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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Academic Self-Sufficiency

As you might know, I’m a devoted listener of the EconTalk podcast. Since one a week isn’t nearly enough to fill all the walking that I do, I have also been listening through five years of archived episodes. While they are consistently high quality, this episode blew me away.

In short (very short– it’s packed to the brim with good stuff) Russ Roberts breaks down why trade is awesome because it allows us to both leverage the fact that we are good at different things (a Ricardian perspective) and that there are a lot of us (a Smithian perspective.)

The podcast touches on many things I think about a lot – technology, how to use your abilities best, entrepreneurship, how humanity pulls itself up by its bootstraps, and more.

I was especially struck by the quote: ‘self-sufficiency is the road to poverty.’ I feel like this is an unsolved problem in academia. In this case ‘trade’ is less movement of physical goods or services, but in experience. I can’t count the time that I feel like I’m reinventing the wheel when putting together some part of an experiment. Surely there is someone who has gone through a very similar process, probably right here at Cornell, yet I have no good way of finding them and benefiting from what they’ve already done.

The ability of trade to make everything better for everyone feels very stunted in academia. I think that the academic world meets both of the conditions set forth for beneficial trade – extreme specialization and, with the bloated size of universities, large numbers of participants.

Somehow, though, there isn’t as much intellectual trade as one would hope.

One problem is the huge amount of friction in sharing your work in science. The only officially recognized ‘market’ is publications of peer-reviewed papers, which despite PDF’s and online databases, is still mostly mired in the 19th century. There isn’t enough space in a paper to actually describe the technical nitty-gritty and the format doesn’t lend itself to the reader gaining from the writer’s experience.

The pace of research progress would explode if these sorts of friction were decreased. A first step would be decreasing the amount of time spent communicating via papers (though I do agree that some kind of review process needs to remain.) Beyond that, I’m thinking about other tools that would allow researchers to free themselves of the poverty-shackles of self-sufficiency.