Robert Gordon’s Rise and Fall of American Growth describes how economists grapple with the economic impacts of new technologies. Gordon’s history reviews aspects of the last 150 years, as technology transformed the US economy, explaining the challenges of accounting for what can be incomparable technologies. Just how much did the replacement of horses with internal combustion engines improve life? What was the economic value of the telephone? And so on.
At the end of his survey, as “Growth” enters its “Fall”, he points out the open questions about the impact of recent technical changes, especially digital computing and networking. In particular, the IT revolution of the last two decades does not appear to have produced a rise in productivity. Is this due to inability to measure the economic impact, or have these technologies truly had so little economic consequences?
Shane Greenstein elaborates on this question with “Ten Open Questions for Techno-Optimists”. <<link>> The title refers to economists who are inclined to believe that technological advances are, indeed, improving productivity, growth, and quality of life, i.e., they are “optimists” about technology. Greenstein’s ten questions are, essentially, an more detailed unpacking of Gordon’s general point.
The list is quite interesting and provocative. For example, “How Much Productivity Does Email Produce?” (!) We all use it, it has displaced many paper based forms of communication; it is undeniably a “successful” technology. Surely it is extremely significant economically and in other ways. But, Greenstein points out, “Nobody ever paid a licensing fee to make use of this invention.” (, p. 86). How much does email contribute to GDP?
His other questions are equally provocative.
- Why are Online Pictures and Videos Everywhere Except in the Productivity Statistics?
- What Were the Gains from Reduction in Search Costs?
- What Were the Gains from Making the Long Tail Available?
- Up-to-Date Online News is Additive. Is it Productive, Too?
- Did the Rise of Remote Work Change Productivity?
- How Much Did Wikipedia Benefit the Economy?
- Enterprises do not Own All Their it. Does that Mean they are More Productive?
- How Big were the Gains from Serving Low-Density Areas?
- What is the Value of the Creative Commons License?
I like this article because I always like to read good ideas for great thesis topics. Wouldn’t it be cool to have an estimate of the societal value (and cost) of Creative Commons or Wikipedia? We have a new verb, “to google”, but just how valuable is the action it labels?
I also enjoyed this list because my own career contributed to the underpinnings of many of these technologies. It’s quite a list, and it puts a different perspective on all those years we spent just “messing around with computers”. Gosh.
By the way, his question “Did the Rise of Remote Work Change Productivity?” is about the rise of telecommuting, remote collaboration, distributed work teams, and also coworking. The latter topic is considered in some detail in my forthcoming ebook, “What is Coworking?”, coming in early 2017.
- Shane Greenstein, Ten Open Questions for Techno-Optimists. IEEE Micro, 36 (4):86-87, 2016.