Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Trickle-down technology doesn't work any better than trickle-down economics

Marc Andreessen and I used to work for the same company, but he made a lot more money than I did. That said, I think I know a little more about what makes life worth living than he does. It's not the quantity of stuff that you own, it's the quality of living.

Technocrats like Andreessen and economists like Tim Worstall believe that if you have more material goods, you are happier. Andreessen recently got into a tweet-a-thon over this subject. I find his views incoherent. Worstall recently wrote an article about this fallacy for Forbes magazine.

The reason economists love measuring the quantity of material goods rather than quality of life is because it's so easy to do. Worstall puts it bluntly: The fact that an iPhone cost $600 in 2008 and a comparable Android phone costs $20 in 2014, he maintains, proves that technology makes life better for everyone, even the poor.  But it doesn't. It only proves that one single item can be purchased by more people today than in 2002. Worstall's entire argument rests on his belief that owning a smart phone makes life better.

There are things that make life better. I can name a few things that are much better for me than owning a smartphone, which I could do without: holding hands with my wife while we walk through the woods in the rain; talking with my son about the book we bought together 20 years ago; watching children play on the grass; hearing my favorite songs over again. I did talk with my son on a smart phone, but that fact did not increase my pleasure at hearing his voice or recalling the pleasant times we spent together.

Worstall makes the point that Queen Elizabeth I wore silk stockings, a luxury at the time, while nearly everyone in the developed world can afford them today. Here Worstall is discussing fashion, another topic he knows nothing about. Wearing the latest fashions is pleasant, but it's the same pleasure today that it was 400 years ago. The fact that a woman can afford silk stockings does not mean she's going to enjoy wearing them if the fashion this year dictates that she wear bobby socks.

I've been reading Anne of Green Gables, a book written 100 years ago about life on Prince Edward Island. I believe that Anne and her friends had a better quality of life then than we have today. In the first place, she lived on a farm, as did most Americans in the 19th Century. Living on a farm meant working out of doors, breathing fresh air, drinking clean water, and having life-long friends. These are pleasures of which technology has deprived us.

Anne and her friends enjoyed picnics and parties, where live musicians played. Today, only the wealthy can afford to hear live musicians, though technology does permit the poor to enjoy far inferior recorded music. Anne enjoyed live theater, which only the wealthy can afford today, while the poor can only afford inferior prerecorded entertainments. Even better, Anne enjoyed performing for her friends. This is a pleasure which some of the poor can enjoy today, though the realities of technology mean they have less time to practice and hence less chance to become really good at performance.

We can list a few of the things that only a few can find today, that Anne took for granted: Clean, free-flowing streams; unpolluted air; quiet places for contemplation; food free from industrial poisons; a home where peace is unbroken by sirens and horns; a school where children need not fear armed invasion.

In fact, rather than provide all of us with a better quality of life, technology has made things worse for many people. People did not leave the farms for the cities because they disliked the farms, but because technology forced them to do so. People enjoyed the pleasures of small-town, pre-industrial existence. They had more time to savor life to the fullest. They enjoyed the turning of the seasons, the cycles of growth and decay.

Worstall claims that having a GDP that is 8 times greater than 100 years ago means that life is 10 times better than it used to be. This would only be true if material possessions always lead to a better quality of life. But they do not, and never will.

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