High Tech Nirvana?

Like many of you, I’m a big believer in technology, especially high-tech that springs from the big brains in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. But here’s the question: Will the best brains of the future build things resembling past innovations like cars and electricity or will they spend all their time making Twitter more user-friendly?

It’s worth asking: are the strides we are seeing in high-technology today really going to change our lives that profoundly and usher-in the same kind of life-altering changes past technology revolutions have. Many think it will. But without being a “techno-phoebe,” Robert Gordon takes a different view, and his arguments are compelling.

His new book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, takes a thoughtful look at previous revolutions and without dismissing today’s tech revolution, and looks at how truly life-changing previous revolutions were. Here is part of what noted economist Paul Krugman says in his review of Gordon’s 762-page book:

I was fascinated by Gordon’s account of the changes wrought by his Great Inventions. As he says, “Except in the rural South, daily life for every American changed beyond recognition between 1870 and 1940.” Electric lights replaced candles and whale oil, flush toilets replaced outhouses, cars and electric trains replaced horses. (In the 1880s, parts of New York’s financial district were seven feet deep in manure.)

Meanwhile, backbreaking toil both in the workplace and in the home was for the most part replaced by far less onerous employment. This is a point all too often missed by economists, who tend to think only about how much purchasing power people have, not about what they have to do to get it, and Gordon does an important service by reminding us that the conditions under which men and women labor are as important as the amount they get paid.

Aside from its being an interesting story, however, why is it important to study this transformation? Mainly, Gordon suggests — although these are my words, not his — to provide a baseline. What happened between 1870 and 1940, he argues, and I would agree, is what real transformation looks like. Any claims about current progress need to be compared with that baseline to see how they measure up.

And it’s hard not to agree with him that nothing that has happened since is remotely comparable. Urban life in America on the eve of World War II was already recognizably modern; you or I could walk into a 1940s apartment, with its indoor plumbing, gas range, electric lights, refrigerator and telephone, and we’d find it basically functional. We’d be annoyed at the lack of television and Internet — but not horrified or disgusted.

By contrast, urban Americans from 1940 walking into 1870-style accommodations — which they could still do in the rural South — were indeed horrified and disgusted. Life fundamentally improved between 1870 and 1940 in a way it hasn’t since.

Something to think about as we pin our hopes for the future on today’s emerging technology.

You can read Krugman’s full review here: