Is technological progress a thing of the past?,
by Joel Mokyr, Vox EU: Technological progress has
been at the heart of economic growth for two centuries. Some authors, however,
have suggested that product and process innovation are running out of steam:
- Robert J Gordon and
Tyler Cowen, inter alia, have expressed the view that technological progress
is slowing down (Gordon 2012, Cowen 2011).
- Jan Vijg has suggested
that the industrialised West of the 21st century will resemble the declining
Empires of late Rome and Qing China (Vijg 2011).
Their basic point is that
technological dynamism is fizzling out. The low-hanging fruits that have
improved our lives so much in the 20th century have all been picked. We should
be ready for a more stagnant world in which living standards rise little if at
History and the future
History is always a bad
guide to the future and economic historians should avoid making predictions. All
the same, the historical records provide some insights into what makes societies
technologically creative. Such insights, in turn can be used at the basis for
looking ahead to assess how likely such a decline is to take place.
The answer is short and
simple: we ain’t seen nothin’ yet, the best is still to come.
Supply and the demand sides of innovation
My argument concerns both
the supply and the demand sides of innovation. Starting with supply, what is it
that accounts for sustained technological progress? The relation between
scientific progress and technology is a complex two-way street. For example,
19th-century energy-physics learned more from the steam engine than the other
The historical record makes
clear that science depends on technology in that it depends on the instruments
and tools that are needed for science to advance. New instruments opened new
horizons in what Derek Price called "artificial revelation”, observations
through instruments that allow us to see things that would otherwise be
- The Scientific
Revolution of the 17th century depended critically on the development of the
telescope, the microscope, the barometer, the vacuum pump, and similar
- The achromatic-lens
microscope developed by Joseph J Lister (father of the famous surgeon) in
the 1820s paved the way for the germ theory, the greatest breakthrough in
medicine before 1900.
The same was true in
physics, for instance:
- The equipment designed
by Heinrich Hertz allowed him to detect electromagnetic radiation in the
1880s and Robert Millikan’s ingenious oil-drop apparatus allowed him to
measure the electric charge of an electron (1911).
In the twentieth century,
the impact of instruments on progress is even more apparent. For example:
- X-ray crystallography,
developed in 1912, was crucial forty years later in the discovery of the
structure of DNA.
If tools and instruments are
a key to further scientific progress, it is hard not to be impressed by the
possibilities of the 21st century:
- DNA sequencing machines
and cell analysis through flow cytometry (to mention but two) have
revolutionised molecular microbiology.
- High-powered computers
are helping research in every domain conceivable, from content analysis in
novels to the (very hard) problems of turbulence.
nanochemistry, and genetic engineering are all areas in which progress has
been mind-boggling in the past few decades thanks to better tools.
To be sure, there is no
automatic mechanism that turns better science into improved technology. But
there is one reason to believe that in the near future it will do so better and
more efficiently than ever before. The reason is access.
applied chemists, and physicians all need access to best-practice science to
answer an infinite list of questions about what can and cannot be done. Search
engines were invented in the 18th century through encyclopaedias and compendia
that arranged all available knowledge in alphabetical order, making it easy to
find. Textbooks had indexes that did the same. Libraries developed cataloguing
systems and other techniques that made scientific information findable.
But these search systems
have their limitations. One might have feared that the explosion of scientific
knowledge in the 20th century could outrun our ability to find what we are
looking for. Yet the reverse has happened. The development of searchable
databanks of massive sizes has even outrun our ability to generate scientific
knowledge. Copying, storing, transmitting, and searching vast amounts of
information today is fast, easy, and practically free. We no longer deal with
megabytes or gigabytes. Instead terms like petabytes (a million gigabytes) and
zettabytes (a million petabytes) are being bandied about. Scientists can now
find the tiniest needles in data haystacks as large as Montana in a fraction of
And if science sometimes still proceeds by ‘trying every bottle on the shelf’ –
as in some areas it still does – it can search with blinding speed over many
more bottles, perhaps even peta-bottles.
Have all the low-hanging fruits been picked?
One answer is that the
analogy is flawed. Science builds taller and taller ladders, so we can reach the
upper branches, and then the branches above them.
- A less obvious answer
is that technological progress is fundamentally a dis-equilibrating process.
