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Bullish on Technology


The world is in the middle of an information revolution every bit as large and sweeping as the industrial revolution was in the 19th century. Propelled by new technologies in telecommunications and cloud computing, this burgeoning revolution has the potential to make new products and services more widely available while opening up whole new areas of employment for millions of people.

We’re already beginning to see this in sectors like publishing, journalism and music, but this only scratches the surface. Over at Slate, Matt Yglesias lays out a compelling case that the real impact of the IT revolution has yet to be seen. When the benefits move beyond online publishing and begin affecting industries like health care and education, the real changes will begin:

And my guess is that’s how we should look at digital technology so far. It’s not that the technology itself isn’t important or transformational. It’s that the sectors it’s transformed are, themselves, not that important. We’ve had a productivity boom in the journalism sector, for example, but the 21st-century journalism sector is like the 17th-century book manufacturing sector—it doesn’t matter to the economic big picture.

But if an equivalent transformation had occurred in the much larger health care or education sectors, that would have been a boon to growth and wages. In other words, if future applications of digital technology make it cheaper to get a college degree or a medical diagnosis the way they’ve already made it cheaper to read the news, that means the real wages of every waitress, truck driver, electrician, interior decorator, and architect in America go up. How likely is that to happen? It’s hard to say for sure. Future technology is unpredictable. But having lived through the ongoing transformation of journalism, it looks pretty likely to me. The business of teaching people stuff or informing them about which illnesses cause which symptoms seems to fundamentally have a lot in common with the dissemination of news and news analysis.

Read the whole thing.

[Bull illustration courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • Anthony

    Two days ago, Matthew Yglesias also wrote that the STEM worker shortage is a myth. This perspective is contrary to what Professor Mead has been saying lately.

  • qet

    Yglesias’ comparison to book manufacturing is interesting. There can be no doubt that the proliferation of knowledge throughout the world resulting from the proliferation of books, even in the 20th century, was “transformational” of every industry, every area of human endeavor. But its operation, and therefore its transformational effect, was (and remains) diffuse and indirect, and for that reason unmeasurable and only vaguely and generally estimable. Like books, the IT revolution is a revolution in the disseminaton of information, not its creation; it is not comparable to the steam engine, cotton gin or transistor; it is not comparable to installing robotic assembly machines on the factory floor. Scrutinizing particular industries for evidence of transformation correlated strongly and specifically to advances in IT alone is looking in the wrong place.

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