Progress: Technical, Economic, and Human

On the subject of the possibly slowing rate of technological progress it’s worth stealing a point from Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms about the printing press.

If you read a conventional narrative history, or deploy common sense, it’s clear that Gutenberg’s invention of the Movable Type printing press was a transformative moment in human technological progress. It changed everything. And yet if you try to take a rigorous look at the economic statistics, it doesn’t show up. It’s invisible. There was no sustained increase in material living standards associated with the printing press. Or with clockmaking. Or with the sextant or the barometer or the reflecting telescope. Indeed, in terms of sustained increases in per capita living standards all the scientific and technical innovations of the 16th and 17th centuries produced absolutely nothing.

And that’s because, to take the example of the printing press, books simply weren’t a large enough share of overall consumption for massive increases in the productivity of book-making to show up in the data. When better machines for making clothes were in invented, overall productivity surged. But the printing press . . . nada.

Which when you put your common sense cap back on merely reinforces the fact that there’s a difference—a big one—between economically significant technological progress and technological progress that’s significant in a broader sense. What’s really needed in terms of economic growth are innovations that massively increase productivity in sectors of the economy that account for large shares of consumption. What we’ve gotten instead is the Internet, which (like the printing press) is transforming some culturally important, but economic marginal, pursuits.