James C. Banks

When the Future’s Not What It Used to Be

In Uncategorized on March 6, 2011 at 3:18 am

Remember how—when you were a twenty-something or, in my case, a kid—putting a 2000 on the end of any product used to be a clever marketing ploy because the millennium was approaching? If so, you might wonder whatever happened to the millennium. This is part of what I gather Tyler Cowen has been trying to answer in his new book, The Great Stagnation. Technology still changes, but not like it used to. I’m old enough to remember when having a cordless phone was a status symbol, but didn’t have the opportunity to see car-ownership transform the lives of America’s middle class, as many people born in the early twentieth century would have.

I am not as uneasy with this as the elite class has tended to be, stepping up to pour money into initiatives which range from innovative to ludicrous. The concern is common among academics as well; every couple of months (or at least every year, when SAT scores are released) one pundit or another churns out another piece about how “American kids” are “falling behind” in a “competitive, global economy.” The public generally seems to agree also. The latest manifestation of this is their overreaction[i] to Amy Chua’s book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Nearly every commentary on the controversial tome has mentioned how the response masks Americans’ insecurity about their future prospects in the new Republic of Earth (or will it be an autocracy?)

As a general rule, the pundits who compare American students to peers abroad miss the important point that, while America might be losing at its own game, it is still its own game and that counts for something. Burgeoning economies in China, India and Brazil aren’t redefining the way that business is done; they are not undermining long-lasting assumptions of international economy or free trade. On the contrary, the degree to which they have been successful has been contingent upon their willingness to adopt Western models of political economy. China did not start growing until one of their leaders decided that getting rich was glorious.

But this does not matter, because a falling tide lowers all boats. If we are nearing a moment at which entrepreneurship cannot come up with new strategies for redefining the way that we live, we might be living near the end of history after all. I do not believe this to be the case (on the grounds that there are always new corners to look into somewhere), but with every year that passes, innovation diminishes slightly. This is not to say that new products fail to emerge; just that the new innovations that do hit the marketplace are much less ambitious than the flying cars portrayed in futurist movies like Blade Runner.

The imaginary concept of the flying car turned out to be much less revolutionary than the internet or the mobile phone; it might have gotten people to places faster, but it didn’t make it possible for anyone to talk to anyone else at almost any time. Even so, it seemed much more glorious. It was a symbol of human ingenuity and expansiveness. The innovations that actually did come about in the second half of the twentieth century and first decade of the twenty-first—suburbia or the personal computer—are in many ways symbolic of just the opposite: maybe it isn’t good for mankind to be alone, but judging by what he creates, he sure likes being alone.

  1. […] progress has slowed in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century—is also exaggerated. I argued earlier that many of the technologies that don’t seem as significant as the car might yet turn out to be […]

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