Whenever a technological
solution is found for some human need, it creates a new problem. As Edward
Tenner put it, technology ‘bites back’. The new technique then needs a further
‘technological fix’, but that one in turn creates another problem, and so on.
The notion that invention definitely ‘solves’ a human need, allowing us to move
to pick the next piece of fruit on the tree is simply misleading.
- Each solution perturbs
some other component in the system and sows the seed of more needs; the
‘demand’ for new technology is thus self-sustaining.
The most obvious example for
such a dynamic is in our never-ending struggles with insects and harmful
bacteria. In those wars, evolutionary mechanisms decree that after most battles
we win, the enemy regroups by becoming resistant to whatever poison we throw at
them. Drug-resistant bacteria are increasingly common and require novel
approaches to new antibiotics. The search for novel antibiotics will resume with
tools that Chain and Florey would never have dreamed of – but even such new
antibiotics will eventually lead to adaptation.
In agriculture, the advance
in fertiliser use has helped avert the Malthusian disasters that various
doom-and-gloom authors predicted. But the vast increase in nitrate use following
Fritz Haber’s epochal invention of the nitrogen-fixing process before World War
I has now led to serious environmental problems in aquifer pollution and algae
blooms. Again, technology will provide us with a fix, possibly through genetic
engineering in which more plants can fix their own nitrates rather than needing
fertiliser or bacteria that convert nitrates into nitrogen at more efficient
Another example is energy:
For better or for worse, modern technology has relied heavily on fossil fuels:
first coal, then oil, and now increasingly on natural gas. The bite-back here
has been planetary in scope: climate change is no longer a prospect, it is a
reality. Can new technology stop it? There is no doubt that it can, even if
nobody can predict right now what shape that will take, and if collective action
difficulties will actually make it realistic.
What will the workers do?
Perhaps the biggest
bite-back is what happens to human labour. If technology replaces workers, what
will the role of people become? From Kurt Vonnegut to Erik Brynjolfsson,
dystopias about an idle and vapid humanity in a robotised economy have worried
people. There will be disruption and pain, but the new technology will also
create new demand for workers, to perform tasks that a new technology creates.
- In 1914 who could have
imagined occupations such as video game programmer or identity-theft
- Physical therapists,
social media consultants, and TV sports commentators are all occupations
created by new technology.
It seems plausible that the
future, too, will create occupations we cannot imagine, let alone envisage.
Furthermore, the task that 20th-century technology seems to have carried out the
easiest is to create activities that fill the ever-growing leisure time that
early retirement and shorter work-weeks have created. Technological creativity
has responded to the growth of free time: a bewildering choice of programmes on
TV, the rise of mass tourism, access at will to virtually every film made and
opera written, and a vast pet industry are just some examples. The cockfights
and eye-gouging contests with which working classes in the past entertained
themselves have been replaced by a gigantic high-tech spectator-sports
industrial complex, both local and global.
In his brief Economic
Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1931) Keynes foresaw much of the future
impact of technology. His insights may surprise those who regard him as the
prophet of unemployment: “all this [technological change] means in the long run
[is] that mankind is solving its economic problem” (italics in original).
Contemplating a world in which work itself would become redundant thanks to
science and capital (Keynes did not envisage robots, but they would have
strengthened his case), he felt that this age of leisure and abundance was
frightening people because “we have been trained too long to strive and not to
Brynjolfsson, Erik and
Andrew McAfee (2011), Race Against the Machine, New York, Digital
Cowen, Tyler (2011), The
Great Stagnation, New York, Dutton.
Gordon Robert J (2012), “Is
US Economic Growth over? Faltering Innovation confronts the six Headwinds”, NBER
Working paper series, 18315, August.
Mokyr, Joel (2002), The
Gifts of Athena, Princeton, Princeton University Press.
Price, Derek J de Solla
(1984a), “Notes towards a Philosophy of the Science/Technology Interaction” in
Rachel Laudan (ed.) The Nature of Knowledge: are Models of Scientific Change
Relevant?, Dordrecht, Kluwer.
Tenner, Edward (1996),
Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences,
New York, Knopf.
Vijg, Jan (2011), The American Technological Challenge: Stagnation and
Decline in the 21st Century, New York, Algora Publishing.
Vonnegut, Kurt (1974), Player Piano, New York, Dell Paperbacks.