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Opinion | Technology and the Triumph of Pessimism – The New York Times

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Opinion Columnist
One of the best-selling novels of the 19th century was a work of what we’d now call speculative fiction: Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward: 2000-1887.” Bellamy was one of the first prominent figures to recognize that rapid technological progress had become an enduring feature of modern life — and he imagined that this progress would vastly improve human happiness.
In one scene, his protagonist, who has somehow been transported from the 1880s to 2000, is asked if he would like to hear some music; to his astonishment his hostess uses what we would now call a speakerphone to let him listen to a live orchestral performance, one of four then in progress. And he suggests that having such easy access to entertainment would represent “the limit of human felicity.”
Well, over the past few days I’ve watched several shows on my smart TV — I haven’t made up my mind yet about the new season of “Westworld” — and also watched several live musical performances. And let me say, I find access to streamed entertainment a major source of enjoyment. But the limit of felicity? Not so much.
I’ve also read recently about how both sides in the Russia-Ukraine war are using precision long-range missiles — guided by more or less the same technology that makes streaming possible — to strike targets deep behind each other’s lines. For what it’s worth, I’m very much rooting for Ukraine here, and it seems significant that the Ukrainians seem to be striking ammunition dumps while the Russians are carrying out terror attacks on shopping malls. But the larger point is that while technology can bring a lot of satisfaction, it can also enable new forms of destruction. And humanity has, sad to say, exploited that new ability on a massive scale.
My reference to Edward Bellamy comes from a forthcoming book, “Slouching Towards Utopia,” by Brad DeLong, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley. The book is a magisterial history of what DeLong calls the “long 20th century,” running from 1870 to 2010, an era that he says — surely correctly — was shaped overwhelmingly by the economic consequences of technological progress.
Why start in 1870? As DeLong points out, and many of us already knew, for the great bulk of human history — roughly 97 percent of the time that has elapsed since the first cities emerged in ancient Mesopotamia — Malthus was right: There were many technological innovations over the course of the millenniums, but the benefits of these innovations were always swallowed up by population growth, driving living standards for most people back down to the edge of subsistence.
There were occasional bouts of economic progress that temporarily outpaced what DeLong calls “Malthus’s devil” — indeed, modern scholarship suggests there was a significant rise in per-capita income during the early Roman Empire. But these episodes were always temporary. And as late as the 1860s, many smart observers believed the progress that had taken place under the Industrial Revolution would prove equally transitory.
Around 1870, however, the world entered an era of sustained rapid technological development that was unlike anything that had happened before; each successive generation found itself living in a new world, utterly transformed from the world into which its parents had been born.
As DeLong argues, there are two great puzzles about this transformation — puzzles that are highly relevant to the situation in which we now find ourselves.
The first is why this happened. DeLong argues that there were three great “meta-innovations” (my term, not his) — innovations that enabled innovation itself. These were the rise of large corporations, the invention of the industrial research lab and globalization. We could, I think, argue the details here. More important, however, is the suggestion — from DeLong and others — that the engines of rapid technological progress may be slowing down.
The second is why all this technological progress hasn’t made society better than it has. One thing I hadn’t fully realized until reading “Slouching Towards Utopia” is the extent to which progress hasn’t brought felicity. Over the 140 years DeLong surveys, there have been only two eras during which the Western world felt generally optimistic about the way things were going. (The rest of the world is a whole other story.)
The first such era was the 40 or so years leading up to 1914, when people began to realize just how much progress was being made and started to take it for granted. Unfortunately, that era of optimism died in fire, blood and tyranny, with technology enhancing rather than mitigating the horror (coincidentally, today is the 108th anniversary of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination).
The second era was the “30 glorious years,” the decades after World War II when social democracy — a market economy with its rough edges smoothed off by labor unions and a strong social safety net — seemed to be producing not Utopia, but the most decent societies humanity had ever known. But that era, too, came to an end, partly in the face of economic setbacks, but even more so in the face of ever more bitter politics, including the rise of right-wing extremism that is now putting democracy itself at risk.
It would be silly to say that the incredible progress of technology since 1870 has done nothing to improve things; in many ways the median American today has a far better life than the richest oligarchs of the Gilded Age. But the progress that brought us on-demand streaming music hasn’t made us satisfied or optimistic. DeLong offers some explanations for this disconnect, which I find interesting but not wholly persuasive. But his book definitely asks the right questions and teaches us a lot of crucial history along the way.
Robert Gordon thinks the great age of progress is behind us.
New ideas are getting harder to find.
Is China seeing the end of its own 30 glorious years?
In 1996, at the request of The Times, I did my own exercise in “looking backward” as if from 2096.
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A bit harder than my usual tastes, but you have to love a song whose chorus is partly in binary code.
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