Wonders of technology not so wondrous


We are living in a time of incredible technological progress -- or at least that's what everyone says. But if you look at economic data, you notice something strange: the numbers show no sign of that progress. According to official statistics, growth in productivity -- the output of a typical worker -- far from accelerating, seems to be slowing down. Real wages seem to be flat or even declining for many Americans. Why isn't the march of progress showing up where it counts, in the living standards of ordinary people?

This question bothers many business leaders and thinkers, and they have given it a name: the Information Technology Paradox. If we're so smart, they ask, why aren't we richer?

Various excuses have been offered. Some businessmen insist that the problem lies not in ourselves but in our numbers -- that outdated economic statistics, designed for the smokestack economy of 30 years ago, cannot keep up with the Information Age. Others insist that the payoff is coming any day now: soon business will finally to figure out how to dance with Internets, Intranets, Ethernets, and castanets, and the economy will soar.

But there is one explanation of the paradox that hardly anyone dares mention: maybe the wonders of technology we keep hearing about aren't really all that wondrous.

To get an idea of what I mean, think about 2001. No, not the year -- the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came out in 1968. Most readers must have seen it. Never mind the ape-men at the beginning, or the acid trip at the end; think about the middle part, which was supposed to be a realistic picture of life 33 years in the movie's future, but barely four years from now. In that world there were regularly scheduled commercial flights to space stations with Sheraton-style lobbies, and computers smart enough to go on a postal-worker-style rampage when they felt unappreciated. As I recall, most people didn't think that was too unreasonable a forecast. But airlines aren't offering orbital vacations to their frequent flyers (and would have to charge several million dollars for a ticket if they did); Shannon Lucid could not call room service; and my computer's idea of murderous revenge is to tell me "An error has occurred in your application. Terminate/Ignore?" If 2001 is actually going to look anything like 2001, technology had better get a move on.

The point is that if you measure the progress of technology not by Mips and bytes but by how it affects people's lives and their ability to get useful work done, you realize that the last 30 years have been a time not of unexpected achievement but of persistent disappointment.

Surely, for example, the startling thing about computers is not how fast and small they have become but how stupid they remain. Back in 1958 the pioneer computer scientist Herbert Simon confidently predicted that a computer would be the world's chess champion by 1970; this makes the inability of IBM's Deep Blue to beat Gary Kasparov even now a bit of a letdown. And building a computer that plays high-level chess turns out to be an easy problem -- nowhere near as hard as, say, designing a robot that can vacuum your living room, an achievement that is still probably many decades away.

Better yet, think about how a typical middle-class family lives today compared with 40 years ago -- and compare those changes with the progress that took place over the previous 40 years.

I happen to be an expert on some of those changes, because I live in a house with a late-50s-vintage kitchen, never remodelled. The nonself-defrosting refrigerator, and the gas range with its open pilot lights, are pretty depressing (anyone know a good contractor?) -- but when all is said and done it is still a pretty functional kitchen. The 1957 owners didn't have a microwave, and we have gone from black and white broadcasts of Sid Caesar to off-color humor on The Comedy Channel, but basically they lived pretty much the way we do. Now turn the clock back another 39 years, to 1918 -- and you are in a world in which a horse-drawn wagon delivered blocks of ice to your icebox, a world not only without TV but without mass media of any kind (regularly scheduled radio entertainment began only in 1920). And of course back in 1918 nearly half of Americans still lived on farms, most without electricity and many without running water. By any reasonable standard, the change in how America lived between 1918 and 1957 was immensely greater than the change between 1957 and the present.

Now I am not saying that this is anyone's fault. If Bill Gates turns out to be no Henry Ford, that is no reflection on his abilities. Really productive ideas, like internal combustion and the assembly line, are hard to find. It is no tragedy if we have to make do with second-rate inventions like the personal computer until the next Model T comes along.

But the techno-hype that surrounds us has some real costs. It causes businesses to waste money; it causes politicians to seek high-tech fixes (give every child a laptop!) when they should be getting back to the basics (teach every child to read). The slightly depressing truth is that technology has been letting us down lately. Let's face up to that truth, and get on with our lives.

Originally published, 12.12.96