Friday, October 07, 2011

Seeing beyond the trough we're in

Kevin Drum today takes on a meme gathering steam: that innovation has stalled, and we're in a period of relative technological stagnation. In particular, addressing the question of whether inventions in the last 50 years have been less transformative than those in the previous 50-odd, he argues:
Most of the best known inventions of the early 20th century were actually offshoots of two really big inventions: electrification and the internal combustion engine. By contrast, the late 20th century had one really big invention: digital computers. Obviously two is more than one, but still, looked at that way, the difference between the two periods becomes a bit more modest. The difference between the offshoots of those big inventions is probably more modest than we think too. Just as we once made better and better use of electrification, we're now making better and better use of digital computing. And to call all these computing-inspired inventions mere "improvements" is like calling TV a mere improvement of radio. These are bigger deals than we often think. We have computers themselves, of course, plus smartphones, the internet, CAT scans, vastly improved supply chain management, fast gene sequencing, GPS, Lasik surgery, e-readers, ATMs and debit cards, video games, and much more.
Drum is responding in large part to Tyler Cowen's The Great Stagnation. I'd like to second his skepticism.  In fact, some months ago I posed five questions for Cowen, e.g.:

I'd question whether we're living in an era in which transformative technological innovation is in short supply. Cowen does allow "the Internet" as the great exception, but points out that the leading-edge tech companies employ relatively few people, and that Internet innovation has been notoriously difficult to monetize. He is strangely silent, though, about the impact of interactive technology and computer technology more generally on production and commerce of all kinds -- just-in-time factory production, product customization, bar coding, all the incredible efficiencies of large-scale retail operations that wring out large profits on tiny margins -- and on interactive technology's role in globalizing production. He also doesn't consider transformative technologies hiding in plain sight: personal computers themselves (never mind the Internet) and cell phones. It's true, as Cowen says, that the basic physical components of middle class life in America don't look that much different than they did in the 1960s. But they are much different. And the differences have generated a lot of wealth, even if  the U.S. middle class hasn't garnered as large a share as it did in he previous generation.
Since not a ton of people read that review, I'd like to most humbly commend it to you, dear reader, if you missed it the first time.

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