Edward Moore asks

From a reader email:

This hypothetical question just popped into my head and after mulling it over for a while it occurred to me that it’s really a great stagnation question.

“Would you trade your last five years of life to always have the best personal technology provided to you (iPhones, iPads, google glass, whatever implantable, wearable things are coming) if the consequence of not making the trade was that you were limited to basic desktop technology for the rest of your life?”  The decision must be made now and is binding.  Right now I think I would make the trade because I would hate to miss out on all the things that are coming.  I think I would have said no in 1995.  Does that make me a great stagnation skeptic?

I love your blog.

Go for the years, I say.  But at “six months” it is a tougher call…and perhaps Ed is a younger man than I am.  I certainly would advise an eighty-year-old to take the years, or for that matter the six months.

Comments

Ironically, most of the people I know who are likely to have less than 5 years left aren't interested in any of the new technology, including desktops, but excluding medical tech provided by 3rd parties.

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Depends on family genetics. One grandfather died at 97 and the last five years were not all that exciting. The other one went quickly at 68 and lived fully till the end. If I lean towards my father's side of the family, I go for the technology. If towards my mother's, I'll take the years.

I'll need to read more of the blog or MRU to figure how that response fits stagnation theory.

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It's not often that I suspect you of scraping the barrel, Mr Cowen.

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The key is the "last five years of your life." Sometime in the not so distant future (if the West doesn't collapse!) life expectancy will be 150... As a 20 year old I'm not quite ready to make that bet...but I might.

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I would take the technology, but I would really love if they could wipe my memory off everything relating to the choice right after. I feel like you would get bad "buyer's remorse" near the end of it, but if it just happened transparently without your knowledge after making the choice, then it wouldn't be that bad.

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The benefits of most technological advances take more than five years to manifest themselves. The Mac, to cite just one, was introduced in 1984, but the desktop revolution really didn't hit business till the 90s. The auto, to name another, wasn't developed in the early 20th Century, but didn't revolutionize life till the 20s and 30s.

I'd also worry about the fallacy of composition here.

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I'll take the years (at age 60 now). Same answer at 55, 50, 45, 40,... Even at the height of the dot.com boom. So, for me, it has nothing to do with skepticism about the great stagnation. Seeing the other responses, however, for some (many?) it may well have to do with how much progress the expect. But I have to say, some people's tastes are just weird. No wonder Apple is such a successful company. I'll take a hike in the Dolomites over an ipad any time, at any age. Even if the ipad comes with great video of the Dolomites.

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My mom turned 77 yesterday. She said she'd seen great changes. I told her that stagnationists disagreed. She scoffed.

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I'm reminded of a question that was asked of some athletes during one of the Olympic doping scandals -- Would you take a drug that would guarantee you a gold medal if it meant you would die in one year? Some surprising percentage of athletes polled indicated they would, which made me think they should have asked the same thing without the guarantee of a gold medal, as a control question.

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Almost certainly go for the extra years, assuming that you're allowed to benefit from future complementarity, i.e. you yourself will be limited to basic desktop technology, but you'll live in a world in which everyone else is not. As long as you're not the jealous type, you'll almost certainly come out way ahead.

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Anyone who would make the trade (give up five years of life in exchange for always having the latest shiny cell phone) has some deep problems with their value system.

Or a smoker.

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Would you be willing to give up five years of your life to...

Inhale the vapors of burning plants
Drink ethanol
Eat excessive amounts of fatty foods
Live in a city
Exercise less
Drive faster

Silly questions. Of course we would.

The thing is that nobody is making that tech offer. Also the smoking, drinking, lazy gourmand doesn't KNOW for a fact that they are losing anyone. I had a great grandfather who lived to 107, smoked, ate a bacon sandwich every morning and drank industrial alcohol. He was still driving a few weeks before he died. I had another who made it well into his nineties and was a bootlegger, which has to take statistical years off one's life.

All those things you mention don't guarantee you lose anything except sobriety and good wind.

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I'm 26, in fairly good health, and from a family that has significant longevity on both sides, so I'd give up the five years so that I could have my augmented reality attachments in 2018, and my implants in 2044.

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'It's the life in your years, not the years in your life that matter' for this type of calculation, including your expectations of what life will hold in techie toys, personal health, living standards, etc. I can think of one out of my 36 years that I would pay money to drop from my life and given a family history of longevity albeit with bodies that hold out longer than minds. I suspect I won't get much out of the last five. Who knows. I'd probably go with technology. Personally I think this reader's counterfactual is more interesting than Robert Gordon's about the flush toilets.

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"Does this make me a great stagnation skeptic?"

Not necessarily.

It depends on how old you are.

If you are old, then yes, it makes you a skeptic, because you don't see much in the way of technological progress coming soon.

But if you are young, then maybe it's because you have hope that in the *distant* future there will be technological progress worth trading 5 years for.

Remember, the Great Stagnation does end in Tyler's story. (America "gets better")

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Since some months, I have added "Sent from my PC" to the bottom of my signature fie. :-)

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The years. Technology is amazing, but nothing invented so far comes close to being as much fun as a good time with friends. How is this even a question? (On the other hand, if i outlive all my friends then it might be worth it...)

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If anyone takes the technology then either Apple could be making a LOT more money or the government should be valuing lives a LOT loss in their welfare calculations

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Everyone would give up all their technology and return to their 1995 desktop computer with dialup lines into AOL or MSN?

I don't believe you.

While a number of nations offer two years longer lifespans plus offer superior technology, a number of nations lack the cutting age technology but offer two or more years longer lifespans.

