Tech Slowdown Threatens the American Dream

Tech Slowdown Threatens the American Dream, by David Rotman.

In a three-month period at the end of 1879, Thomas Edison tested the first practical electric lightbulb, Karl Benz invented a workable internal-combustion engine, and a British-American inventor named David Edward Hughes transmitted a wireless signal over a few hundred meters.

These were just a few of the remarkable breakthroughs that Northwestern University economist Robert J. Gordon tells us led to a “special century” between 1870 and 1970, a period of unprecedented economic growth and improvements in health and standard of living for many Americans.

Growth since 1970? “Simultaneously dazzling and disappointing.” Think the PC and the Internet are important? Compare them with the dramatic decline in infant mortality, or the effect that indoor plumbing had on living conditions. … Life at the beginning of the 100-year period was characterized by “household drudgery, darkness, isolation, and early death,” he writes. By 1970, American lives had totally changed.

Ok, so you have a SmartPhone. That’s nothing compared to 1900 to 1940 when we got airplanes, electric motors, cars, telephones, indoor toilets, electric light, …

[P]roductivity growth, which allows companies and nations to expand and prosper—and, at least potentially, allows workers to earn more money—has been dismal for more than a decade. … and technology and innovation are “a big part of the story.” Some techno optimists have argued that the full benefits of apps, cloud computing, and social media are not showing up in the economic measurements. But even if that’s true, their overall effect is not all that significant. Fernald found that any growth spurred by such digital advances has been inadequate to overcome the lack of broader technological progress.

Could it be that the bureaucratic model of science funding since WWII has slowed the rate of invention, whilst responsible for the prodigious rise in self-promotion and PR? Those who now rise to the top in science and engineering are those best at impressing the bureaucrats who hand out grants. Nonsense like the carbon dioxide theory of global warming would never have succeeded outside bureaucratic science.

Or could it simply be that people aren’t as smart as they used to be?

Observe too that the main area of technological advance since 1950, electronics and computers, is the main area of human endeavor that is not heavily regulated by governments — relatively free to innovate with little red tape, unions, and trade barriers.

UPDATE: Has the ideas machine broken down?