Dec 17, 2016

6 min read

A Flash-Bang Conception of Technological Revolution

I have always been fascinated by the cosmic scale of events that trace back to the introduction of the steam engine in England during the first industrial revolution. However, I am carefully balancing my views on the subject now against the empirical arguments made in this book that I’m reading:

This book focuses on a particular time in the economic history of the United States, which lasted from 1870–1970 in the broadest terms. However, the argument is also presented in much more narrow terms that span a shorter time period. This time period is more nebulous, with the exact dates shifting slightly depending on what trend you are interested in, but 1890–1920 is a an extremely narrow slice that is considered at times.

This slice of time saw a fundamental lifestyle shift, which is echoed in economic growth numbers, but also understated by them. We broadly adopted high school levels of public education, automobile transport, and the networked home (entailing a multitude of services, running water being the most notable of them). Most of these things went from virtually no adoption to virtually universal adoption, and life fundamentally changed as a result. The period demarcates two different societies where people spend their time in very different ways day to day.

In a certain way of viewing things, we might be tempted to look at this transition as the most important thing that happened in history, a title that I mentally attach to the steam engine. I want to consider the steam engine as the initiating historical point for the transition, but there are disconnects. The steam engine enabled several elements directly, like the railroad, the electric grid, and several others. But some innovations seem to have come about in spite of (or in technological opposition to) the power of the steam revolution, such as gasoline cars, airplanes, and others. Where should we really place credit, or more to the point, how should be contextualize each change in the broader macro-historical context?

If the industrial revolution was the firing of a gun, I want to consider the steam engine to be like the flash of the muzzle. Something was set in motion around the time of the European enlightenment, but when exactly? What made this different from other similar periods of technological and scientific advancements? History is littered with periods of comparatively rapid progress that see increasing technological sophistication. None of those periods were dead-ends either. But something was categorically different by the point that humans started excavating coal to create mechanical power. Nothing about this needed to be necessarily different from any other time in history, except for the fact that it led to a technological divergence. Events following the steam engine maintained a cultural and civilization continuity through the introduction of the semiconductor, and as we all know, the branch of technology around the semiconductor may very well lead to the obsolesce of basic biological form of human beings.

Nothing about the early days of the industrial revolution was truly “grand” in a sense that was unique to itself. Colonialism went completely global, but this reflected increasing means of the European powers to assert their power rather than a meaningful root cause of something by itself. The British Empire might have been the greatest of the great powers, but not by a surprising margin. All dominant powers managed to ellipse the previously dominant power, and this is merely the ebb and flow of history. The spreading of enlightenment and technologies was also international, so it seems so very strange to focus on technological events in one place among similar events in so many other places.

A muffled, relatively silent, event was happening with the increasing sophistication of the steam engines, along with a massive network of related enabling innovations. That place in history was unique because the political, financial, and cultural institutions of the time did not stop these innovations. A better way of looking at it might be that the institutions lacked the power to stop those innovations. Technology had grown powerful enough to be its own force in the world. Ultimately these innovations lent tremendous power to the institutions that allowed it flourish, but this does not mean that there was ever a perfect alignment of interests. The stories of the (original) Luddites are merely one example to convince me of this. Collective, national-level, benefits are slow in coming, while the benefits of a particular technological replacement usually benefit fewer decision-makers than what they harm. Proprietors needed to have a uniquely high level of autonomy with which to pursue productivity increases, which was never a recognized concept in the pre-industrial world.

So I might prefer to look at the set of incipient technologies of the industrial revolution as an explosive, but nonetheless silent, historical event. The people at the time didn’t understand that it would change everything. They didn’t know how much could change. Transformation of life was separated by decades of centuries from the introduction of the first generation of technologies that would do that transformation.

The is the flash-bang model. The American century of growth was the consequence. The English decades of growth proceeded its American counterpart by some time and did somewhat give way to the eventual American economic overshadowing. But both transformations fundamentally impacted the human condition, lifestyle, and even the geographic landscape of the planet. It just took time from when the original technologies came onto the scene.

People who predict low economic growth for the 21st century may be like someone who sees the flash of a gun, and upon the dying of its light, assume that the event is fully finished. Today, we may be fully ignorant of a shock-wave that is currently propagating towards us.

In the story of a slowdown of growth, something doesn’t sound right. Something is off. Productivity growth is plummeting toward flat-zero. But at the same time, we’re worried about destruction of jobs by automation. Longer lives are leading to poorer economic leverage factors as our mandatory expenses in GDP grow to the detriment of discretionary economic means of individuals. Hourly real wage growth seems to have nearly gone extinct, even in expansionary cycles. The innovations of the recent centuries seem to be almost entirely in entertainment and communication, which do not obviously make life better. The amount of education and training needed to remain economically competitive seem to grow without limit, while the rewards from labor’s toil seem to be stagnant or declining. Economic inequality looks like it only has one direction to go in, and will become a headwind in itself. The pile of headwinds seems to be increasing, with the economic engine running out of power.

So often in history, the typical narrative is both completely wrong, and completely right. In the book, the author seems entirely capable of enumerating the sea-changing factors of the 21st century, and also perfectly willing to ignore them. In the 1890s in America, there was plenty of recognition of the coming innovations, but very little ability to truly extrapolate those changes into what it meant for the lives of ordinary people.

Today as well, I see self-driving cars, an eventual reversal of our medical quandary, unfamiliar new-found abundance with a self-service economy, energy clean-tech revolutions, even a revival of private manned spaceflight, and of course, most ominously, AI. The only thing we have to do is to not actively stop the coming revolutions. We have seen the flash where semiconductor technologies have advanced to nearly atomic-level manufacturing and human-level intelligence. We are not at the end of the revolution, we are on the cliff of a tipping point. The benefits will not be obvious to us, because we do not value the same things that people 100 years from now will value, and they will see the things we lack and unconscionable. Apparent decline in growth is probably the quiet before the storm.

Obligatory analytical writing, online participation account for Medium. Engineering, software, books, space, constant daydreaming.

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