The Anti-Techonomic View: Economic Growth Is Over

The techonomic view of how continued rapid technological innovation will transform society and industries is expressed on these pages every day. The difference between this optimistic perspective and the contrary one was encapsulated in a debate at our 2011 conference between economists Erik Brynjolfsson (“our best days are still ahead of us”) and Tyler Cowen (we’re seeing “not enough growth and not enough progress”).

Among the contrarians is macroeconomist Robert Gordon. In New York Magazine this week, Benjamin Wallace-Wells explains Gordon’s gloomy forecast for the U.S. economy. It takes more than 4,000 words, but the gist: Growth is over. Born in 1940, the Northwestern University professor believes Americans’ most dramatic advances in wealth and living standards are not yet to come; they happened during his lifetime, and nothing like them will happen again.

Wallace-Wells writes, “the examples of the Internet, and perhaps artificial intelligence, suggest that progress continues to be rapid.” But Gordon, he explains, sees those as mere social transformations. He looks at their impact on the average American family’s wealth, education, and health in the context of the first and second industrial revolutions. Which means he is not impressed. The pace of Moore’s Law isn’t speedy enough to be heralding anything like a third revolution.

Wallace-Wells concedes that the scope of Gordon’s bleakness makes him “bleaker than everyone else.” He translates:

“The global economic slump that we have endured since 2008 might not merely be the consequence of the burst housing bubble, or financial entanglement and overreach, or the coming generational trauma of the retiring baby boomers, but instead a glimpse at a far broader change, the slow expiration of a historically singular event. Perhaps our fitful post-crisis recovery is no aberration.”

The consequences of the second industrial revolution, Wallace-Wells notes, “took a century to be fully realized, and … they came to rearrange social forces and transform everyday lives.”

It’s hard to imagine that 100 years from now the consequences of the Internet, artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, and genomic technology won’t easily have done it all over again. But maybe Gordon is just not thinking that far ahead.

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3 Responses to “The Anti-Techonomic View: Economic Growth Is Over”

  1. Will Greene says:

    Jaron Lanier’s recent book, Who Owns the Future?, also provides some fodder to the claim that technological progress does not necessarily lead to economic expansion. His chief argument is that the technology industry, as it is currently structured, actually perpetuates economic contraction and removes jobs and opportunities for the middle class. It is important to note, however, that he does not see this as inevitable; proper regulation of the tech industry, including policies that constrain the power of the tech giants and provide safety nets for those displaced by it, could reverse this tendency and produce economic growth of potentially vast proportions. A Techonomist of sorts himself, he does not deny that the tech industry produces wonders that can improve the quality of living for people throughout the world, but his concern is that the benefits of technological expansion might not shared appropriately in society, and that the tech giants might become Too Big to Fail (if they’re not already), creating moral hazard of exactly the kind that led to the recent financial crisis.

    All in all, it’s a really worthwhile read, in no small part because of the unique perspective it offers on the tech industry, although I’ll point out that broad macroeconomic claims of almost any sort, including those articulated by Lanier as well as the economists cited in this column, are notoriously difficult to evaluate.

  2. martin burger says:

    New technology and maybe more importantly lost and supressed technologies can make significant difference for all humanity. On the other hand nuclear energy was a bad idea from the get go and may well be our undoing. Obviously technology is a two edged sword and it must be accompanied with the wisdom to deal with and manage it.
    When our relationship with reality is examined closely we fail big time and it is apparent that we really do not have a functioning relationship with reality. What is said to distinguish us from lessor species is “consciousness” and yet you will not find a single school of consciousness on the planet. Quantum mechanics demonstrates non local consciousness material coupling and quantum dynamics likely accounts for 90 % of experience (yes we are actually making it up as we go).

    My own LENR material research has proven the alchemist’s of old to have been right all along and the creation of new elements is an ongoing affair. See: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/56975959/1553855031?token=23604946
    This new technology will see present day mining methods obsolete and cost of gold production costing dollars per pound instead of a $1000 + per oz.

