X-Message-Number: 15145
From: "Mark Plus" <>
Subject: "The slowing pace of progress"
Date: Wed, 20 Dec 2000 15:49:57 -0800



Innovators 2001

The slowing pace of progress

By Phillip J. Longman

America, everyone knows, is in the midst of a high-tech boom. Each week 
brings news of faster chips, speedier relays, and broader bandwidths. Yet 
how does today's pace of technological change compare with that of two or 
three generations ago? Do we really have reason to proclaim that we are 
living in an age of super-inventiveness?

To gauge how today's technological marvels stack up against earlier ones, 
just flick on Nick at Nite and watch any of those family sitcoms from the 
1950s. When Ozzie and Harriet made their television debut on Oct. 3, 1952, 
they didn't have Internet access or a cellphone, but their living conditions 
were otherwise very close to those of today's middle-class families.

They had indoor plumbing, electric lights, a car, television, telephone, 
refrigerator, blender, vacuum cleaner, and probably an automatic laundry 
washer and dryer. If a time machine magically transported the Nelsons to a 
typical middle-class household in 2000, they would find most of the 
technologies of ordinary life improved in quality but otherwise familiar.

They'd recognize the telephone and need only a second to realize we now use 
push buttons instead of rotary dials. They'd recognize the television even 
if, like most everyone else these days, they'd have trouble programming the 
VCR. They might be startled by the gas mileage obtained by a modern 
automobile, but they would have no trouble knowing how to drive one. Picking 
up the morning newspaper, they might be puzzled by references to AIDS and 
genetically modified food but would understand references to nuclear power, 
air conditioning, plastics, jet airplanes, rockets, radar, and even 

Yet now suppose that a time machine magically transported Ozzie and Harriet 
half a century in the opposite direction. As viewers of the PBS series The 
1900 House can attest, even middle-class existence at that time was 
extraordinarily arduous. Without the benefit of penicillin, even a small cut 
could prove fatal. Life expectancy at birth was but 47.3 years, compared 
with 68.3 years in 1950. Most doctors lacked any scientific training, and 
the bottles in their bags contained little more than alcohol and opiates. 
Lack of refrigeration, poor sanitary conditions, and adulteration meant 
millions died from spoiled or tainted food, while epidemics of scarlet 
fever, yellow fever, and smallpox offered constant reminders of life's 

Even affluent households were illuminated with gaslights that were expensive 
to run and prone to explosion. Without electricity, there were no laundry 
machines, vacuum cleaners, or other mechanical means to purge the household 
of dirt and germs. The air stank of coal dust, manure, and rotting garbage 
thrown from windows. Only the super-rich could afford a car, and the vast 
majority of families did without indoor plumbing. Further deprived of access 
to a telephone, and without even a radio to provide entertainment, Ozzie and 
Harriet would have felt nearly as stifled and out of place in the dark and 
chilly rooms of The 1900 House as would their great-grandchildren.

Measuring the rate of technological progress over time is hardly easy, but 
one statistic strongly suggests why Ozzie and Harriet probably would have 
found it more disorienting to travel 50 years into the past than 50 years 
into the future. The number tracks how efficiently the economy uses labor, 
capital, raw materials, and new technology. Economists call it total-factor 
productivity. Between 1913 and 1972, it grew by an annual average of 1.08 
percent. Then between 1972 and 1995, for reasons economists are still 
debating, the rate of improvement collapsed to less than one fiftieth that 
of the previous era, despite a widespread adoption of computers.

In recent years, the rate of productivity growth in America has quickened, 
but the official statistics are deceiving because they mask the dramatic 
disparity in how different sectors of the economy are performing. In a much- 
discussed piece for the Journal of Econom-ic Perspectives, Robert J. Gordon, 
a respected economist from Northwestern University, performs a careful 
analy- sis of U.S. productivity trends since 1995, adjusting for changes in 
the business cycle, quality of the labor supply, and other technical 
factors. He finds, predictably enough, that we have become very efficient at 
making computers and, to a lesser extent, other durable manufactured items. 
But such production accounts for only 12 percent of the U.S. economy, Gordon 
notes. For the other 88 percent, comprising banks, stores, and other service 
providers, rates of productivity growth have actually been falling slightly.

There's another way to grasp how comparatively undramatic today's high 
technology has been in its effect on ordinary life. Think of the life 
experience of a relative who was born near the beginning of the 20th 
century. My grandfather, who came into this world in 1905, used to tell me 
about how, when he was a boy growing up in Cincinnati, his schoolmates would 
rush to the window and gawk if an automobile happened by. Lester Longman, 
who was born 20 months after the Wright brothers' first flight, lived to see 
not only men walk on the moon but the explosion of the space shuttle 
Challenger, too.

