
Tech Meh! is the view that the future won’t be anywhere near as futuristic as we think and that technological progress is slowing down.
The big inventions have all happened, says Robert Gordon, and the recent technological developments just won’t deliver the same increases in productivity and living standards.
The computer and Internet revolution (IR #3) began around 1960 and reached its climax in the dot.com era of the late 1990s, but its main impact on productivity has withered away in the past eight years. Many of the inventions that replaced tedious and repetitive clerical labor by computers happened a long time ago, in the 1970s and 1980s. Invention since 2000 has centered on entertainment and communication devices that are smaller, smarter, and more capable, but do not fundamentally change labor productivity or the standard of living in the way that electric light, motor cars, or indoor plumbing changed it.
In a recent WSJ piece, Gordon remarked:
The rapid progress made over the past 250 years could well turn out to be a unique episode in human history.
Peter Thiel pulled an iPhone out of his jeans pocket and held it up. “I don’t consider this to be a technological breakthrough,” he said. “Compare this with the Apollo space program.”
A couple of years ago, Alan Patrick argued that there was more innovation in 1909, 1929 and 1969 than in 2009.
A similar theme runs through David Boyle’s New Year thought-piece in the Guardian. He too thinks that the pace of technological change is slowing down.
Two peculiar counter-intuitive facts about the digital world this year. First, sales of computer tablets have been on the slide. Second, even less predictably, sales of ebooks – at least in the summer – were down by a quarter on two years before, while sales of print books have been rising.
[D]espite what we are told, technological change is actually slowing down. I’ve been travelling on Boeing 747s and driving Minis my entire life (I’m 56). And although the technology inside them is very different, just compare that with a century ago – with the extraordinary development over the same 56-year period of cars, aeroplanes, submarines, telephones and all the rest.
If I was born in 1858, would I still be struggling along in my wagon at New Year 1915? These days, we live at the same addresses as we did a century ago. Travelling in London, at least, we take the same bus routes, use the same stations.
He has a point. I remember, when I was about 8 or 9, drawing two pictures of futuristic aeroplanes. By the time I was grown up, I told my teacher, the first one would whisk me across the world at 3 times the speed of sound. But this would be rendered obsolete by the second one, which would do 4 times the speed of sound. An over-active childish imagination? Not really. After all, we’d gone from a wooden glider driven by a 12 horsepower engine to a moon landing and supersonic passenger flights in 70 years. Expecting to fly at ever faster speeds over the next 20 years or so looked like a reasonable assumption. We were going to have a colony on the Moon by 2003, so 4 times the speed of sound across the Atlantic would be run-of-the-mill.
It never happened, of course. Concorde was as good as supersonic flight got before we scrapped it and we gave up on manned space flight years ago.
As I was flying abroad recently, it occurred to me that I had made an Airfix model of the Boeing plane I was on when I was a kid in the 70s. The first one I ever did was a Harrier jump jet, recently dumped by our government but still doing sterling work elsewhere. Had aircraft technology moved at a similar pace during my dad’s lifetime, the RAF would still have been flying Lancasters and Spitfires in the 1980s, albeit with more sophisticated technology in the cockpit. The Spitfire was state-of-the-art in 1939 but almost obsolete by 1945. Today’s airforces and airlines are still using 40 year old technology.
David Boyle links to a couple of pieces by Mark Pack who points out that the speed of take-up of iPods was no more impressive than the take-up of radios in the 1920s and 30s and argues that the world is not speeding up but slowing down. He links to a fascinating book by Bob Seidensticker called Future Hype (website here). It was written in 2006 but its argument that a lot of new technology simply enables us to do the same stuff faster and sitting at home or in a cafe holds true.
Ha-Joon Chang says the washing machine changed the world more than the internet, pointing out that, so far, there is little evidence that the internet revolution has done much to improve productivity.
It may be that all this is about to change. We may indeed be on the cusp of a technological revolution. But that revolution will have to deliver massive leap in productivity to counteract a global slowdown in economic growth and a relative decline in the world’s working age population. A report by McKinsey in 2012 warned that, unless the rate of productivity growth speeds up, those born after 2000 will see a much slower rate of improvement in their living standards than the post-war generations enjoyed. Those in Southern Europe might even end up poorer than their parents. To deliver the sort of growth we once assumed was normal, these technological advances are going to have to be really good.
The UK economy needs more robots. That’s the message of the low labour productivity problem. Real wages can’t rise over the long term unless investment in capital and productivity improve.
This is a more optimistic vision than that of a slowdown and stagnation, even if it does mean that the robots will eat a lot of people’s jobs, but it still leaves the problem of distributing the benefits of this productivity.
In its Future of Work report last year, UKCES came up with a number of scenarios which included both the possibility of a long period of stagnation and of a technology driven productivity leap. One thing all the scenarios had in common, though, was that, for those without good skills, powerful connections or inherited wealth, the future looks extremely bleak.
The Economist concluded, at the end of a long piece on technology and work last year:
[S]ociety may find itself sorely tested if, as seems possible, growth and innovation deliver handsome gains to the skilled, while the rest cling to dwindling employment opportunities at stagnant wages.
It might not even be so great for the skilled. The Uberification of professional work could create a new class of precarious freelancers, working in what the Economist described earlier this month as a limited Utopia. Limited, that is, to those who own the technology. Or, as John Naughton put it, “a concierge economy [with] legions of network co-ordinated serfs.”
In terms of that great abstract thing we call the economy, the robot future is, without doubt, better than long-term stagnation. For those excluded from its benefits, though, it might not feel that much different.