  3. Paul Maher says:

    Hey, I just listened to Jaron on the Charlie Rose show. I sincerely hope that Jaron sees value in a few of these Black Swan energy technologies.


    With updates, 2/26/14

    When you take into account the amount of money that is spent on energy in the US annually, approximately $3.04 Trillion dollars. That is 95 Quads at an equivalent of 8 Billion gallons of gas per Quad, (this per the EIA, and Robert Godes of Brillouin Energy). It is easy to see how much resistance the oil companies and the Nuclear power folks might muster.

    Much of this may be new to you. I understand that, but please consider these things. You want innovation that will change the face of the planet? I think that at last count 656 patent applications can be viewed for LENR alone. On another note I added number 17, not because it generated excess energy, but because it’s just damned neat that plasma is so easy to generate.

    It’s gotta be on this list.

    1. Cold Fusion, also known as Low Energy Nuclear Reactions, Lattice Assisted Nuclear Reactions, Controlled Electron Capture Reaction. These technologies are all about forcing Hydrogen or Deuterium atoms into the crystal lattice of a metal such as Nickel. Once the crystal lattice of the metal nano powder has been sufficently saturated with Hydrogen excess heat is generated. This is not hard to see, as everything is still vibrating, but now all the atoms are in much closer proximity than before. The quanta mechanical explanations are not fully understood, but there are several companies and government offices that have operational devices. Good bye oil. Google LENR, NASA, Zawodny, and Bushnell. NASA loves it. Checkout this youtube video from NASA. The big question is why the DOE is dragging their heals.



    do a quick search at the above site for “LENR” The Indians are on it.

    2. Dense Plasma Focus goes something like this. Two cylindrical electrodes are enclosed in a glass tube after one electrode is slipped inside the other. The tube is then filled with Boron gas and high voltage is applied to the electrodes. A plasma is then produced and pulsed by a strong magnetic field. As this pulsing is increased and focused the plasmoids begin to ball up on one another. As pulsing continues a beam of electrons emanates from one end of the tube and a beam of protons from the other, with extremely high amounts of energy being produced. Google Charles Chase, Skunk Works, and Dense Plasma Focus. Watch Charles Chase on youtube.


    3. Catalyzed Hydrogen is what will replace Electrolysis. Molybdenum Sulfide is but one of the substances that will trim the Hydrogen right off the water molecule with no energy being expended, releasing it to power a fuel cell and generate electricity directly. There was a graduate student by the name of Chang working in Berkeley CA on this a couple of years ago.


    4. Graphene is essentially one atom thick layers of Carbon alternated between layers of insulation, such as mylar. When you get a bunch of these layers stacked up and attach an electrodes to the top and bottom of the stack you have created a capacitor of another color. Extremely high values of capacitance can be arrived at. 3000 farads is what I have seen advertised, the size of a marine battery. This material can be used as a capacitor, a spectacular new form of battery, or configured as an extremely efficient solar cell. Additionally I have recently heard of work aimed at producing LENR in a Graphene environment. Ampenergo is a company that I think licensed this technology from the government. I want so much for Elon Musk to incorporate this into his new models.




    5. Zero Point Energy/Energy of the Vacuum used to be a little far out for me, but now I think I’ve got a cursory handle on it. The process on a Quantum level is much like the process that produces Ball Lightening. When tectonic plates shift causing an earth quake and occasionallly something called Ball Lightening. Only in Zero Point it is what happens when an Orthorhombic plane from another dimension intersects our dimension and causes a disruption, releasing energy. Heare’s a Moray B. King video from the Breakthrough Energy Movement


    6. Acoustic Cavitation/Bubble Fusion/Sonofusion. I am not sure at all how to say anything about this, but there is a great deal published about the possibility of deriving energy using this phenomenon.


