Joel Mokyr: Technopessimism is bunk

My department is currently a focal point in the debates over the future of innovation and economic growth. Technopessimist arguments from my colleague Bob Gordon (as profiled in this New York Magazine article from the weekend) join those in Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation to suggest that the increase in living standards and the growth rates experienced over the past 200 years may be anomalous and not repeatable.

In the PBS Newshour Business Desk, my colleague (and former dissertation adviser) Joel Mokyr offers a different, more optimistic perspective. Joel emphasizes the dynamic aspects of new idea generation and the ensuing technological change and its effects on people and societies. Technology is never static, humans and our curiosity and our efforts to strive are never static, and that means that there’s not likely to be an “end of innovation” along the lines of an “end of history”:

Technology has not finished its work; it has barely started. Some lessons from history may show why. For one thing, technological progress has an unusual dynamic: it solves problems, but in doing so it, more often than not, creates new ones as unintended side-effects of the previous breakthroughs, and these in turn have to be solved, and so on. …

As we know more, we can push back against the pushback. And so on. The history of technology is to a large extent the history of unintended consequences. …

What will a future generation think of our technological efforts? During the Middle Ages, nobody knew they were living in the Middle Ages (the term emerged centuries later), and they would have resented a notion that it was an age of unbridled barbarism (it was not). During the early stages of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, few had a notion that a new technological dawn was breaking. So it is hard for someone alive today to imagine what future generations will make of our age. But to judge from progress in the past decades, it seems that the Digital Age may become to the Analog Age what the Iron Age was to the Stone Age. It will not last as long, and there is no way of knowing what will come after. But experience suggests that the metaphor of low-hanging fruit is misleading. Technology creates taller and taller ladders, and the higher-hanging fruits are within reach and may be just as juicy.

None of this is guaranteed. Lots of things can go wrong. Human history is always the result of a combination of deep impersonal forces, accidents and contingencies. Unintended consequences, stupidity, fear and selfishness often get in the way of making life better for more and more people. Technology alone cannot provide material progress; it’s just that without it, all the other ways of economic progress soon tend to fizzle out. Technological progress is perhaps not the cure-all for all human ills, but it beats the alternative.

Joel’s essay is well worth reading in its entirety. His argument highlights the decentralized, curiosity-driven process of technological change that does not proceed linearly, but is impossible to quash. These processes contribute to economic well-being in societies with good institutional and cultural contexts that facilitate and reward innovation when it generates value for others.

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