Yet where is the invention today that makes schoolchildren rush to the 
windows? I was 13 years old at the time of the first moon shot and, like 
many kids my age, wondered if the adults were right that my generation one 
day would build suburbs up there. But it's now been 28 years since any human 
being has even left Earth's orbit. Meanwhile, there has been virtually no 
advance in jet propulsion systems save to make them quieter and more fuel 
efficient, and air travel times have actually lengthened. Until the 
cancellation of the Concorde flights in July, following the fiery crash in 
Paris, it was possible to cross the Atlantic at speeds of up to 1,350 mph. 
Now the fastest available flight goes less than half that speed. Even if the 
Concorde is eventually returned to service, the 31-year-old plane is so 
antique that its useful life is limited, and there is nothing on the 
planning boards to replace it.

Similarly, though automobiles now contain microchips and some can talk to 
you, in most parts of the country it actually takes longer to drive from 
point A to point B than it did 30 years ago, because of worsening 
congestion. Over the past 15 years, while the population of major urban 
areas rose by 22 percent, time spent in traffic jams soared by 235 percent. 
In 1938, the 20th Century Limited, pulled by a steam engine, sped from New 
York to Chicago in 16 hours. Today, Amtrak's version of the train, drawn by 
a high-tech, fuel-injected diesel with computer diagnostics on board, takes 
five hours longer.

Perhaps, you say, we can at least credit modern medicine for dramatically 
expanding our life expectancy, even if more and more of our extra years are 
wasted in traffic jams or holding patterns. But on close examination, even 
the so-called revolution in healthcare technology turns out to have had 
little effect in prolonging life spans over the last half century.

To be sure, if either Ozzie or Harriet suffered from, say, cancer, they'd 
benefit from undergoing today's chemotherapy treatments, which, while still 
not effective in many cases, do allow most cancer patients to live longer 
than they would have in the 1950s. Similarly, one stands a better chance of 
surviving a heart attack and many other acute illnesses than one did then. 
But if the couple studied up on the question, they'd most likely be 
astonished and disappointed by how little they could improve their life 
expectancy by fast-forwarding into our world.

Most of the gains in life expectancy during the 20th century came before 
1950 and resulted far less from medical advances such as penicillin than 
from improved nutrition, housing, sanitation, and the increase in average 
living standards. These improvements led to dramatic declines in infant 
mortality, which is the overwhelming reason that average life expectancy at 
birth has increased not any significant lengthening of life span among those 
lucky enough to survive childhood diseases. Indeed, the specific role 
high-tech medicine has played in improving public health is so subtle as to 
be hardly measurable.

In Costa Rica, total healthcare expenditures per person come to just $226 a 
year, as compared with $4,187 in the United States, according to the World 
Health Organization. And there are only half as many doctors per capita as 
in the United States. Yet for women, life expectancy at birth is only 
slightly lower in Costa Rica than in the United States, and for men it's 
actually higher. Why?

Probably because most Costa Ricans have access to basic, preventive 
healthcare, and more important, have enough money to feed and house 
themselves and their children adequately, even if they don't quite yet enjoy 
the standard of living Ozzie and Harriet did in the 1950s. Yes, many Costa 
Ricans who get sick in old age don't have access to high-tech procedures 
that might extend their lives a few more months or years. But this has 
little effect on average life expectancy. That's because the elderly in any 
society are a comparatively small share of the population and have many 
fewer potential years of life remaining than do children or the middle-aged.

How might Ozzie and Harriet interpret this reality? They could rightly infer 
that, given their existing middle-class status, time-traveling to the start 
of the 21st century would do little to improve their life expectancy. Since 
1950, life expectancy at age 45 has increased by just 5.7 years, and much of 
that is due not to high-tech medicine per se but to the dramatic fall in the 
poverty rate since then, especially among the elderly. Indeed, such time 
travel would probably shorten the couple's remaining years if it entailed 
their becoming too poor to afford the warm house, adequate nutrition, and 
clean surroundings they enjoyed in 1952. Yes, traveling to our time might 
give them the benefit of hearing more about the dangers of smoking, excess 
drinking, lack of exercise, or fatty diet. But writers as ancient as 
Aristotle have taught the virtues of moderation.

There is a distinction to be made between inventions that are merely 
sophisticated such as, say, personal digital assistants and those that 
fundamentally alter the human condition. The invention of the light bulb 
created more useful hours in each day for virtually every human being. The 
electric motor directly raised the productivity in every sphere of life, 
from speeding up assembly lines to creating so many labor-saving devices in 
the home that millions of housewives were able to join the paid work force. 
The internal combustion engine allowed for mass, high-speed transportation 
of both people and freight while also opening up vast regions of cheap land 
to suburban development. The materials revolution that brought us petroleum 
refining, synthetic chemicals, and pharmaceuticals involved learning to 
rearrange molecules in ways that made raw materials fundamentally more 
valuable. Without the genetically improved seeds that brought us the "Green 
Revolution" of the late 1960s and '70s, there would be mass starvation.

