On the proper interpretation of “The Great Stagnation”

Will Hutton writes:

At least Summers sees some underlying economic dynamism. For techno-pessimists such as economist Professor Tyler Cowen the future is even darker. It is not only that automation and robotisation are coming, but that there are no new worthwhile transformational technologies for them to automate. All the obvious human needs – to move, to have power, to communicate – have been solved through cars, planes, mobile phones and computers. According to Cowen, we have come to the end of the great “general purpose technologies” (technologies that transform an entire economy, such as the steam engine, electricity, the car and so on) that changed the world. There are no new transformative technologies to carry us forward, while the old activities are being robotised and automated. This is the “Great Stagnation”.

Such views make for a convenient target, but that is not close to what I wrote in The Great Stagnation.  For instance on p.83 you will find me proclaiming, after several pages of details, “For these reasons, I am optimistic about getting some future low-hanging fruit.”  Those are not Straussian passages hidden like the extra Nirvana audio track at the end of Nevermind.  The very subtitle of the book announces “How America…(Eventually) Will Feel Better Again.”

I also argue in the book that the internet is the next transformational technology, and that it is already here, though it needs some time to mature and pay off.  I devoted an entire separate book to this theme, namely The Age of the Infovore, which suggests that for autistics and other infovores massive progress already has arrived.

It is also odd that Hutton mentions robots and automation.  My next book considers those factors in great detail, but you won’t find either term or variants thereof in the index of The Great Stagnation.  Nor do I have the dual worry that both everything will be automated and there is nothing left to automate, as stated by Hutton.

The lesson perhaps is that if a book has a pessimistic-sounding title, mentions of optimism will go unheeded, even if they are in the subtitle.  Might that be an example of the fallacy of mood affiliation?


Comments for this post are closed