Thursday, Mar. 11, 2010

The Boring Age

Viewing Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in the year 2010 is a depressing experience. According to this 1968 movie, by now we were supposed to have moon colonies and regular passenger service on space planes. And anyone who struggles with automated receptionist messages or programmable televisions knows that today's computers are just as psychotic as HAL 9000, only dumber.

We like to believe we live in an era of unprecedented change: technological innovation is proceeding at a rate with no parallel in all of human history. The information revolution and globalization are radically disruptive. Just as Barack Obama would like to be a transformational President, so the rest of us like the idea that we live in a thrilling epoch of transformation. But the truth is that we are living in a period of stagnation.

Surprisingly, this stasis is most evident in an area where we assume we are way ahead of our predecessors: technology. In fact, the gadgets of the information age have had nothing like the transformative effects on life and industry that indoor electric lighting, refrigerators, electric and natural gas ovens and indoor plumbing produced in the early to mid-20th century. Is the combination of a phone, video screen and keyboard really as revolutionary as the original telephone, the original television set or the original typewriter was?

Genuinely revolutionary technological innovations are rare, and when they appear, there is a long time lag before they begin to transform the economy and daily life. The steam engine was used for nearly a century to pump water from British mines before it was successfully applied to manufacturing and transportation. The gasoline-powered car was invented in the 1880s, but mass automobile use had to wait until the 1920s in the U.S. and the 1950s and '60s in Europe and Japan. There was a similar delay between the invention of the computer and the microprocessor and the widespread adoption of the PC in the 1990s and 2000s. Even if there are dramatic breakthroughs in nanotech or biotech tomorrow, we may not enjoy the benefits for decades, or generations.

Technology has been remarkably stagnant in the areas of transportation and energy. As energy expert Vaclav Smil has pointed out, global jet transportation relies on the gas turbine, which was developed in the 1930s, and global shipping uses the diesel engine, invented in the 1890s. The fastest commercial airliners ever to fly reside in museums. The most cost-effective forms of mass transit everywhere, except for a few dense urban areas, are buses and planes.

Whether the heat source is coal, natural gas or nuclear energy, most electricity today is generated by a variant of the steam turbine that has been around since the 1880s. The wind turbine and the solar-thermal and photovoltaic technologies beloved by greens are old enough to qualify for Social Security. And these elderly technologies are limited to those privileged enough to live in industrialized countries. A substantial minority of the human race still derives heat and warmth from wood and dung.

In developing countries, the 21st century is likely to be the second age of the automobile. Everyone talks about China's money-guzzling high-speed-rail projects, but of far greater consequence is the less glamorous system of national highways it is building. Today there are nearly 668 million cars in the world; by 2050 there may be 3 billion. Many cars, perhaps most, will be powered by energy sources other than gasoline and may eventually come with robot brains connected to smart highways. But absent the appearance of the long-awaited flying car, the cars, buses and trucks of the future will probably be variations of today's automobiles.

What about politics? For decades, it has been possible to make headlines by predicting the imminent replacement of the ethnically or linguistically defined territorial nation-state with some radically different form of political organization, like city-states or supra-national federations along the lines of the European Union. Manhattan, however, has yet to declare its sovereignty, to the disappointment of many of its residents and other Americans alike. Another perennial strain of geopolitical futurism involves predicting the rise and fall of great powers. We are often told that China will surpass the U.S. in a few decades and usher in a Chinese century. But China's growth model, like Japan's, is based on exports, and in a saturated global market in which American consumers are tapped out, the Chinese export machine may choke. Even if China continues to grow, the country will be far poorer in terms of per capita income than the U.S., Europe or Japan for generations to come. In a decade or two, predictions about Chinese world domination may seem as quaint as those about Soviet global hegemony.

Let me offer some predictions of my own. I predict that in the year 2050, the nation-state will still be the dominant form of political organization, with a few new nation-states added to the U.N. The U.S. will still be the dominant global economic and military power, even if China has a somewhat larger GDP because of its larger population. Most energy will still be derived from fossil fuels, and nuclear power will account for an increasing share of global electricity production, while wind and solar power will still be negligible. Most people will get from place to place by means of cars, buses, taxis and planes, not fixed rail. Thanks to biotech advances, people will live longer and healthier lives, and consequently the largest single occupation in 2050 will be — drumroll, please — nursing!

I know, that's a boring vision of the future compared with a Chinese century in which everybody is a genetically modified immortal who rides monorails and eats algae grown in skyscrapers. But hey, in the future, phones will be really cool.

Lind is the policy director of the New America Foundation's economic-growth program