Techno-hype, the idea that we are living in an age of ever accelerating change, has become part of our mental furniture. David Edgerton says there is surprisingly little evidence for itby David Edgerton / April 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
We have a problem in thinking about technology and change: we do not think about it realistically, we do not draw on experience. We think in clich?s: technology will enslave us; it will liberate us; it will turn children into anti-social weirdos. It will create a perpetual peace; it will lead to hideous wars.
One clich? is particularly resistant to analysis-that technology is subject to “ever accelerating change” and that, consequently, society and the economy are changing faster than ever. Unprecedented challenges thus face us.
The “ever accelerating change” clich? is so easily inserted in a political programme or a columnists’ opinion piece that it has become part of our mental furniture. From such unexamined propositions commentators construct whole accounts of the present and near future (look at the columns which followed the cloning of Dolly the sheep).
The idea of ever accelerating change is an old one, which does not mean it is wrong. But have we been living through such a period in the past ten years, or even 20 years? Are we really facing changes which are unprecedented in scale and scope?
Since the late 1950s our newspapers have been awash with quan-titative economic information, es-pecially of changes in economic variables. Interestingly, the claims for an ever increasing rate of change are not at first glance supported by such statistics. Angus Maddison, the eminent economist, has shown that for the world as a whole, average rates of economic growth in 1973-92 were considerably lower than in 1950-73. In the case of Asia, including Japan and the tigers, they were about the same. According to Gavyn Davies of Goldman Sachs, in the US, Japan, the EU and Britain, growth rates have been lower in the 1990s than in the 1980s, lower in the 1980s than in the 1970s and lower in the 1970s than the 1960s. We have experienced an “ever decelerating” rate of growth.
You might object that GDP is simply an aggregate of output; it tells us nothing about the changing nature of that output. On the other hand, during the golden age high rates of growth accompanied very high rates of structural change in the economy. So have rates of structural change increased while growth has slowed? I do not know, but it does not seem to be obvious that they were lower in the 1950s and 1960s than in recent years.
Such considerations point to a paradox: the fact that things change makes it difficult to measure that change. As a result of change, one is not comparing like with like. It may be that something very difficult to quantify, especially over time, is changing faster than it used to. This is another way of saying that evidence for an increased rate of change is proving somewhat elusive.
What happens if we look directly at measures of inputs and outputs of activities that are meant to generate change? R&D spending is obviously one of the main inputs. Although the rate of growth in spending has fallen in recent years, one analyst suggests that total world R&D spending in 1990 was about the same as in the 30 years between 1945 and 1975.
But have the outputs been greater? Patenting levels in the US have remained the same since the 1970s despite the increase in R&D spending. The OECD’s “inventiveness co-efficient” has grown from 5.1 patents (per 10,000 people) in 1984 to 5.5 in 1994. For the EU the figures are 2.2 to 2.5. Not big jumps.
Of course these numbers tell us little about what we are really interested in: important qualitative changes in technology. Proponents of “ever accelerating change” do not bother to cite quantitative evidence in its favour; but nor do they cite convincing qualitative evidence.
They often refer to particular technologies, usually information technology, with perhaps a few references to biotechnology thrown in. More recently, the internet has taken pride of place. It is interesting to note that a number of newspapers have subsumed science coverage under the internet.
One problem is that we confuse innovation with actual change on the ground. Electricity’s impact on US productivity was strongest in the interwar years and not at the time of Eddison’s heroics in the 1880s, as Paul David has argued. In Britain, late 19th century and early 20th century innovations are still changing the nature of our lives. The increasing use of the motorcar, the telephone and the aeroplane, are obvious examples. Indeed, could it be that the huge increase in the use of telephones and air travel is much more significant for globalisation than the internet? (We hardly ever mention shipping in this context, despite the fact that ships still account for a huge proportion of global trade.)
Another problem is that we attribute change to technology when the cause may be something else. One of the main changes in the 1980s and 1990s has been an increasing emphasis on markets. This has clearly had an effect on changing the world, largely independent of technology. One example is the collapse of the British coal industry, which has little to do with techni-cal change.
