SYNOPSIS: The great advances of today are nothing like the great advances of yestercentury
The new PBS mini-series "1900 House," which started last week, follows a modern British family that has agreed to spend three months living in a London townhouse that has been carefully de-modernized -- electric wiring stripped out and gas lighting put back into service, plumbing degraded back to Victorian standards and so on. I was worried about the concept: would it turn out to be exploitation TV with a highbrow veneer, sort of "Survivor" meets "Upstairs, Downstairs"? But the first episode, about the preparation of the house and the selection of the family, was terrific, prompting some serious thoughts about the nature and measurement of economic progress.
For one thing, the series makes extremely graphic a point much emphasized by the Berkeley economist J. Bradford DeLong in his already classic though not yet complete book "Slouching Towards Utopia" (the Internet has definitely scrambled the old rules of scholarship!): economic statistics greatly understate the real extent of material progress over the last century.
Some half-educated guesswork leads me to believe that the family that occupied the 1900 house in 1900 probably had an annual income that, corrected for changes in the consumer price index, would be in the range of $20,000 to $30,000 in today's money. That is above today's official poverty line, but hardly affluence; and of course a family in that income range today would not be able to afford that nice a house, and would certainly not be able to hire a maid to help with the chores -- which a Victorian family in that class very definitely would. But by any reasonable standard the modern family is far more comfortable: it has electricity and hot running water, television and radio, and is far less likely to lose one of its members to infectious disease. On sheer material grounds one would almost surely prefer to be poor today than upper middle class a century ago. Social status is another matter -- but let's reserve that topic for some other day.
But in a perverse way watching "1900 House," which reminded me just how much progress we have achieved over the past century, reinforced some of my doubts about how much progress we can expect in the future.
There is an ongoing debate among economists, engineers and futurists about whether we are really living in a golden age of technological progress. Nobody questions that digital technology and its consequences -- including the Internet, cell phones, smart appliances and all that -- have made and will continue to make spectacular strides. But how much difference will those technologies make to our overall standard of living?
On one side of this debate are the enthusiasts who proclaim the onset of the digital age more important than the Industrial Revolution, the biggest thing since bread, never mind the slicing. On the other side are economists and historians who compare our current roster of new technologies with the transforming technologies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and find our latest gizmos relatively trivial by comparison. The economic boom that has swept the United States during the second Clinton administration has made the arguments of the enthusiasts more plausible, but "1900 House" seems to me to be a reminder that the technoskeptics still have the better case.
One of the leading skeptics is Robert Gordon of Northwestern University. In his new paper "Does the 'New Economy' Measure Up to the Great Inventions of the Past?" he argues that each of five "clusters" of innovation -- electricity, the internal combustion engine, modern chemistry, mass media and plumbing -- was in itself a bigger deal than the digital revolution as a whole. And if you really think about what it was like to live in the 19th century -- an imaginative exercise that the show makes considerably easier -- this starts to sound persuasive. If I were deprived of the last century's technical progress, I would miss my ability to read Brad DeLong's economic history of the 20th century on the Web; but I would be much harder pressed to do without electric lights, or last-minute trips to the supermarket, or detergent, or hot showers. And I would even miss TV.
I hope that digital technology proves me wrong; but on the evidence of "1900 House," I'd say that the future is not what it used to be.
Originally published in The New York Times, 6.18.00