Reviews | Technology and the triumph of pessimism

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One of the best-selling novels of the 19th century was a work of what we would today call speculative fiction: “Looking Backward: 2000-1887” by Edward Bellamy. Bellamy was one of the first figures to recognize that rapid technological progress had become an enduring feature of modern life – and he imagined that this progress would dramatically improve human happiness.

In one scene, its protagonist, who has somehow been transported from the 1880s to 2000, is asked if he would like to hear music; to his astonishment, his hostess uses what we would now call a loudspeaker to allow him to listen to a live orchestral performance, one of four then in progress. And he suggests that having such easy access to entertainment would represent “the limit of human bliss”.

Well, in the past few days, I’ve been watching several shows on my smart TV – I haven’t decided on the new season of “Westworld” yet – and I’ve also been watching several live music performances. And let me say that I find access to streaming entertainment to be a major source of enjoyment. But the limit of happiness? Not really.

I also recently read how both sides in the Russian-Ukrainian war are using long-range precision missiles – guided by more or less the same technology that makes streaming possible – to hit targets deep behind the lines of the other. For what it’s worth, I’m very supportive of Ukraine here, and it seems significant that the Ukrainians seem to be hitting munitions dumps while the Russians are carrying out terrorist attacks on shopping malls. But the most important point is that while technology can bring great satisfaction, it can also enable new forms of destruction. And humanity has, sadly, exploited this new ability on a massive scale.

My reference to Edward Bellamy comes from a forthcoming book, “Advance towards utopiaby Brad DeLong, professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley. The book is a masterful history of what DeLong calls the “long 20th century,” stretching from 1870 to 2010, an era which he says — surely rightly — was overwhelmingly shaped by the economic consequences of technological progress.

Why start in 1870? As DeLong points out, and many of us already knew, for most of human history – about 97% of the time since the emergence of the first cities in ancient Mesopotamia – Malthus had reason: there have been many technological innovations over the millennia, but the benefits of these innovations have always been swallowed up by population growth, bringing the standard of living of most people to the limit of subsistence.

There have been occasional bouts of economic progress that have temporarily overtaken what DeLong calls “Malthus’ devil” – indeed, modern scholarship suggests that there was a significant increase in per capita income during the early Roman Empire. But these episodes were always temporary. And until the 1860s, many intelligent observers believed that the progress that had taken place under the Industrial Revolution would prove to be just as transitory.

Around 1870, however, the world entered an era of rapid and sustained technological development unlike anything that had happened before; each successive generation found themselves living in a new world, completely transformed from the world into which their parents were born.

As DeLong argues, there are two big puzzles about this transformation – puzzles that are very relevant to the situation we find ourselves in now.

The first is why it happened. DeLong argues that there were three big “meta-innovations” (my term, not his) – innovations that enabled innovation itself. These were the rise of big business, the invention of the industrial research laboratory, and globalization. We could, I think, discuss the details here. More important, however, is the suggestion – by DeLong and others – that the engines of rapid technological progress may be slowing down.

The second is why all these technological advances haven’t made society any better than it has. One thing I didn’t fully realize before reading “Slouching Towards Utopia” is just how much progress doesn’t brought happiness. In the 140 years of DeLong surveys, there have only been two eras in which the Western world felt generally optimistic about the way things were going. (The rest of the world is a whole different story.)

The first of these eras was the forty years leading up to 1914, when people began to realize how much progress was being made and began to take it for granted. Sadly, that era of optimism died in fire, blood and tyranny, with technology enhancing rather than mitigating the horror (coincidentally, today is the 108th anniversary of the Archduke’s assassination Ferdinand).

The second era was the “glorious 30 years,” the decades after World War II when social democracy—a market economy with its union-smoothed rough edges and a strong social safety net—seemed to produce not utopia, but the most decent societies mankind has ever known. But that era has also come to an end, partly in the face of economic setbacks, but more so in the face of increasingly bitter politics, including the rise of right-wing extremism that now puts democracy itself at risk.

It would be silly to say that the incredible advances in technology since 1870 have done nothing to improve matters; in many ways, the median American today has a much better life than the wealthiest oligarchs of the Golden Age. But the advances that have brought us streaming music on demand have not made us satisfied or optimistic. DeLong offers a few explanations for this disconnect, which I find interesting but not entirely convincing. But his book definitely asks the right questions and teaches us a lot of crucial history along the way.

A little harder than my usual tastes, but you gotta love a song whose chorus is partly in binary code.

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