Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Krugman and Stross: The Pace of Technology

Their first topic is technology: Where are our flying cars?

[Stross] Actually, flying cars are a really bad idea, if I can just go off on a tangent. Your flying car is great, what about your neighbor's flying car when his 15 year old son gets into it and tries to impress his girlfriend in it?

Indeed. Krugman talks a bit about kitchen technology:

If you walked into a kitchen from the 1950s it would look a little pokey, but you'd know what to do. It wouldn't be that difficult. If someone from the 1950s walked into a kitchen from 1909 they'd be pretty unhappy — they might just be able to manage. If someone from 1909 went to one from 1859, you would actually be hopeless. The big change was really between 1840 and the 1920s, in terms of what the physical nature of modern life is like.

I don't know enough about mid-19th century kitchens to judge this, but let's take it as given.

A few points worth mentioning. First, of course not all areas of life will develop the way we envisioned fifty years ago. Second, of course they won't all develop at the same pace. They vaguely touch on these points. But what they don't mention is that some areas have advanced far beyond what we envisioned fifty years ago: medical technology, for example. My grandfather had his gall bladder removed surgically in the 1950s. He was bedridden for about six weeks, recovering from the large incision made in his abdomen. I had my gall bladder removed laparoscopically in 1998. The procedure was done on a Friday. I was back at work on Monday, and was able to resume full physical activity within a week or so. Many medical procedures done today would have been inconceivable fifty years ago.

I'm not even mentioning microcomputers, the most obvious unexpected advance. Or cellular phones. One way to grasp how recently cell phones have transformed our lives is to think of the sit-com Seinfeld. How many plots would have been short-circuited by a simple cell phone call or text message?

Even in the products they use as examples - transportation, household goods - there has been huge progress. Things cost much less than they used to, when measured in terms of how many hours we must work in order to buy them. Stylish products of a type that used to only be affordable to the upper class are now available at Target. (And new forms of style have supplanted them at the high end. There is always a high end. But the gap is surely far less than it once was.) Kitchen devices may be functionally equivalent to 1950s devices, but they are as a rule more energy efficient and more reliable. Aircraft may not be hypersonic, but they are more fuel efficient and safer; the same goes for cars.

When we are plucking low-hanging fruit from the tree of technology, the pace of invention may seem tremendous because every new advance rushes to market. But when the advances get less obviously beneficial (say, the "improvement" from regular cars to flying ones), markets resist. We could certainly build a flying car now, at some price, but why? Who would buy it? And as Stross pointed out, aren't there serious safety issues? In many fields that seemed hot during the golden age of science fiction, the technology really has continued to improve, but mass market acceptance hasn't been there. The products just aren't needed.

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