The Agenda

Virginia Postrel Makes the Case for Incremental Progress

Virginia Postrel’s latest column takes end-of-the-futurists to task:

Technologists who lament the “end of the future” are denigrating the decentralized, 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. 

Though I am sympathetic to Virginia’s critique, Clayton Christensen’s claim that we have seen a dearth of what he calls “empowering innovations” strikes me as convincing. The trouble is not that we don’t have flying cars and other emblems of technological glamour. Rather, it is the possibility that regulatory creep and cultural risk-aversion have reduced the rate at which democratizing technologies, i.e., technologies that put power in the hands of ordinary workers and consumers by reducing the cognitive demands associated with accomplishing various tasks, emerge and spread. 


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