Banal technology, the obese State and low productivity

Published in Expansión

We live in an era of technological intoxication, in which we all bow down in fascination before the Golden Calf of new technologies. However, we ought to ask ourselves an unpleasant question: are all these technological advances really productive? Why it is, then, that productivity growth has slowed down in developed countries?

Given that time is clearly a limited resource (constant since the dawn of time is that the day has only 24 hours), the key to long-term material progress is increased productivity, that is, how much more we are able to produce in those same 24 hours: everything that gains us time means an increase in productivity, and everything that makes us waste time, a drop in productivity. The revolutionary advances following the Industrial Revolution brought huge time savings. Up until then, and for millennia, productivity had barely increased and, as a consequence, generation after generation, families had virtually the same means and resources as their most distant ancestors. The farms of the 18th century, for example, were very similar to those of Roman times. With the Industrial Revolution, for the first time in history, the brute force of man and animal was replaced by the machine, first with the steam engine and, later, with electricity and the combustion engine. Also for the first time, the train, the engine-powered ship, the car and, finally, the aeroplane achieved unimaginable reductions in journey times, shortening distances. Let’s not forget that until the beginnings of the 19th century, man still travelled on foot and horse and ships still used the very same technology (the sail) as they did in ancient Egypt, almost 5000 years earlier. Electricity liberated us from dependence on daylight and night turned into day without lighting fires for the first time since man walked on Earth. The telegraph, the telephone, the radio and the television allowed man, again for the first time, to communicate across distances, transmit sound and images and keep a record of them. Artificial cooling made food preservation possible, air conditioning allowed progress in hot climates, household appliances freed up time and brought comfort and convenience, production lines enabled huge cost reductions in goods, fertilizers made it possible to multiply food production on the same area of arable land (another limited resource) and the development of materials such as steel, plastic and fiberglass allowed the manufacture of goods that would have been unimaginable. Last but not least, all of this was possible thanks to the cheap energy provided by fossil fuels like coal and oil, so grotesquely reviled these days, without whose abundance and efficiency such enormous leaps forward for humankind would have are inconceivable.

From the human perspective, increased productivity has always originated in the ingenuity and tenacity of a tiny group of non-conformists capable of drawing upon the knowledge and experience of previous generations whilst simultaneously questioning accepted, ingrained and restrictive beliefs, challenging the status quo with the firm conviction that they can do better. These mavericks are scientists and inventors, but also entrepreneurs whose role in increasing productivity through improvements in the production process is usually overlooked or ignored. For example, between 1909 and 1919, Henry Ford, inventor of the production line, went from producing 18,000 cars a year to 1,000,000 with such efficiency that, in the same period, he was able to lower the average price of each Ford T by about 50%, double the minimum wage in his factories and achieve profits year after year (unlike many current so-called ‘businesses’ in the realm of technology, in which profits, like Godot in Samuel Beckett’s play, never seem to arrive.)

My point is that this astounding technological leap took place, fundamentally, between the beginning of the 19th and the second third of the 20th century, and translated into huge time savings. Since then, productivity growth in developed countries appears to have slowed down and, pardon me, apparent technological breakthroughs seem less impressive. Sure, there are amazing advances in the field of robotics and the automation of routine tasks, but these are dwarfed by the myriad of unremarkable, marginal improvements in a multitude of products, evolutions rather than revolutions. This gap between the general perception of us living in times of incredible technological advances and the sober reality of mediocre improvements in productivity is a little baffling. In fact, many recent innovations are only focused on making devices smaller and on providing not-too-intelligent entertainment, rather than on increasing productivity. Even the extraordinary invention of the internet appears to have had a somewhat ephemeral effect on productivity and may have already fallen prey to the law of diminishing returns. Indeed, how much time do we waste with new technologies like email or mobile phones, typing away like deranged stenographers, salivating like Pavlov´s dogs every time we hear the alert that someone has written us yet another piece of nonsense? And what about the time wasted on social (asocial) media, those addiction-prone instruments of propaganda and organised lynching, of population control by power-holders, of enslavement to the opinions of others? It seems legitimate to wonder to which extent all these inventions are productivity-enhancing or plain time-wasters.

And so an awkward question emerges, a question that a society suffering from technological hysteria might consider nearly blasphemous: is the technological change of the last half century really comparable to that of the revolution that took place between 1800 and 1970? Let’s put it another way. What would a poor African household value more: running water, electricity, a landline phone, household appliances, fertilizers, air conditioning and a car, or a computer with internet access, a mobile phone full of apps and a social media profile? Indeed, will the 1800-1970 golden era, replete with ‘first times’ prove to have been a historical exception, unique and unrepeatable? Furthermore, that technological revolution took place in a particular time and society, when there existed essential fertile conditions: enormous market freedom, absolute respect for private property and the right to well-deserved economic rewards achieved in free competition (in contrast to the injustice of crony-capitalism and the coercive egalitarianism in vogue today), the rule of law, a strong work ethic and, importantly, small government (which one can only mention with deep nostalgia). In fact, all those new advances travelled unhindered around the planet but only took root in that small part of humankind where these essential conditions existed. Today, these crucial conditions for progress are in retreat because of the surreptitious advance of totalitarian socialism brought by the obese Welfare State. Its bureaucratic Leviathan, expert in issuing stamps of all colours, opening and closing files, controlling every minute detail of our lives and demanding mountains of utterly absurd documents with the sole purpose of reaching the ecstasy of finding a reason to impose a fine, does it increase or decrease productivity? Exactly what goods or useful services does it provide? And in terms of time, money and energy, how many resources is it literally sucking away from the citizens and businesses that do happen to be productive?

Throughout history there have been periods of splendour and periods of decline. Economic, social and moral progress isn’t inevitable and has never been linear. We are not predestined to progress, which requires an individual response from each one of us and is only made possible within a certain economic, political, social and moral framework. I’m all in favour of putting faith in human ingenuity (although humans were just as ingenious in the centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution) but let’s not fall into vainglory and complacency, because it might be possible that our era is, historically speaking, much less successful than we imagine. In fact, man has always been particularly fond of himself in periods or decay. Let’s not allow the noise that characterises our times to drown out the beat of history, which always calls for humility.

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