Last week I was in Berlin where I gave a talk in the conference on Contextualising Technical Innovations in Prehistory. The declared focus of the conference was on the evolution of technology in the 4th and 3rd millennia BC, but many of the presentations ranged much more widely, and a few even connected the Bronze Age to the Modern Age. One of the recurrent themes was that you cannot understand the dynamics of innovation if you decouple your theory from what else is happening in the society. It’s not really the lone genius who pushes technology into the future. After all, it’s not enough to invent something; in order for an invention to become an innovation it has to be adopted by the society, or at least some substantial segment of it.
David Warburton in his talk, Why Innovate?, proposed that most of innovation is driven by the interests of the powerful and wealthy, the elite. That’s why in the hierarchical societies we see a lot of technological change in the production and elaboration of luxury items, consumed primarily by the elites, and very little innovation in labor-saving devices that would benefit the majority of population.
Gary Feinman’s talk Flying Cars and Polychrome Vases: Cross-cultural Perspectives on Technical Innovations and Their Connection to Social Inequality developed this idea further and in a very interesting way. Feinman is a Mesoamericanist who works in Oaxaca (and now also in China). Half of his talk was on Mesoamerican archaeological cultures. For example, he showed this image:
Polychrome vase rollout: King of Motul de San Jose seated on throne, leaning against cushion held by servant, court dwarfs and hunchbacks crouch before him (Maya kings, ed. Grube 2001)
But the most thought-provoking part of his talk was on the parallels he drew between the Ancient World and modern America. As readers of this blog know very well, during most of the twentieth century – until the late 1970s – inequality of income and wealth was declining in the USA. During this period, known as the Great Compression, a variety of well-being indicators were climbing up. The last 40 years saw the opposite trend: climbing inequality and stagnating, or even plunging, well-being.
In his talk Gary Feinman made the following observation: during the period of declining and low inequality, the majority of innovations favored the common people. Just think of the spread of the automobile, the radio and TV, the washing machine, the vacuum cleaner, indoor plumbing, electric lighting, the electric steam iron, and the dishwasher. As a result of this technological progress, by the end of the 1960s the commoners in the USA enjoyed a much higher quality of life than the wealthiest elites in the Roman Empire, for example.
Unfortunately, it all ended in the 1970s. Here are the main innovation during the new Gilded Age that Gary listed in his talk:
|Economic financialization||Computing, ATMs, credit cards, fiber optics, big data|
|Personalized communication and consumption||Internet, cell phones, personal computers, fiber optics|
|Surveillance||Drones, cell phones, internet, big data|
|Medical innovations||More directed to extending life than to lessening infant mortality|
Without necessarily endorsing each and every one of these categories, I think it is fair to say that the technological progress since the late 1970s has benefited primarily the wealthy and the corporations. Certainly, the great surge in the well-being of common people has come to an end. Can you point to any major area where technology made our life easier?
Unlike Gary, I actually think that the Internet is a real achievement that improved the life of many people in America and elsewhere. Of course, it also made it easier for the corporations to track our preferences and push their unwanted products on us (but you can always “just say no”). The Internet, however, did not reduce the drudgery of living, in the same way that the washing machine (just think about doing laundry before them), the automobile, and the vacuum cleaner achieved.
But in the last 40 years there were no comparable improvements. Where are those household robots that we were promised in the 1950s? Where are the flying cars?
I am fortunate that I rarely need to deal with traffic jams, but when I am trapped in one, how many times I wished that I could just push a button and soar above the mess… (Now don’t start on telling me that it’s impractical, I understand it as well as you).
OK, if I can’t have my flying car, what happened to the promise of superfast public transportation? I live in the Boston-Washington corridor. How come I need to fly to Washington? Where is the bullet train that would take me there in comfort? That’s not science fiction – superfast trains have been a reality in Japan and Europe for decades. China now has them. Even Russia, for crying out loud!
Here’s a graph from Gary’s talk that provides some explanation:
As you can see, during the 1970s the public spending on new transport and infrastructure has declined below the 2 percent of GDP level; in fact, it is now lower than the level that we need to spend just to keep our current infrastructure (and that level has also been declining).