I find claims for the world historical importance of the present distasteful. Are we experiencing anything like the great war, or indeed the period around and during the second world war? Anthony Giddens, the LSE’s new director, recently claimed that we are now in a period of change comparable only to the first industrial revolution, and that globalisation in particular is radically new. Yet it was the 1950s and 1960s which saw uniquely high rates of economic growth, not the industrial revolution, or the present. And it is the innovations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as electricity, the motorcar, cinema and radio, which are still transforming our civilisation. Electricity and the cinema surely gave a bigger jolt to the imagination than the personal computer or the internet.
We also have a surprising tendency to neglect change in the recent past. In Europe for example, there was a huge shift out of agricultural employment, which usually meant a shift from the country to the city. In the 12 years between 1954-66 about 1.3m agricultural jobs were lost in France, 1.4m in Germany and 2.8m in Italy. There were also huge job losses in coal mining and ship building. On the other hand, industries such as electronics, chemicals and motorcars were growing very much faster than the economy as a whole, and generating huge numbers of jobs. Or take energy: in 1950 the Common Market Six were dependent on coal for 75 per cent of their energy. The figure was 31 per cent only 17 years later.
We are also prone to underestimate our existing technologies as we stand gasping before the future. Consider an example: there is apparently a Japanese guru who believes that the internet is bringing about a new era of global citizenship. The Net (BBC2 13th January 1997) put this to the test by interviewing him in San Francisco over the internet. The link kept breaking down, and was in any case of low quality. The Net poked some fun at the unfortunate sage: the future had not arrived. But they missed the real joke: the capacity to talk to someone in San Francisco has existed for a long time. One could have picked up the telephone; in the late 19th century one could have communicated by telegraph.
Techno-futurism has been offering us very similar futures for many decades. The term “global village” is decades old, and the idea that the world was shrinking in time and space was not even original when applied to aviation before the great war. The idea that science and technology were advancing faster than human ability to cope has been a tired clich? for decades.
For historians, present visions of the future display a startling and entirely unselfconscious lack of originality. Luis Bu?uel, the Spanish film director, imagined a little machine which could predict the ending of every Hollywood movie using information from the first few scenes. Today, a simple computer programme could be used to predict every argument that techno-hype might offer about any particular new technology.
Although nowadays we are supposed to be increasingly aware of hype and propaganda, the Independent (6th January 1997) declared that 1997 was “the year the hype really happens” with respect to the internet. The editor of Wired gave ten reasons for this situation: critical mass of connections to the internet; the trip to Mars; loss of Hong Kong; BSkyB’s extension; digital genome archives; high capacity connections between Soho and Hollywood; cheaper terminals; more twentysomething media types; wired democracy; and the culture of choice. Actually, the most interesting thing that has happened in relation to the British digerati is that Wired has folded.
If we cannot take the content of future-hype seriously, we must take the phenomenon itself seriously. It is a political intervention which claims that we are helpless in the face of ever increasing change, that we are out of date, and have nothing to say. Proponents of techno-hype want to speed up discussion so much that there is no time to argue. They want to render our knowledge of the present and past null and void. They want us to give way to the new people who have “the future in their bones,” those who pride themselves on “having seen the future.” It is an old trick, but we still fall for it.
There is, of course, a danger in being critical of techno-hype, of claiming arrogantly to have seen it all before. One can too easily be accused of being a Luddite, of wanting merely to preserve the old ways for their own sake. Or of simply being ignorant of the dramatic changes that are taking place in some other place, usually abroad. Singapore has been a recent favourite, despite the fact it has fewer internet connections per capita than Britain.
But in casting doubt on the view that we are living through a period of greater change than ever before, I am not necessarily denying that this is the case; I am simply stating that the case has not been proven. Nor am I welcoming the fact that change may actually be slow. In fact, there are many ordinary things which cry out for technological change: think of the Northern line. It is distressing that so much talk about unprecedented change is accompanied by political and policy programmes which promise no change at all.
We have been living in a radically changing world for a long time; to predict that change will continue is hardly bold, or original. To predict particular changes is different from claiming that we are living in a world driven by unprecedented technical breakthroughs.
As Karl Marx warned in 1859: “Just as one would not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge… a period of transformation by its consciousness.”