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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > February 2016 > Growing pains

Growing pains

The extraordinary technical innovations of the past century are unlikely to be repeated

In the century after the end of the Civil War, life in the United States changed beyond recognition. There was a revolution—an economic, rather than a political one— which freed people from an unremitting daily grind of manual labour and household drudgery and a life of darkness, isolation and early death. By the 1970s, many manual, outdoor jobs had been replaced by work in air-conditioned environments, housework was increasingly performed by machines, darkness was replaced by electric light, and isolation was replaced not only by travel, but also by colour television, which brought the world into the living room. Most importantly, a newborn infant could expect to live not to the age of 45, but to 72. This economic revolution was unique—and unrepeatable, because so many of its achievements could happen only once.

Silicon Valley, where many believe that “software is eating the world.” But have we, as Robert Gordon argues, already had the best of the revolution?

Economic growth is not a steady process that occurs at a regular pace. Instead, progress is much more rapid at certain times. There was virtually no economic growth for millennia until 1770, only slow growth in the transitional century before 1870, remar kably rapid growth in the century ending in 1970, and slower growth since then. My thesis is that some inventions are more important than others, and America’s growth in the century after the Civil War was made possible by a clustering, in the late 19th century, of what I call the “Great Inventions.”

Since 1970, economic growth has been dazzling and disappointing. This apparent paradox is resolved when we recognise that recent advances have mostly occurred in a narrow sphere of activity having to do with entertainment, communications and the collection and processing of information. For the rest of what humans care about—food, clothing, shelter, transportation, health and working conditions both inside and outside the home—progress has slowed since 1970, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Our best guide to the pace of innovation and technological progress is total factor productivity, a measure of how quickly out put is growing relative to the growth of labour and capital inputs. Since 1970, that has grown at barely a third the rate achieved between 1920 and 1970. My chronicle of the American standard of living rests heavily on the history of innovations. But any consideration of the future must look beyond innovation to contemplate the headwinds that are slowing the vessel of progress. Chief among these is the rise of inequality, which since 1970 has steadily directed an ever larger share of the spoils of the growth machine to the top of the income distribution.

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In Prospect’s February issue: Lawrence Summers questions Robert J Gordon’s thesis on the impact of the digital revolution, John Sawers, the former Chief of MI6, highlights how technology is making the work of spies harder and Frank Furedi examines the student movements demanding protection from the offensive and uncomfortable. Also in this issue: Gershom Gorenberg on Israel, Ben Judah on the complexity of London and Elizabeth Pisani on the impact of fake drugs. Plus Sam Tanenhaus on Obama’s gun control plans.