Kevin Kelly is another deep mind countering economist Robert Gordon’s claim that information technology has had only a small impact on productivity, along with Krugman. HIs argument is that a/ we’ve only been at this 20 years, since the emergence of the web (he discounts Gordon’s start of the era of information technology back in the ’60s) and b/ Gordon’s obsession with productivity is dumb: we should be measuring the degree to which this wave of technology frees us to waste time. Kelly refers to this as the post-productive economy, a techno-utopian view with some sensible foundations.
Kevin Kelly, The Post-Productive Economy
It’s hard to shoehorn some of the most important things we do in life into the category of “being productive.” Generally any task that can be measured by the metrics of productivity — output per hour — is a task we want automation to do. In short, productivity is for robots.Long-term growth of that type that Robert Gordon studies is really weird if you think about it. As he notes, there wasn’t much of it in the world before 1750, before technological progress. Now several centuries later we have a thousand times as much wealth as before. Where does this extra good stuff come from? It is not moved from somewhere else, or borrowed. It is self-created. There’s a system which manufactures this wealth “out of nothing.” Much like life itself. There are certainly necessary conditions and ingredients, but it seems once you have those in place, the economy (the system) will self-generate this wealth.
A number of economists have wrestled with the origins of this self-generating wealth. Paul Romerand Brian Arthur both separately point to the recombining and re-mixing of existing ideas as the way economic growth occurs. This view focuses on knowledge as the prime motor in a self-renewing circle of increasing returns. Unlike say energy or matter, the more knowledge you spend, the more knowledge you earn, and the more breeds more in a never-ending virtuous spiral.
What is important is that this self-increasing cycle makes things that are new. New goods, new services, new dreams, new ambitions, even new needs. When things are new they are often not easy to measure, not easy to detect, nor easy to optimize. The 1st Industrial Revolution that introduced steam and railways also introduced new ideas about ownership, identity, privacy, and literacy. These ideas were not “productive” at first, but over time as they seeped into law, and culture, and became embedded into other existing technologies, they helped work to become more productive. For example ideas of ownership and capital became refined and unleashed new arrangements for funding large-scale projects in more efficient ways. In some cases these indirect ideas may have more long-term affect on growth than the immediate inventions of the time.
Likewise the grand shift our society is undergoing now, moving to a highly networked world in the third phase of industrialization, is producing many innovations that 1) are hard to perceive, 2) not really about optimizing labor, and 3) therefore hard to quantify in terms of productivity.
One has the sense that if we wait a while, the new things will trickled down and find places in the machinery of commerce where they can eventually boost the efficiency of work.
But it seems to me that there is second-order tilt in this shift to a networked world that says the real wealth in the long-term, or perhaps that should be the new wealth, will not be found merely in greater productivity, but in greater degrees of playing, creating, and exploring. We don’t have good metrics for new possibilities, for things that have never been seen before, because by definition, their boundaries, distinctions, and units are unknown. How does one measure “authenticity” or “hyperreality” or “stickiness”?
Productivity is the main accomplishment, and metric, of the two previous Industrial Revolutions. Productivity won’t go away; over the long term it will take fewer hours of human work to produce more of the goods and services those economies produce. Our system will do this primarily because most of this work will be done by bots.
The main accomplishment of this 3rd Industrialization, the networking of our brains, other brains and other things, is to add something onto the substrate of productivity. Call it consumptity, or generativity. By whatever name we settle on, this frontier expands the creative aspect of the whole system, increasing innovations, expanding possibilities, encouraging the inefficiencies of experiment and exploring, absorbing more of the qualities of play. We don’t have good measurements of these yet. Cynics will regard this as new age naiveté, or unadorned utopianism, or a blindness to the “realities” of real life of greedy corporations, or bad bosses, or the inevitable suffering of real work. It’s not.
The are two senses of growth: scale, that is, more, bigger, faster; and evolution. The linear progression of steam power, railways, electrification, and now computers and the internet is a type of the former; just more of the same, but only better. Therefore the productivity growth curve should continue up in a continuous linear fashion.
I suggest the growth of this 3rd regime is more like evolutionary growth, rather than developmental growth. The apparent stagnation we see in productivity, in real wages, in debt relief, is because we don’t reckon, and don’t perceive, the new directions of growth. It is not more of the same, but different.
This all reminds me of McLuhan’s claim —
Today in the electric age we feel as free to invent nonlineal logics as we do to make non-Euclidean geometries. Even the assembly line, as the method of analytic sequence for mechanizing every kind of making and production, is nowadays yielding to new forms.
— which I interpret to mean that as information technology advances over the next 100 years, it will push people increasingly into the role of artists, and out of the factories. An evolution of society, not just a speeding up.
Of course, the trick isn’t just convincing everyone that idleness should still come with a paycheck. The big hitch is managing to survive all the messes we’ve created in the name of global productivity and growth at all costs. There might be a techno-utopia in the out years, but in the meantime we have to learn to weather the postnormal, first.
One of Kelly’s paragraphs jumps out as perhaps the most challenging for those with the deepest identification with modern business ideology:
Civilization is not just about saving labor but also about “wasting” labor to make art, to make beautiful things, to “waste” time playing, like sports. Nobody ever suggested that Picasso should spend fewer hours painting per picture in order to boost his wealth or improve the economy. The value he added to the economy could not be optimized for productivity. It’s hard to shoehorn some of the most important things we do in life into the category of “being productive.” Generally any task that can be measured by the metrics of productivity — output per hour — is a task we want automation to do. In short, productivity is for robots. Humans excel at wasting time, experimenting, playing, creating, and exploring. None of these fare well under the scrutiny of productivity. That is why science and art are so hard to fund. But they are also the foundation of long-term growth. Yet our notions of jobs, of work, of the economy don’t include a lot of space for wasting time, experimenting, playing, creating, and exploring.