Especially the nations where people have access to 1995 medicine but live physical lives without the health burden of factory food (frozen dinners, McDs, KFC, Godgathers, potato chips, soda). But for the effort, olive oil, tomatoes, greens, pasta, and wine plus the occasional chicken or pig. The data tells you where to move to and adopt the local lifestyle to live years longer, but you must give up your modern life.

You are claiming that moving to Greece and giving up my macbook will cause me to live two years longer?

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So I can spend age 70-75 hobbling around dealing with health problems and/or being unable to wipe my own ass?

nah, give me the tech

-21 year old

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Thought-provoking way to phrase the comparison.

I am surprised no one has yet quoted PJ O'Rourke in this discussion:
"If I give up drinking, smoking, and fatty foods, I can add ten years to my life. Trouble is, I'll add it to the wrong end."

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What does "personal technology" mean? Does it include driverless cars? I'd be willing to make strong sacrifices for a driverless car... but I don't know about 5 years. I'd be willing to sacrifice 5 years for good quality virtual reality.

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I'm an infovore and use personal technology as much as anyone -- if only because I'm addicted to it -- but I don't think it's improved my life in any way. I liked the world much better when everyone was off the grid.

Strange to me that the question was posed as the *past* five years. Are people really afraid of giving up the past? The past is gone.

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All my possessions for a moment of time. -- Queen Elizabeth I, with her dying breath.

I await people to post that she didn't say that...

Did she say "All my possessions throughout my entire life, for a moment of time now"? No? Of course not.

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Of course you take the 5 years. Is there a billionaire on the planet that wouldn't give up every penny to be 20 again?

Of course that's not on the table, so...

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Smoking is estimated to reduce life expectancy by 6-10 years. So apparently many people value smoking more than having smartphones + all future technological improvements. Strange.

One shouldn't put too much faith in revealed preferences

You misspelled "stated"

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Keep the years. The tech gives convenience and a way to pass the time, but its impact on total utility of life for me is fairly limited. For example, I spend a lot of time reading online media now. 15 years ago I would instead read the (paper) Wall Street Journal cover to cover every day. I had a broad understanding of many things that I would never read about now. I was a happy person then and now.

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You mean I get to not have to wrestle with all these beta versions and all I have to do is live longer? Where do I sign up?

Old guy #1: "I get so tired trying to get my computer to what I want. So tired!"
Old guy #2: "Tired? There's a nap for that."

Andrew' wins the thread!

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Can we find anyone with less-than-current technology who, because of this, wishes they were dead?

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I wonder how much the tech would increase one's life expectancy. It could, by saving you time, helping you make better decisions, increasing your income -- even apart from any potential "brain downloader" devices or advanced implantables.

If one had to trade 5 years' of life expectancy in order to go to college, would one? Tech could have the same signalling/informational/social benefits. I can imagine a world in which this choice were offered and people split into two groups (each thinking its culture is superior).

I'd take the tech.

A plausible case can be made that tech takes years off your life. Dealing with bugs, IT support services, beta versions that don't work, hours spent shopping for the best internet bargain I can find, etc. etc. etc. often make me feel like I am damaging myself. Yes, it is much like smoking in that sense and I suppose you could interpret this as revealed preference. But I am merely pointing out that these optimistic versions of technology always seems to assume that everything works perfectly and always saves time and health.

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"people seem to have a cavalier attitude toward their own demise—until they actually face it."
http://sds.hss.cmu.edu/media/pdfs/loewenstein/hotColdEmpathyGaps.pdf

I wonder what the future tech is, but even though I enjoy my toys I'm probably not happier because of them.

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Keep the years. Software innovation and the cloud will lead to a lot (and too much for one person to fully exploit) of new and valuable stuff accessible via desktop. There's already too much technology intruding on real-life which reduces the time available for meatspace experiences (making/tinkering, hiking, travel, gardening, conversations with content, contemplation and creativity to name a few). And I don't believe that the Singularity will be a "personal technology" in your vague definition.

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Does "personal technology" include medical advances, like say, inexpensive and durable artificial hearts or [fill in the blank]?

Then there could be a paradox here, or maybe it's just a trap. Give up the years and you might end up living longer than if you don't.

That aside, take the years.

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I'll take the years - all the "ahead of the curve" stuff comes with way too many compromises. iPhone is cool, but also stupidly expensive and costs money to develop for. iPhone is now 5 years old, and it's only recently that there's been a viable android competitor (Samsung Galaxy). Maybe in 10 years time, some implantable doohickey is basic desktop technology.

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Given they are healthy 5 years, I'd take them.

I'm an algorithms guy. I have to spend a lot of time with computers but mostly I see them as distraction.

I'm moving into using command line Linux. I can't imagine a better user interface for doing my stuff.

Besides, if I could eventually kick my Internet addiction, I'd be happy to spend my spare time far from computers.

Actually I'm doing that anyway even without any bonus years offered. I'm over exposed to digital realm. Maybe in a few decades there will be a lot of people like me.

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What if the question was asked like "Do you prefer to live x years with soaring eyes, headache, deteriorated personal relations, lack of eye to eye interaction, caotic and unmanageable flow of informations, lack of privacy, or x+5 years with physical fitness, fulfilling relationships, rich emotional life, productive use of technology on well delimited timing and spacing and the desired level of privacy?"
For the records I'm 50 and I get depressed if I forget my smartphone/charger at home.

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I'm pretty sure that technology is going to save me five years of time, whether it's faster travel, better medicine, or more productivity. The opportunity cost of doing business at the speed of DSL/3G is too great. In addition, I'll have a better life for that chunk of time.
-30yo

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If I had to give up all the experiences that I'll be having over the NEXT five years, I'd go with the years.

But giving up all the experiences I'll be having from age 80 to 85 (most likely)? Easiest decision ever: definitely the technology.

(I'm 23, for the record.)

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