Can we make any parallel claim about the single greatest technology of our 
own time? It remains possible that networked computers and other new 
information technologies will one day create similar, societywide bursts in 
productivity, health, and wealth. Yet to date, the marginal gains computers 
have brought to communications are modest even compared with the 
improvements made by the telegraph. The first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable 
in 1866 reduced the time required to send a message from New York to London 
from about a week to a few minutes. Notes economist Alan Blinder: "No modern 
IT innovation has, or I dare say will, come close to such a gain!"

And with computers, it is also possible that their largest benefits have 
already been realized. Consider the gain in productivity achieved when 
offices started converting from typewriters to word processors. A circa-1978 
Wang 10A word processor with daisy-wheel printer, though expensive and 
difficult to operate, offered a quantum leap over the typewriter because it 
allowed users to correct and edit documents and manage mailing lists at far 
greater speed. Every year since, word processors have become cheaper, more 
powerful, and easier to use, but the marginal gain in productivity thereby 
achieved continues to decline. Indeed, for many users, converting to, say, 
the latest generation of Word, after having already invested in learning to 
use WordPerfect five years before, entails a net loss of productivity.

Linking computers to the Internet might seem to offer large gains in 
productivity, but as Professor Gordon points out, the evidence from the 
marketplace suggests the opposite. Even with Internet access now easily 
available, sales of computers are now no higher than one would expect given 
their continually falling price. The implication, notes Gordon, is that the 
incremental benefit of additional computer power continues to shrink.

But what if, as is widely promised, the Internet soon offers consumers the 
ability to download videos at a low price, or to conduct videoconferences, 
or shop for the best values with no more effort than using a television 
remote? As Gordon and other economists point out, the returns to the economy 
as a whole would be much smaller than might be imagined. This is because the 
growth of E-commerce largely involves simply substituting existing forms of 
economic activity such as visiting a bookstore, renting a video, or calling 
a travel agent with a virtual equivalent. Yes, there may be a potential gain 
in efficiency to be had from buying a book online, but it comes at the cost 
of cannibalizing existing bookstore sales. By contrast, internal combustion 
engines and electric motors, while displacing steam technology, also made 
possible wholly new products, ranging from aircraft to air conditioners, for 
which there was little or no previously existing substitute.

One technological feature of our times Ozzie and Harriet would find 
extraordinary is the gadgets we throw out. In 1954, it took the average 
worker 562 hours of labor to earn enough to buy a color TV. The machine was 
so expensive that only a few families owned one, and if it broke, as it 
frequently did, you got it repaired. By 1997, the average worker earned 
enough in just 23 hours to purchase a 25-inch-screen color TV, and if it 
broke, as it infrequently did, it most likely went in the trash. The Bureau 
of Labor Statistics predicts that the ranks of "electronic home 
entertainment equipment repairers" will continue to decline by at least 1 
percent a year through 2008, owing to decreased demand.

In the history of technology, what most distinguishes the present age is not 
the creation of great new inventions but our genius for re-engineering and 
manufacturing previously existing machines and gadgets with ever greater 
efficiency, so that their price declines even as their quality improves. 
According to calculations by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, the average 
worker in 1997 could earn enough to buy a new Ford Taurus in just 1,365 
hours, whereas his counter-part in 1955 needed to work 1,638 hours to afford 
the celebrated but much inferior Ford Fairlane. Stoves, dishwashers, 
refrigerators, washers and dryers, window air conditioners, and most other 
accouterments of modern middle-class life have fallen in real price even 
more dramatically since the 1950s. Even homes themselves are cheaper, with 
the price per square foot dropping from 6.5 times the average worker's 
hourly wage in 1956 to 5.6 times in 1996.

In their time, Ozzie and Harriet lived much better than the average American 
family; now their standard of living would be average, or even below average 
if one accounts for the improved quality and lower price of the familiar 
electrical devices and appliances that filled their home. That the mass of 
American families now has access to television at all, let alone one in 
every bedroom, is in itself an amazing achievement, as is the ability of the 
global economy to provide millions of American teenagers with their own 
cars, computers, and stereos. But this democratization of access to existing 
technology, while it has obvious and mostly salutary social implications, is 
hardly the mark of a great age of invention. Perhaps another Thomas Edison 
is hard at work, using nanotechnology or bioengineering to invent new 
machines that are truly revolutionary and transforming. But he or she has 
not succeeded yet.

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