Saturday, September 15, 2012

Weekend Thought Experiment

Robert Gordon's essay on the West's restricted growth prospects (I reviewed it here) is now available in an ungated version. In it he conducts an interesting thought experiment - contrasting an older industrial revolution (IR2) with a more recent one (IR3) - to give us a better sense of the innovations that have really made a difference to our lives:
A thought experiment helps to illustrate the fundamental importance of the inventions of IR2 compared to the subset of IR3 inventions that have occurred since 2002. You are required to make a choice between option A and option B. With option A you are allowed to keep 2002 electronic technology, including your Windows98 laptop accessing Amazon, and you can keep running water and indoor toilets; but you can’t use anything invented since 2002. 
Option B is that you get everything invented inthe past decade right up to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPad, but you have to give up running water and indoor toilets. You have to haul the water into your dwelling and carry out the waste. Even at 3am on a rainy night, your only toilet option isa wet and perhaps muddy walk to the outhouse. Which option do you choose? 
I have posed this imaginary choice to several audiences in speeches, and the usual reaction is a guffaw, a chuckle, because the preference for option A is so obvious. The audience realises that it has been trapped into recognition that just one of the many late 19th century inventions is more important than the portable electronic devices of the past decade on which they have become so dependent.

Sort of puts the iPhone 5 in perspective.

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