Derek Thompson has a feature in The Atlantic this week on “Why the Age of American Progress Ended”—thoughtful and worth reading. Some comments and reactions.
One of the ideas explored in the article is that what matters for progress is not just the moment of invention, but what happens after that. I generally agree. Some ways I think this is true:
- The first iteration of an invention is generally just good enough to be practical, but far below optimal: there are decades of incremental improvements that get it to what we know today. Edison’s light bulb was not as bright or long-lasting as today’s bulbs.
- Often there is a whole system that needs to be built up around the invention. It wasn’t enough to invent the light bulb, you also needed the generators and the power grid.
- Such a system not only has to be invented, it has to be scaled. Scaling up from a prototype to a large, efficient, reliable system is its own challenge. Again with the power grid, it was a big challenge to figure out how to efficiently serve large regions, do load balancing, etc. With railroads, there was a challenge in figuring out how to manage a schedule with many trains and routes. With the telegraph and later the telephone, a system had to be invented to route messages and calls.
- Merely working is not enough for wide distribution: other characteristics really matter, like cost, efficiency, and reliability. People underrate these—especially reliability, which can be a huge barrier to adoption.
- An invention that works and is practical, cheap and reliable still doesn’t automatically sell. You have to convince people to change the way they do things, and that is tough. Sometimes you have to help people imagine uses for things: when the telegraph was first invented, they would demonstrate it by playing chess long-distance, and people would come watch this happen, but still not imagine what they personally would use a telegraph for.
- Often regulations and legal frameworks have to be updated. E.g., containerization: the ICC regulated rates and they set rates based on the type of cargo; with containers you want to charge based on volume and weight alone, and this clashed with the regulatory framework. This kind of thing happens all the time.
- Even after an invention is widely available, it can take further decades for all the implications to be worked out and for it to fundamentally change the way people do things. Electricity didn’t cause factories to be reorganized until the ’20s or ’30s. Containerization didn’t immediately change the way supply chains were organized.
- And then, social or regulatory barriers can block distribution. In addition to the ones discussed above, another major one is pushback from labor when jobs are going to be automated (many historical examples).
- A lack of good institutions in poor countries can also block distribution, which is why the world is so unevenly wealthy today.
On another note, I thought this paragraph near the end of the piece was spot-on:
When you add the anti-science bias of the Republican Party to the anti-build skepticism of liberal urbanites and the environmentalist left, the U.S. seems to have accidentally assembled a kind of bipartisan coalition against some of the most important drivers of human progress. To correct this, we need more than improvements in our laws and rules; we need a new culture of progress.