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What Limits Technological Progress?

Technology is advancing more rapidly than ever, right? Wrong. I'm not buying it. I've written before about how technological progress isn't nearly as overwhelming as it's made out to be. I'm not even sure if progress is still accelerating. I'm beginning to think it's experiencing a frictional force that's causing it to coast, more or less. Don't misunderstand, technology is still advancing. It's just not advancing at an ever increasing rate.

Measures of Technological Progress


One way to get a handle on technology's rate of change, albeit an imperfect one, is to look at GDP. Because GDP is a measure of how much we produce as a nation, and more advanced technology allows us to increase productivity (arguably, it's one of the primary purposes of new technology), increasing GDP is correlated with advancing technology. A great place to explore economic data is the St. Louis Fed site, FRED, and that's where I got the following graphs. Here's what US GDP looks like since 1947:

Graph of US GDP from 1947 to 2014

This looks like a classic exponential curve, ignoring the grey periods of recession, that would correspond to GDP having a constant positive rate of growth, but looks can be deceiving. To see things a bit better, we can look at the logarithm of GDP:

Graph of Log GDP from 1947 to 2014

When looking at a log graph, a constant growth rate will show as a linear slope, and in fact that is the case with GDP up to about 1980. But then the slope decreases between 1980 and 2000, right when computers and the internet were quickly coming into the market and making huge strides in performance. GDP's rate of change takes another step down after 2000, and another after 2010. Now the last step down is most likely due to the Great Recession of 2007, but that reason can only hold for so long. If the rate doesn't come back up, the real reason may be the same underlying trend of slower growth that's been creeping in for decades.

As I said, GDP is an imperfect measure of technological progress. There are a lot of inputs to GDP that have nothing to do with higher productivity resulting from technology, such as population growth, women entering the workforce in the 1970s, and the inclusion of services over time that used to be done privately and are now done commercially (like lawn care, child care, and elder care). Total factor productivity is a measurement that tries to eliminate as many of these other sources of GDP growth as possible, and the result is a measure of the economy's technological change. Here is a graph of US TFP:

Graph of Log of Total Factor Productivity from 1950 to 2014

Clearly, the 1970s did not show much technological progress. I think I know what the problem was—disco. Well actually, it was most likely due to the rapid increase in the labor force because so many women were leaving the home and getting jobs. Technology didn't need to advance to keep GDP going strong during this time. Once the transition was mostly complete, technology had to pick up the slack again, but it didn't bring productivity back to the rate it was going in the 1950s and early 1960s. It was started to accelerate in the late 1990s with the Dot-Com bubble, but once that bubble burst, TFP slowed dramatically and it's never really recovered.

Reasons for the Slowdown


Depending on how you look at it, we've been experiencing a technology slowdown (okay, actually a reduced technology speedup, but that doesn't roll off the tongue quite as nicely) for the past 15 to 50 years. Maybe the 1990s felt like such a rapid advancement because the 1970s were so darn slow. Lots of people have been studying this change in growth throughout modern history and put forth a variety of reasons for it.

Maybe economic policy is to blame, but then why has the slowdown been persistent over so many administrations with widely varying policy? Most economists come to the conclusion that administrations have a fairly indirect effect on GDP, and it's actually very difficult for a president to move the growth rate in either direction.

Maybe we need better education. Although I entirely agree with that, we're not the only country experiencing this phenomenon. Pretty much every advanced economy is in the same boat here, including those with better education systems than us.

Maybe we're reaching a technological peak with diminishing returns in the future. Irreducible complexity could be playing a role here, too, meaning that more advanced technologies are too complex to be worth pursuing. I have a hard time believing that completely, though. We're a long way from Star Trek, and there are plenty of advanced technologies that we've been imagining for a long time that are within the realm of possibility. We just haven't made them a reality, yet.

Maybe we need a new, cheaper source of energy than coal and oil. Even without the problems of suffocating the planet and causing all kinds of health problems from pollution, coal and oil are simply getting too expensive to continue to depend on. Technological progress absolutely depends on a cheap, plentiful energy source. We desperately need a new one to keep progress going, but our resistance to adopting new energy sources is more of a symptom rather than a root cause of slowing technological progress.

I think there's a more fundamental reason for the slowdown, and it has to do with our ability to adopt new, advanced technologies. Up until the 1950s, our technology was limited primarily by how quickly we could communicate ideas that would lead to new inventions and then by how quickly we could mass produce those inventions and distribute them. With the technologies that were available prior to 1950, the whole process was rather slow. After 1950 we pretty much solved the communication, manufacturing, and distribution problems so technology advanced as quickly as we could invent new things. After about 1980 we started hitting a new limit. The current generation of consumers could not adopt and make use of new technologies quickly enough to maintain the same rate of growth. We've reached a point where, to paraphrase Max Plank, technology advances one funeral at a time.

