What will Santa bring you this Christmas? If you’ve been very good, it might just be the latest iPhone – or some other sought-after slab of glass and metal. For those of us of a technophilic disposition, this a golden age of instant communication, touch-sensitive screens, pin-sharp imagery and pitch-perfect audio.
However, the science writer Michael Hanlon is not impressed. In an essay for Aeon, he argues that the real golden age of technological and social progress has been and gone:
“It spluttered to a halt more than 40 years ago. Most of what has happened since has been merely incremental improvements upon what came before. That true age of innovation – I’ll call it the Golden Quarter – ran from approximately 1945 to 1971. Just about everything that defines the modern world either came about, or had its seeds sown, during this time. The Pill. Electronics. Computers and the birth of the internet. Nuclear power. Television. Antibiotics. Space travel. Civil rights… We put a man on the Moon, sent a probe to Mars, beat smallpox and discovered the double-spiral key of life.”
Viewed in this light, the gizmos of the 21st century pale into insignificance. The latest tablet or mobile phone will not change your life – at least not compared to the cars, fridges and washing machines that had such a transformational impact in the 20th century.
One can disagree as to whether all of these transformations were entirely positive. A lot of pretty disastrous things happened between 1945 and 1971 – the weakening of family structures, the rise in crime and what the planners and architects did to our towns and cities. But for good or ill, there’s no doubting the significance of the Golden Quarter:
“Today, progress is defined almost entirely by consumer-driven, often banal improvements in information technology. The US economist Tyler Cowen, in his essay The Great Stagnation (2011), argues that, in the US at least, a technological plateau has been reached. Sure, our phones are great, but that’s not the same as being able to fly across the Atlantic in eight hours or eliminating smallpox.”
Hanlon acknowledges some continued scientific progress, such as the decoding of the human genome, but looks in vain for the breakthrough applications of that knowledge:
“For the past 20 years, as a science writer, I have covered such extraordinary medical advances as gene therapy, cloned replacement organs, stem-cell therapy, life-extension technologies, the promised spin-offs from genomics and tailored medicine. None of these new treatments is yet routinely available. The paralyzed still cannot walk, the blind still cannot see.”
What can account for this technological plateau? Hanlon considers and discards a number of explanations before settling on two – firstly, a general aversion to technological risk and, secondly, the growing inequality of wealth. Instead of taking the big bold steps that characterised the Golden Quarter, we’ve tip-toed our way into the 21st century. Meanwhile, the rich have got all the money and they’re spending it on “superyachts, fast cars, private jets and other gewgaws” – frippery taking the place of progress.
Again, this is debatable. These days, it may be harder for governments and corporations to foist new technologies on an unwilling public; but when consumers clearly see the benefits of innovation, there’s no holding them back. For example, the related medical scare stories didn’t do much to slow the uptake of mobile phones. If innovation fails to deliver a product that the public sees the point of, then the problem is with the innovators, not the public.
As for the concentration of wealth, it’s true that it now compares to the Gilded Age of the late Nineteenth Century. However, this was a time of rapid economic growth and innovation – coinciding with the so-called Second Industrial Revolution. If inequality didn’t result in stagnation back then, why would it result in stagnation now?
It’s also worth noting that the rich, even with their luxuries, tend to consume a lower proportion of their incomes than the rest of us. Thus if today’s inequality is responsible for the technological slowdown, the fault must lie with how the rich invest their money, not how they spend it.
As we’ve argued before on the Deep End, the rich can afford to make risky investments in new industries – and must be encouraged to do so. Unfortunately, by stepping in to bail-out the banks and prop-up the property markets, government has created the wrong incentives, indulging an appetite for safe-haven investments.
Protecting the pensions and life savings of ordinary people is perfectly proper thing for government to do. But by coddling those who can afford to lose their money, the state has turned the shock troops of capitalism into a bunch of cowards.