Optimism! It’s just more fun.

This week, Russ Roberts of the ever-excellent EconTalk is having a short essay contest. The prompt is to compare the visions of our technology-future as portrayed Tyler Cowen and Joel Mokyr (both guests on the podcast.)

Here’s my take on the matter, but I highly recommend you listen to both podcasts and form your own opinion.

Like the wise men and the elephant, Mokyr and Cowen focus on vastly different aspects of the same huge enterprise: progress in science and technology, past, present, and future. Mokyr focuses on the human experience – increased leisure and improved interactions – while Cowen focuses on our interaction with the world around us – gadgets and robots. A gross simplification would be to say that Mokyr focuses on the mental while Cowen looks at the physical.

Their different perspectives lead to different conclusions about the future: Mokyr is across-the-board optimistic while Cowen presents a greyer vision; he thinks some things will improve somewhat for some people. I find myself compelled by Cowen’s focus on the physical world, but convinced by Mokyr’s optimism and overall vision.

EconTalk is all about identifying biases and here are mine: I’m an aerospace engineer who also has a degree in history. Thus, I focus on how we interact with the physical world, but from more of a historical than aggregate economic perspective.

Mokyr takes a historian’s perspective and notes that there are many trends and improvements that are not captured in the data. While it ignores Cowen’s aggregate data, I find Mokyr’s (and Russ’) admonition to just ‘look around you and see the progress’ more compelling than the fact that GDP is not rising as fast and we don’t have flying cars yet.

Yes, we haven’t changed what every day technology can fundamentally do in the real world for half a century. Airplanes still fly and cars still drive the same way by exploding fuel to spin a shaft that drives turbofans or wheels. We still get to space by sitting on giant explosions. Our bathrooms are still serviced by water carrying tubes. We still build our houses out of wood, glass and concrete.

Looking at the surface, we haven’t made much progress. But delve deeper, look at the ways these familiar things do what they do and how they are made. Behind the scenes, there has been significant progress. Engines are far more efficient; pipes are made of cheaper, lighter and less-degradable plastics. On a walk today, I saw a house that had an entire corner built of only glass – impossible with the glass-making technologies of twenty years ago.

This type of progress supports Mokyr’s view that people will be able to do the same things that we could before, but ever cheaper and with more delight in our lives. My optimistic engineer’s twist on this perspective is a perhaps naïve prediction. This steady increase in freedom from drudgery will combine with a deep-seated human desire to affect the physical world and create a tipping point. Right now, we are seeing a lull in our physical progress – what Cowen identifies as ‘The Great Stagnation.’ True, there are fewer discrete jumps as we make our same planes, trains, and automobiles ever more efficient and our leisure ever longer. But (hopefully soon) these incremental improvements will add up to give us enough excess time and resources to again make discrete technological leaps. Don’t lose hope for flying cars, rocket packs, and moon vacations just yet.


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