Is technological progress a thing of the past?

Joel Mokyr 08 September 2013

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Technological progress has been at the heart of economic growth for two centuries. Some authors, however, have suggested that product and process innovation are running out of steam:

  • Robert J Gordon and Tyler Cowen, inter alia, have expressed the view that technological progress is slowing down (Gordon 2012, Cowen 2011).
  • Jan Vijg has suggested that the industrialised West of the 21st century will resemble the declining Empires of late Rome and Qing China (Vijg 2011).

Their basic point is that technological dynamism is fizzling out. The low-hanging fruits that have improved our lives so much in the 20th century have all been picked. We should be ready for a more stagnant world in which living standards rise little if at all.

History and the future

History is always a bad guide to the future and economic historians should avoid making predictions. All the same, the historical records provide some insights into what makes societies technologically creative. Such insights, in turn can be used at the basis for looking ahead to assess how likely such a decline is to take place.

The answer is short and simple: we ain’t seen nothin’ yet, the best is still to come.

Supply and the demand sides of innovation

My argument concerns both the supply and the demand sides of innovation. Starting with supply, what is it that accounts for sustained technological progress? The relation between scientific progress and technology is a complex two-way street. For example, 19th-century energy-physics learned more from the steam engine than the other way around.

The historical record makes clear that science depends on technology in that it depends on the instruments and tools that are needed for science to advance. New instruments opened new horizons in what Derek Price called "artificial revelation”, observations through instruments that allow us to see things that would otherwise be invisible.

Examples:

  • The Scientific Revolution of the 17th century depended critically on the development of the telescope, the microscope, the barometer, the vacuum pump, and similar contraptions.
  • The achromatic-lens microscope developed by Joseph J Lister (father of the famous surgeon) in the 1820s paved the way for the germ theory, the greatest breakthrough in medicine before 1900.

The same was true in physics, for instance:

  • The equipment designed by Heinrich Hertz allowed him to detect electromagnetic radiation in the 1880s and Robert Millikan’s ingenious oil-drop apparatus allowed him to measure the electric charge of an electron (1911).

In the twentieth century, the impact of instruments on progress is even more apparent. For example:

  • X-ray crystallography, developed in 1912, was crucial forty years later in the discovery of the structure of DNA.

If tools and instruments are a key to further scientific progress, it is hard not to be impressed by the possibilities of the 21st century:

  • DNA sequencing machines and cell analysis through flow cytometry (to mention but two) have revolutionised molecular microbiology.
  • High-powered computers are helping research in every domain conceivable, from content analysis in novels to the (very hard) problems of turbulence.
  • Astronomy, nanochemistry, and genetic engineering are all areas in which progress has been mind-boggling in the past few decades thanks to better tools.

To be sure, there is no automatic mechanism that turns better science into improved technology. But there is one reason to believe that in the near future it will do so better and more efficiently than ever before. The reason is access.

Inventors, engineers, applied chemists, and physicians all need access to best-practice science to answer an infinite list of questions about what can and cannot be done. Search engines were invented in the 18th century through encyclopaedias and compendia that arranged all available knowledge in alphabetical order, making it easy to find. Textbooks had indexes that did the same. Libraries developed cataloguing systems and other techniques that made scientific information findable.

But these search systems have their limitations. One might have feared that the explosion of scientific knowledge in the 20th century could outrun our ability to find what we are looking for. Yet the reverse has happened. The development of searchable databanks of massive sizes has even outrun our ability to generate scientific knowledge. Copying, storing, transmitting, and searching vast amounts of information today is fast, easy, and practically free. We no longer deal with megabytes or gigabytes. Instead terms like petabytes (a million gigabytes) and zettabytes (a million petabytes) are being bandied about. Scientists can now find the tiniest needles in data haystacks as large as Montana in a fraction of a second.
And if science sometimes still proceeds by ‘trying every bottle on the shelf’ – as in some areas it still does – it can search with blinding speed over many more bottles, perhaps even peta-bottles.

Have all the low-hanging fruits been picked?

One answer is that the analogy is flawed. Science builds taller and taller ladders, so we can reach the upper branches, and then the branches above them.

  • A less obvious answer is that technological progress is fundamentally a dis-equilibrating process.

