You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics

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Originally uploaded by Micah & Erin

I was reading The Economist’s featured article on innovation pessimism yesterday. It’s very interesting, and definitely worth reading.

Before I read it, I said to my beloved wife that it isn’t very surprising if innovation is grinding to a halt, given how scientists are underpaid and ridiculed while footballers, reality TV stars and mediocre musicians are treated like demigods, and youngsters spend their time on their phone and on Facebook rather than reading books and newspapers.

However, after reading the article I’m sitting here wondering why the advent of the computer age hasn’t led to an upsurge in productivity. The article in The Economist doesn’t really answer this and optimistically hopes that we’re just seeing a temporary blip before productivity and GDP start skyrocketing again.

However, I can’t help thinking that perhaps it’s something else. It used to be the case that manufacturers would produce new and better products all the time, so that you needed to upgrade your old product. The new one would often be more expensive because of the improved functionality, so prices would go up, and because salaries were index-linked, they would rise too, and everybody would get richer and richer. These days, innovation mainly goes into products that don’t cost much. If you’re using Facebook, you’re always using the latest version. It’s not like people will laugh at the old Facebook in your living room, and you’ll feel obliged to buy a new and better Facebook. So there is no cycle of rising prices and salaries, just a cycle of new and better products at the same price as before.

I’m also wondering about the effect of globalisation. In the old days, developing countries would acquire the old technology of the rich countries just as the latter were creating new products. If this pattern had still been in existence, the outsourcing of manufacturing to India and China would have gone hand-in-hand with the rise of computer programming exclusively in the West. In other words, we’d be exporting computer programs to them while importing manufactured products, and the rich world would remain ahead. However, now programming can be done just as easily in Asia as here, and we don’t seem to be developing anything new that we’re better at than them. Surely the consequence of this will be that we can’t maintain much higher salaries in the West in the longer term, which will be a very painful adjustment.

Finally, I can’t help thinking that a larger and larger part of humanity is essentially redundant. Of course some people will need to work in menial jobs that cannot be automated (yet), for instance producing food or collecting rubbish, and other people will have very rewarding jobs on the top, creating entertainment (music, TV and smartphone apps) for the entire planet. However, a lot of people in the middle aren’t smart enough to be at top but won’t be needed in farming and production. Are we perhaps getting to a situation where we need to create jobs simply to keep people occupied and the economy ticking along? Should we abolish unemployment benefit and similar welfare payments and instead give entrepreneurs a lot of money simply to employ people? Or should we just introduce a citizen’s income?

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