Technology: Utopia, Dystopia or Both?
first published in The Street | Dec 5, 2016
It seems common knowledge that a growing sense of dystopia is rising every day in the Western world. A large block of seemingly alienated, angry voters are rebelling against the establishment, mainstream parties. Radicals everywhere are emerging as viable leaders. The list is already well established — Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn, Alexis Tsipras, Viktor Orban, etc. Will Marine Le Pen be next?
Many analysts have tried to explain this phenomenon. Certainly, it is partly cultural — the large levels of immigration, for example, in Europe are creating xenophobic reactions, and generally nationalism is in ascendance. There is also politics — like successive generations of U.S. administrations doing little for those other then the relatively well to do on both the East and West Coasts. Conventional economic explanations are also given — for example in terms of lack of global risk appetite, certainly post credit crisis, leading to low interest rates, lack of investment and stagnant incomes.
But beneath all this, a few argue (and I am going to argue), is something different — namely, the nature of technology innovation or revolution.
There was a curious anomaly about the economic impact of technological change noticeable even 30 years ago. Even in the 1980s, there was scant evidence that technology was bringing significant productivity growth. MIT economist Robert Solow, wrote as early as 1987 that, “you can see the computer age everywhere save in productivity statistics.” At that time many people put it down to the early stage of tech evolution, but 30 years later — the OECD has continued through a long sclerotic period of low growth. Technology does not seem to have delivered the type of pop in GDP that the car, or plane or electricity did.
So why is GDP growth so slow? In trying to answer this question we can perhaps start to address the original question — the possible causes of growing disenfranchisement in our population.
The arguments fall into two categories: a demand driven argument and/or a supply driven argument.