8/21/2005

USNews.com: The Slowing Pace of Progress (12/25/00)

statistic strongly suggests [that the 1950's] Ozzie and Harriet probably would have found it more disorienting to travel 50 years into the past than 50 years into the future.. Between 1913 and 1972, [total-factor productivity] grew by an annual average of 1.08 percent. Then between 1972 and 1995, for reasons economists are still debating, the rate of improvement collapsed to less than one fiftieth that of the previous era...

The Slowing Pace of Progress
By Phillip J. Longman

America, everyone knows, is in the midst of a high-tech boom [this was writen in 2000]. Each week brings news of faster chips, speedier relays, and broader bandwidths. Yet how does today's pace of technological change compare with that of two or three generations ago? Do we really have reason to proclaim that we are living in an age of super-inventiveness?

To gauge how today's technological marvels stack up against earlier ones, just flick on Nick at Nite and watch any of those family sitcoms from the 1950s. When Ozzie and Harriet made their television debut on Oct. 3, 1952, they didn't have Internet access or a cellphone, but their living conditions were otherwise very close to those of today's middle-class families.

They had indoor plumbing, electric lights, a car, television, telephone, refrigerator, blender, vacuum cleaner, and probably an automatic laundry washer and dryer. If a time machine magically transported the Nelsons to a typical middle-class household in 2000, they would find most of the technologies of ordinary life improved in quality but otherwise familiar.

They'd recognize the telephone and need only a second to realize we now use push buttons instead of rotary dials. They'd recognize the television even if, like most everyone else these days, they'd have trouble programming the VCR. They might be startled by the gas mileage obtained by a modern automobile, but they would have no trouble knowing how to drive one. Picking up the morning newspaper, they might be puzzled by references to AIDS and genetically modified food but would understand references to nuclear power, air conditioning, plastics, jet airplanes, rockets, radar, and even computers.

Yet now suppose that a time machine magically transported Ozzie and Harriet half a century in the opposite direction. As viewers of the PBS series The 1900 House can attest, even middle-class existence at that time was extraordinarily arduous. Without the benefit of penicillin, even a small cut could prove fatal. Life expectancy at birth was but 47.3 years, compared with 68.3 years in 1950. Most doctors lacked any scientific training, and the bottles in their bags contained little more than alcohol and opiates. Lack of refrigeration, poor sanitary conditions, and adulteration meant millions died from spoiled or tainted food, while epidemics of scarlet fever, yellow fever, and smallpox offered constant reminders of life's fragility.

Even affluent households were illuminated with gaslights that were expensive to run and prone to explosion. Without electricity, there were no laundry machines, vacuum cleaners, or other mechanical means to purge the household of dirt and germs. The air stank of coal dust, manure, and rotting garbage thrown from windows. Only the super-rich could afford a car, and the vast majority of families did without indoor plumbing. Further deprived of access to a telephone, and without even a radio to provide entertainment, Ozzie and Harriet would have felt nearly as stifled and out of place in the dark and chilly rooms of The 1900 House as would their great-grandchildren.

Measuring the rate of technological progress over time is hardly easy, but one statistic strongly suggests why Ozzie and Harriet probably would have found it more disorienting to travel 50 years into the past than 50 years into the future. The number tracks how efficiently the economy uses labor, capital, raw materials, and new technology. Economists call it total-factor productivity. Between 1913 and 1972, it grew by an annual average of 1.08 percent. Then between 1972 and 1995, for reasons economists are still debating, the rate of improvement collapsed to less than one fiftieth that of the previous era, despite a widespread adoption of computers.


USNews.com: The Slowing Pace of Progress (12/25/00)

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home