GUEST POST from Greg Satell
Techno-optimism may have reached its zenith in 2011, when Marc Andreessen declared that software was eating the world. Back then, it seemed that anything rooted in the physical world was doomed to decline while geeky engineers banging out endless lines of code would own the future and everything in it.
Yet as Derek Thompson pointed out in The Atlantic, the euphoria of Andreessen and his Silicon Valley brethren seems to have been misplaced. A rash of former unicorns have seen their value plummet, while WeWork saw its IPO self-destruct. Today, even Internet giants like Amazon seem to be investing more in atoms than they do in bits.
We were promised a new economy of increasing returns, but statistics show a very different story. Over the past 30 years wages have stagnated while productivity growth has slowed to a crawl. At the same time, costs for things like education and healthcare have skyrocketed. What is perhaps most disturbing is how many of our most basic problems have gotten worse.
1. Extreme Inequality
The digital revolution was supposed to be a democratizing force, increasing access to information and competition while breaking the institutional monopoly on power. Yet just the opposite seems to have happened, with a relatively small global elite grabbing more money and more influence.
Consider market consolidation. An analysis published in the Harvard Business Review showed that from airlines to hospitals to beer, market share is increasingly concentrated in just a handful of firms. A more expansive study of 900 industries conducted by The Economist found that two thirds have become more dominated by larger players. In fact, almost everywhere you look markets are weakening.
Perhaps not surprisingly, we see the same trends in households as we do with businesses. The OECD reports that income inequality is at its highest level in over 50 years. Even in emerging markets, where millions have been lifted out of poverty, most of the benefits have gone to a small few.
While inequality may seem abstract, the consequences of it are concrete and stark. Social mobility has been declining in America for decades, transforming the “land of opportunity” into what is increasingly a caste system. The stresses to our societies have also contributed to a global rise in authoritarian populism.
Since the 1950s, the Green Revolution has transformed agriculture around the world, dramatically reducing hunger in places like Asia, Africa and South America. More recently, advances in gene editing promise what may be an even greater increase in productivity that has the potential to outpace projected population growth.
The impact of the increase in agricultural productivity cannot be overstated. In fact, studies have shown that as hunger subsides, economic activity increases while both mortality and fertility decrease. When people don’t have to struggle to take care of basic needs, their ambition and creativity can be unleashed.
The story in the United States, however, is starkly different. Research by the USDA finds that 11.1% of US households are food insecure. Another study revealed that about half of students on college campuses experience food insecurity. If that sounds bad, a study by Brookings suggests that the problem has gotten far worse during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The truth is that these days hunger is much more of a policy problem than it is an economic problem. Science and technology have made it possible to produce more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet, even in desperately poor countries. The reason that people go hungry on America’s streets is simply because we let it happen.
3. Falling life expectancy
Around the same time as the Green Revolution was beginning to alleviate hunger in developing countries, we entered a golden age of antibiotics. After penicillin became commercially available in 1945 the floodgates opened and scientists uncovered dozens of compounds that could fight infection. Millions of lives were saved.
Starting in the 1970s, we started to make serious headway in heart disease, leading to a miraculous decline in death from heart attacks and strokes. At the same time, due to advances in cancer treatment such as targeted therapies and immunotherapy cancer survivability has soared. In fact, medical science had advanced so much that some serious people believe that immortality is within reach.
Yet in America, things are going the other way. Life expectancy has been declining for years, largely due to “deaths of despair” due to drugs, alcohol and suicide. Anxiety and depression are rising to epidemic levels. Healthcare costs continue to explode while the number of uninsured continues to rise. If history is any guide, we can only expect these trends to continue.
So although technology has made it possible for us to live longer, healthier lives, we find ourselves living shorter, more miserable lives.
Revealing and Building Anew
In a 1954 essay, The Question Concerning Technology the German philosopher Martin Heidegger described technology as akin to art, in that it reveals truths about the nature of the world, brings them forth and puts them to some specific use. In the process, human nature and its capacity for good and evil is also revealed.
He gives the example of a hydroelectric dam, which reveals the energy of a river and puts it to use making electricity. In much the same sense, scientists don’t “create,” miracle cures as much as they uncover truths about human biology and leverage that knowledge to improve health. It’s a subtle, but very important distinction.
Yet in another essay, Building Dwelling Thinking, he explains that building also plays an important role, because to build for the world, we first must understand what it means to live in it. The revealing power of technology forces us to rethink old truths and reimagine new societal norms. That, more than anything else, is where the challenges lie. Miracle cures, for example, do little for those without health insurance.
We are now nearing the end of the digital age and entering a new era of innovation which will likely be more impactful than anything we’ve seen since the rise of electricity and internal combustion a century ago. This, in turn, will initiate a new cycle of revealing and building that will be as challenging as anything humanity has ever faced.
Prognosticators and futurists try to predict what will happen through some combination of extrapolation and supposition, but the truth is the future will most be shaped by the choices we make. We could have chosen to make our society more equal, healthier and happier, but did not. We can, of course, choose differently. The future will be revealed in what we choose to build.
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