Sunday, July 28, 2013

Cause for techno-optimism?

Are we in an "innovation drought"? No, argues economic historian Joel Mokyr of Northwestern University:

Part of the answer is that new types of work will emerge that we cannot foresee. A hundred years ago, people were wondering what would happen to the workers who would no longer be able to find work farming. Nobody at the time would have been able to imagine the jobs of today, such as video game programmer or transportation security employee.

But if the bulk of unpleasant, boring, unhealthy and dangerous work can be done by machines, most people will only work if they want to. In the past, that kind of leisurely life was confined largely to those born into wealth, such as aristocrats. Not all of them lived boring and vapid lives. Some of them wrote novels and music; many others read the novels and listened to the music. Some even were engaged in scientific research, such as the great Robert Boyle (one of the richest men in 17th century England), and a century later, Henry Cavendish, the English chemist and physicist who identified hydrogen gas.

Aristocratic life in the past depended on servants, and the servants of the future may be robots -- but so what? More worrisome, the aristocratic life depended on a flow of income from usually hard-working and impoverished farmers paying rich landowners. The economic organization and distribution in a future leisure society may need a radical re-thinking. As John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1931 in his "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren," "With a little more experience we shall use the new-found bounty of nature quite differently from the way in which the rich use it today, and will map out for ourselves a plan of life quite otherwise than theirs."

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