    7. Muon catalyzed Fusion. Oh this is a good one!! Fermi Lab and SLAC developed a coherent beam of Muon’s a couple of years ago. They shoot it into Hydrogen or Deuterium gas, and because the Muons have a negative charge equal to an electron, but are 207 times more massive than an electron they knock the electrons out of orbit around the Nucleus and the Fusion is made to happen in the atoms Nucleus. I don’t know how many electron shells a beam can penetrate. But I’m betting it is more than one. Pretty good stuff…


    8. HALOGEN-CATALYSED COLD NUCLEAR FUSION, yet another, not quite as much info available for this flavor.


    9. Thermionic Power Generation, I heard about this just the other day. It may be that this technology will be a prime player. The devices turn heat from the sun, or anything else directly into electricity, instead of using light as photovoltaic solar cells do.


    I don’t quite get it, but here is a patent from 1981 for this technology. I think NOW is the time for it to rise to the occasion.


    10. LENR with Zeolites, And of course the loading of zeolite with hydrogen, or deuterium gas


    You’ve got to love these guys. I would think that this would have to be one of the most easily demonstrated methods of cold fusion. At least if you believe these two fellows.

    11. Papp Engine. As it turns out plasma is pretty simple to make. Anyone can do it with a 12 V battery. Ever seen a simple spark while you were giving yourself a jump start to your automobiole? Within the spark, taking into account that 1% of the atmosphere is composed of Nobel gases, which go to the Plasma state within the spark.

    There are no magnets to confine the plasma once it is formed, so it is allowed to expand and drive a piston. My explanation is my own, but I think its close.


    12. Bloom Box. I don’t know how I missed this one. All the big money is going HERE. The video is from 60 minutes a couple of years ago. Things are on a roll here with what looks like a jump for fuel cells. It amounts to thin wafers of Silicon that have been coated with different materials on each side and then stacked, much as the way you would stack Graphene layers upon one another.

    From what is said on 60 minutes these things are being deployed at major .com outfits in Silicon Valley.


    13. BlackLight Power Hydrino machine. OK, we’re at a bakers dozen now, what the heck is going on. 10MW of electricity out of 1 cu. ft. package!!??


    The following is a caption under an illustration at the above website.

    SF-CIHT Cell Generates Electricity Directly from Water Freely Available in the Humidity in the Air

    14. Steorn Machine. They say that this new kind of electric generator has been duplicated by a number of organizations. A key fundemental cited is “Magnetic Regauging” Ferrite materials figure in as well. I actually have some experience using ferrite material. I built Isolators and circulators for military microwave applications. Biasing a ferrite puck with magnets causes microwave energy to flow in a circular manner within the ferrite. Reverse the magnetic polarity and energy flows in the opposite direction. While I was working in the field as a technician I was told that the phenomenon was not 100% understood. Perhaps it is now. Additionaly I witnessed a couple of folks producing a little bit different kind of sintered ferrite material in the late 80’s that turned out to be high temperature super conducting material. It’s the symmetry of a magnetic circuit that has been the thing that has been in the way. They say they have created a means of creating a constantly asymmetrical magnetic circuit. Or, something like that. Holy Smokes it’s beginning to make sense to me! On a personal note I had recurrent dreams of a machine very much like this one. A little spooky!


    15. Hydrobetatron. The best information that I have seen so far paints it as another flavor of LENR.


    16. The Stirling Engine If this isn’t a show stopper, I don’t know what it is!!


    17. Multiplaz Welding and Cutting Tool, This doesn’t generate excess heat, but it uses tap water and alcohol to make a heck of a plasma cutter. The fact that Plasma can so easily and cheaply produced is what I find it interesting.


    18. Optical Rectification The deal here is essentially they have tapped the electromagnetic nature of light. After all different colored lights have different wavelenghts and therefore different frequencies. Everything from DC to daylight and beyond is what makes up the electromagnetic spectrum. They have now figured out how to rectify these extremely high frequencies and produce direct current electricity. You rectify 60 cycle AC you build an electrical bridge circuit of diodes to convert it to DC. Optical Rectification is a Quantum kind of thing.



    19. Thermophotovoltaics


    Paul D. Maher


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