On Monday, Paul Krugman wrote about one of the great myths of modern times: the increasing pace of technological development. In The Big Meh, he noted that while we seem to have a lot of new technologies, they don’t seem to be revolutionizing our economy. But what new technologies? People see substantial technological advances where there are only constant technological shifts. Once upon a time Flickr was a big deal, but then we got Instagram. The best you can say about most of this kind of technological change is that it allows corporate interests to better monetize play. It’s all summed up in Peter Thiel’s quote, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”
Krugman even starts out the article by mocking the Apple Watch. And rightly so! Apple is the ultimate technology company of the modern world. That’s because it doesn’t do much in terms of technology. It takes other people’s ideas and packages them nicely. But more than that, it is all about brand and about how the products that people consume define them. It is extremely sad — pathetic, in fact. But in terms of the broader on the country, it doesn’t mean anything in a direct way. The newest version of the iPhone will not make us more productive and any happiness it brings will be short lived indeed.
But Apple provides a good example of why we don’t see much in terms of economic growth. The company employs a relatively small number of Americans: less than 100,000. These are generally good, middle class jobs. And then the company employs a million or so people overseas — paying them almost nothing. This allows Apple to keep more the fruits of laborers. And this is why Apple has been sitting on piles of cash. Eventually, in 2012, it was necessary to pay out major dividends. And then there have been the massive stock buybacks. Apple has lots of money, but no ideas. Unless you think the Apple Watch is a new, much less important, idea.
What all this means is that Apple works as a way to increase inequality. None of this would be surprising if Apple were just a tech film. Apple employs roughly the same number of people employed by Google and Microsoft. But they are not hardware companies. Just the same, the focus of venture capital these days is not on hardware. They are all out chasing their tails looking for the next “killer app.” And that will be… what? An application that will allow people to share even more moments from their lives with other people who don’t care enough about them to be part of those moments? I understand that there was a lot of marginal utility when grandma could see what granddaughter was up to in almost real time. The marginal utility of any new gains in that area are essentially zero.
Krugman ended his column by noting that the exact things that are said about technology today were said about technology in the 1930s. Then as now, it was used as an excuse for why it was that companies like Apple were sitting on piles of cash and not hiring. Today, we hear that everyone ought to be computer programmers or the ill-defined “entrepreneurs.” It’s all silly. Those Chinese workers pumping out iPhones are not better educated or otherwise more capable of doing that work than are Americans. It’s all about incentives. As Dean Baker is fond of noting: globalization has only been allowed to destroy the jobs of the American middle class. Doctors, dentists, lawyers, and scads of other professions continue to enjoy economic protection.
I’m not a futurist; I don’t know where technology could go if our culture weren’t held captive by a bunch of little brains who are only interested in next quarter’s profit statement. But I do know that technologically speaking, there is more sound and fury than substance when it comes to technological innovation. Having a transistor radio was an improvement on the home radio, but it wasn’t anything close to as big a deal as the invention of radio itself. Now people want to make a big deal about Pandora on their phones or extra gigabytes for MP3s. These things are nice, but hardly revolutionary. When was the last time we had a technological revolution? Container ships have undoubtedly had a bigger effect on our lives than computers — much less the most recent iPhone.