In November 1989, there were two watershed events that would change the course of world history. The fall of the Berlin Wall would end the Cold War and open up markets across the world. That very same month, Tim Berners-Lee would create the World Wide Web and usher in a new technological era of networked computing.
It was a time of great optimism. Books like Francis Fukayama’s The End of History predicted a capitalist, democratic utopia, while pundits gushed over the seemingly neverending parade of “killer apps,” from email and e-commerce to social media and the mobile web. The onward march of history seemed unstoppable.
Today, 30 years on, it’s time to take stock and the picture is somewhat bleak. Instead of a global technological utopia, there are a number of worrying signs ranging from income inequality to the rise of popular authoritarianism. The fact is that technology and globalization have failed us. It’s time to address some very real problems.
Where’s The Productivity?
Think back, if you’re old enough, to before this all started. Life before 1989 was certainly less modern prior to 1989, we didn’t have mobile phones or the Internet, but for the most part it was fairly similar to today. We rode in cars and airplanes, watched TV and movies, and enjoyed the benefits of home appliances and air conditioners.
Now try to imagine what life was like in 1900, before electricity and internal combustion gained wide adoption. Even doing a simple task like cooking a meal or cleaning the house took hours of backbreaking labor to haul wood and water. While going back to living in the 1980s would involve some inconvenience, we would struggle to survive before 1920.
The productivity numbers bear out this simple observation. The widespread adoption of electricity and internal combustion led to a 50-year boom in productivity between 1920 and 1970. The digital revolution, on the other hand, created only an 8-year blip between 1996 and 2004. Even today, with artificial intelligence on the rise, productivity remains depressed.
At this point, we have to conclude that despite all the happy talk and grand promises of “changing the world,” the digital revolution has been a huge disappointment. While…