Noted for September 7, 2013
Florence Wyman Richardson Usher

Joel Mokyr: Is technological progress a thing of the past?: Noted for September 8, 2013

Joel Mokyr: Is technological progress a thing of the past?: T

History is always a bad guide to the future and economic historians should avoid making predictions. All the same, the historical records provide some insights into what makes societies technologically creative…. The answer is short and simple: we ain’t seen nothin’ yet, the best is still to come…. Starting with supply, what is it that accounts for sustained technological progress?… The historical record makes clear that science depends on technology in that it depends on the instruments and tools that are needed for science to advance…. If tools and instruments are a key to further scientific progress, it is hard not to be impressed by the possibilities of the 21st century…. To be sure, there is no automatic mechanism that turns better science into improved technology. But there is one reason to believe that in the near future it will do so better and more efficiently than ever before. The reason is access…. Scientists can now find the tiniest needles in data haystacks as large as Montana in a fraction of a second. And if science sometimes still proceeds by ‘trying every bottle on the shelf’ – as in some areas it still does – it can search with blinding speed over many more bottles, perhaps even peta-bottles.

Have all the low-hanging fruits been picked? One answer is that the analogy is flawed. Science builds taller and taller ladders, so we can reach the upper branches, and then the branches above them. A less obvious answer is that technological progress is fundamentally… dis-equilibrating process…. The task that 20th-century technology seems to have carried out the easiest is to create activities that fill… ever-growing leisure time…

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