It's like air friction, the faster you try to move, the stronger it will push back. When a new technology is introduced, it takes a certain amount of time for a critical mass of people to be using it. Then it takes more time for those people to figure out how to use it effectively. Finally, people that grew up using the new technology and don't have all of the mental baggage of older generations will figure out new and interesting ways to use that technology. It's those younger generations that will more readily adopt the next technology that builds on the ones they grew up with, and most likely they'll also be the ones to create that new technology.

Progress at Generational Timescales


This whole process takes time on the order of a generation, or about two decades. That's about how long it took the internet to go from a blip on the radar for early adopters to a ubiquitous tool that almost everyone uses. Mobile computing is taking about the same amount of time. These technologies didn't take so long to develop because we didn't have the capacity to get them out faster. If we had the political will to do it, we could have easily built up the infrastructure faster. What held things back was social friction from the people that were starting to use these new technologies.

Frictions to adoption appear in a number of forms. First, people generally resist paying for software, especially web apps and smart phone apps, because they don't feel like they're getting something physical. Someone might pay $5 everyday for a big cup of Starbucks coffee, but that same person probably doesn't want to pay $5 for an app that he will use multiple times a day. Even if he buys such an app everyday and only uses a fraction of them, but uses them frequently, he's probably getting more value than he gets from the overpriced coffee. Yet he doesn't want to pay for the apps because they're virtual. People didn't have such an aversion to paying for software when it came in a box. Future generations will probably be more comfortable paying for apps because they'll have grown up with that model, and they'll know that if they want good apps, they'll have to somehow support the companies that make them.

Another type of friction comes from people resisting a change to something they see as only marginally better. If you've spent decades running to stores to buy things, it may take you a while to realize how much easier it is to order things online. The same thing goes for looking up things like addresses, phone numbers, definitions, or the news. The older you are, the more likely you'll continue using the resources you've always used instead of going to the internet. I see a little of that tendency in myself. I have a fairly well curated RSS feed that I'm hanging on to. I haven't switched to Twitter or Facebook, although I hear that they work great as news feeds if you set them up right. I don't want to put in the work to make that happen, so my Twitter feed is a whole bunch of noise for me and I don't even have a Facebook account. I haven't adopted the newer technology because it doesn't seem worth it to me.

This generational friction also shows up in research. Studies have found that people have better reading comprehension when reading on paper instead of a screen and that they learn better by writing instead of typing. I'll bet the results of those studies will change when future generations read and learn more on tablets than paper. It's more a matter of what you've grown up using than some inherent advantage with paper.

Finally, the biggest friction that new technology is running up against is fear. Fear has always been a force against new technology, but now it is becoming the dominant force that is holding technology back. We saw this fear with the internet and people being afraid to use it for various reasons. Many people are still fearful of it, but they're getting older and more people are being born for whom the internet has always existed. It's not so scary for them.

Fear is the predominant force that EVs and solar energy will have to overcome. When I hear people opposing these technologies, I hear fear. How will I get around in an EV with limited range? How long will the battery last? How can we depend on solar electricity if it's unreliable? What if it's cloudy for a week? What about winter!? These are not insurmountable problems, and the faster the technologies are adopted, the faster the problems will be solved. But people have to get comfortable with the idea that these technologies are going to work and be much better than what they're currently using, and that takes time.

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are an even better example of a technology that will have a lot of fear to overcome. The first deadly crash involving an AV, especially one where it's determined to be the AV's fault, will be devastating for the technology as a whole. Even though AVs will be much safer than human drivers, every malfunction and every accident will be tallied, scrutinized, and overblown. That's why we're not likely to see AVs suddenly come to the market fully formed. They'll gradually appear in a long series of steps instead. Automatic parking and cruise control with range detection will become more common. Cars will start developing the ability to stay in their lanes at highway speeds. More sensors and cameras will be added to assist drivers and cars will slowly take on the tedious tasks of driving. Eventually we'll find that we no longer need the steering wheel and pedals, but it's going to take much longer to get there than our technological progress alone would indicate.

Then there are the technologies that even I am afraid of adopting. Computer implants are something that I don't ever want to have in my body, if I can help it. Some implants already exist, depending on what you define as a computer implant. Pacemakers have advanced to the point where they could qualify, and I've heard of electrical implants with microprocessor control being used for chronic pain management. So far these implants are only done if necessary for survival, but it's only a matter of time before that shifts to augmentation. I already know I'll be one of the older generations that resists adopting this technology when it happens.

Looking back, it seems like the time period between the 1950s and 1980s was unique in our history. Because of advances in communication, manufacturing, and distribution, technological advances had almost zero resistance, so progress accelerated rapidly. Beyond 1980 progress started encountering a new resistance that began slowing the acceleration down. That resistance comes from older generations not adopting new technologies fast enough. It then falls on younger generations that are more comfortable with new technology—because it doesn't feel new to them—to take it, find new and better uses for it, and pursue the next advancements. Maybe younger generations will become more comfortable with change itself, reducing the friction on technology and allowing it to accelerate again. If that doesn't happen, we're likely experiencing the first effects of what will be a permanent friction, and technology will continue to advance at a more constant speed in the future instead of the constant acceleration that we were coming to expect.