Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Have we eaten all the low-hanging fruit?

"My grandfather grew up in the 1900s in a world of horse-drawn carts and candle-lit houses. In the following 50 years he would live through a series of astonishing transformations – electricity, the motor car, television and radio, the telephone, the refrigerator, the vacuum-cleaner, penicillin and the aeroplane, just to name a few. It was not just these things that made the 20th century what it was. Their production was industrialised. They created huge employment and wealth. I grew up in the 1960s and have experienced no such parallel transformations."

Thus griped Will Hutton in last Sunday's Observer as he reviewed Tyler Cowen's The Great Stagnation, How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History,Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better, a book which posits that scientists and technologists have recently not been able to come up with inventions that can be industrialised at the same pace as they once did.

The notion that the pace of change has become less rampant is one that has occurred to me too. After all I belong to a generation that grew up expecting to be colonising the moon and having philosophical chats with their household robots by now.

I note however that my father, who had no trouble getting his head around television, jet aeroplanes etc. struggles a bit with Facebook and the social media in general. This suggests that change is coming packaged with new complexities. Ask yourself which device brings the greatest social transformation, the telephone or its apparently less innovative spin-off, the mobile telephone?

Thinking about this I recalled a passage in Frode's new book Liquid Information, which suggests that young-ish westerners of our sort have by now traveled a greater distance than all of our ancestors combined. (Human ancestors, one presumes.)

That this kind of change, however great, might also be complex and non-linear occurred to me when I started to consider it in greater depth. I was thirteen before I made my first transatlantic journey, though I had by then boarded perhaps 50 or so flights around my home continent. In my teens I also went InterRailing around Europe four times.

Nowadays, I get the impression that young westerners are more likely to have been to Thailand (or indeed Guatemala) in the early part of their travel-histories than to have explored territories more closer to home, though the combined evil that is Ryanair and the city break may be partially offsetting this trend.

However this may also be one of the last generations for whom such low-cost long-haul air travel is available. (And let us not forget that only 37% of Americans have passports, even if they do have a large continent-spanning nation within which to collect their miles.)


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