Whenever a technological solution is found for some human need, it creates a new problem. As Edward Tenner put it, technology ‘bites back’. The new technique then needs a further ‘technological fix’, but that one in turn creates another problem, and so on. The notion that invention definitely ‘solves’ a human need, allowing us to move to pick the next piece of fruit on the tree is simply misleading.

  • Each solution perturbs some other component in the system and sows the seed of more needs; the ‘demand’ for new technology is thus self-sustaining.

The most obvious example for such a dynamic is in our never-ending struggles with insects and harmful bacteria. In those wars, evolutionary mechanisms decree that after most battles we win, the enemy regroups by becoming resistant to whatever poison we throw at them. Drug-resistant bacteria are increasingly common and require novel approaches to new antibiotics. The search for novel antibiotics will resume with tools that Chain and Florey would never have dreamed of – but even such new antibiotics will eventually lead to adaptation.

In agriculture, the advance in fertiliser use has helped avert the Malthusian disasters that various doom-and-gloom authors predicted. But the vast increase in nitrate use following Fritz Haber’s epochal invention of the nitrogen-fixing process before World War I has now led to serious environmental problems in aquifer pollution and algae blooms. Again, technology will provide us with a fix, possibly through genetic engineering in which more plants can fix their own nitrates rather than needing fertiliser or bacteria that convert nitrates into nitrogen at more efficient rates.

Another example is energy: For better or for worse, modern technology has relied heavily on fossil fuels: first coal, then oil, and now increasingly on natural gas. The bite-back here has been planetary in scope: climate change is no longer a prospect, it is a reality. Can new technology stop it? There is no doubt that it can, even if nobody can predict right now what shape that will take, and if collective action difficulties will actually make it realistic.

What will the workers do?

Perhaps the biggest bite-back is what happens to human labour. If technology replaces workers, what will the role of people become? From Kurt Vonnegut to Erik Brynjolfsson, dystopias about an idle and vapid humanity in a robotised economy have worried people. There will be disruption and pain, but the new technology will also create new demand for workers, to perform tasks that a new technology creates.

  • In 1914 who could have imagined occupations such as video game programmer or identity-theft security guard?
  • Physical therapists, social media consultants, and TV sports commentators are all occupations created by new technology.

It seems plausible that the future, too, will create occupations we cannot imagine, let alone envisage. Furthermore, the task that 20th-century technology seems to have carried out the easiest is to create activities that fill the ever-growing leisure time that early retirement and shorter work-weeks have created. Technological creativity has responded to the growth of free time: a bewildering choice of programmes on TV, the rise of mass tourism, access at will to virtually every film made and opera written, and a vast pet industry are just some examples. The cockfights and eye-gouging contests with which working classes in the past entertained themselves have been replaced by a gigantic high-tech spectator-sports industrial complex, both local and global.

Keynes’ vision

In his brief Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1931) Keynes foresaw much of the future impact of technology. His insights may surprise those who regard him as the prophet of unemployment: “all this [technological change] means in the long run [is] that mankind is solving its economic problem” (italics in original). Contemplating a world in which work itself would become redundant thanks to science and capital (Keynes did not envisage robots, but they would have strengthened his case), he felt that this age of leisure and abundance was frightening people because “we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy”.

References

Brynjolfsson, Erik and Andrew McAfee (2011), Race Against the Machine, New York, Digital Frontier Press.

Cowen, Tyler (2011), The Great Stagnation, New York, Dutton.

Gordon Robert J (2012), “Is US Economic Growth over? Faltering Innovation confronts the six Headwinds”, NBER Working paper series, 18315, August.

Mokyr, Joel (2002), The Gifts of Athena, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Price, Derek J de Solla (1984a), “Notes towards a Philosophy of the Science/Technology Interaction” in Rachel Laudan (ed.) The Nature of Knowledge: are Models of Scientific Change Relevant?, Dordrecht, Kluwer.

Tenner, Edward (1996), Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, New York, Knopf.

Vijg, Jan (2011), The American Technological Challenge: Stagnation and Decline in the 21st Century, New York, Algora Publishing.
Vonnegut, Kurt (1974), Player Piano, New York, Dell Paperbacks.

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Topics:  Productivity and Innovation

Tags:  technology, technological progress