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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Technology has enriched our lives, but we take it for granted

We don't have flying cars – but the technological advances of the past 40 years, while not flashy, have enriched the fabric of everyday life in numerous ways.
A Microsoft display blends into the background. The writer observes that we have long ceased to notice important innovations. Robyn Beck / AFP
A Microsoft display blends into the background. The writer observes that we have long ceased to notice important innovations. Robyn Beck / AFP

It has been 40 years since the last astronauts left the Moon. That anniversary, which passed on Friday, has put some prominent technologists in a funk.

"You promised me Mars colonies. Instead, I got Facebook," reads the cover of the current issue of MIT Technology Review. In an essay titled Why We Can't Solve Big Problems, the editor, Jason Pontin, considers "why there are no disruptive innovations" today.

Technology Review's headline, running below the face of the Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin, now 82, is a play on another slogan: "We wanted flying cars. Instead we got 140 characters." That one comes from the manifesto of Founders Fund, a Silicon Valley venture-capital firm started by the PayPal founders Peter Thiel, Luke Nosek and Ken Howery to invest in "transformational technologies and companies." (Among their investments is Space X, the launch-system business founded by Elon Musk.)

In speeches, interviews and articles, Thiel decries what he sees as the country's lack of significant innovations. "When tracked against the admittedly lofty hopes of the 1950s and 1960s, technological progress has fallen short in many domains," he wrote last year in National Review. "Consider the most literal instance of nonacceleration: We are no longer moving faster."

Such warnings serve a useful purpose. Political barriers have in fact made it harder to innovate with atoms than with bits. New technologies as diverse as hydraulic fracturing and direct-to-consumer genetic testing (neither mentioned by Thiel) attract instant and predictable opposition. As Mr Thiel writes, "Progress is neither automatic nor mechanistic; it is rare."

But the current funk says less about economic or technological reality than it does about the power of a certain 20th-century technological glamour: all those images of space flight, elevated highways and flying cars, with their promise of escape from mundane existence into a better, more exciting place called The Future. These visions imprinted themselves so vividly on the public's consciousness that they left some of the smartest, most technologically savvy denizens of the 21st century blind to much of the progress we actually enjoy.

"The future that people in the 1960s hoped to see is still the future we're waiting for today, half a century later," writes the Founders Fund partner Bruce Gibney in the firm's manifesto. "Instead of Captain Kirk and the USS Enterprise, we got the Priceline Negotiator and a cheap flight to Cabo."

He forgets just how exotic airplane travel was for the typical TV viewer in 1966, when Star Trek debuted. Today's cheap and easily booked flights let a lot more people fly. That means the average speed at which someone travels over a lifetime can increase even if, as Mr Thiel laments, the fastest vehicle on the planet is no faster than it was decades ago. Making an impressive technology widely available is not as glamorous as pushing the technological frontier, but it represents significant, real-life progress.

The world we live in would be wondrous to mid-20th-century Americans. It just isn't wondrous to us. One reason is that we long ago ceased to notice some of the most unexpected innovations.

Forget the big, obvious things like Internet search, GPS, smartphones or molecularly targeted cancer treatments. Compared with the real 21st century, old projections of The Future offered a paucity of fundamentally new technologies. They included no laparoscopic surgery or effective acne treatments or ADHD medications or Lasik or lithotripsy - to name just a few medical advances that don't significantly affect life expectancy.

The glamorous future included no digital photography or stereo speakers tiny enough to fit in your ears. No forensic DNA testing or home pregnancy tests. No ubiquitous microwave ovens or video games or bar codes or laser levels or CGI-filled movies. No super absorbent polymers for disposable diapers - indeed, no disposable diapers of any kind.

Nor was much business innovation evident in those 20th-century visions. The glamorous future included no FedEx or Wal-Mart, no Starbucks or Nike or Craigslist - culturally transformative enterprises that use technology but derive their real value from organisation and insight. Nobody used shipping containers or optimised supply chains. The manufacturing revolution that began at Toyota had not yet happened. And forget about such complex but quotidian inventions as wickable fabrics or salad in a bag.

The point isn't that people in the past failed to predict all these innovations. It's that people in the present take them for granted.

Technologists who lament the "end of the future" are denigrating the decentralised, incremental advances that actually improve everyday life.

And they're promoting a truncated idea of past innovation: economic history with railroads but no department stores, radio but no ready-to-wear apparel, vaccines but no consumer packaged goods, jets but no plastics.

"Economic change in all periods depends, more than most economists think, on what people believe," observes the economic historian Joel Mokyr. If a few venture capitalists believe that "transformational technologies" are worth betting on, we may see some bold ideas come to fruition. But if they also convince the general public that the only worthwhile technological initiatives are splashy ventures that rate mentions in a State of the Union address, we won't have more technological progress. We'll have less.

Virginia Postrel is the author of The Future and Its Enemies

* Bloomberg News