Are you ready for the 21st century? -- The Evolution of Progress


The next millennium is still seven years away, but authors are already lining up to tell as what it will look like--and how to get ready for it. Here's a look at three of the more notable recent guides to our future.

Give C. Owen Paepke an A for ambition. In The Evolution of Progress (Random House, $25), he argues that traditional economic progress, which has provided much of the world with an ever-higher material standard of living, is just about exhausted. Instead we are entering an era in which progress will take the form not of more and better goods and services but of a transformation in the nature of human beings themselves.

Give him credit too for being surprisingly diligent. Most such exercises in bigthink infuriate because the authors haven't done their homework--in particular, they tend to hold it unnecessary to read any economics. But I'm a professional economist and something of a cognitive science groupie, and in both areas Paepke, whose name is pronounced PAP-key and whose day job is practicing law in Phoenix, seems to have digested most of the right stuff. That doesn't mean I agree with his diagnosis.

Paepke's economic argument is an updated blend of two old ideas. One is that the prospects for further productivity increases are limited because the very success of our progressive sectors has greatly reduced their role in the economy. So few of us now work in our highly efficient farms and factories that even a doubling of our productivity in making these tangible goods would raise living standards only modestly. Meanwhile, most of us work in service jobs, where productivity growth has proceeded at a snail's pace.

And anyway, who wants more material goods? In making his second point, Paepke reads America's declining savings rate, and perhaps even its lagging service productivity, as signs that we have reached a level of material well-being at which people are satiated. It's just not worth working harder or saving to buy a bigger house or a snazzier car, since the houses and cars we have already do the job well enough.

This is a respectable argument. Princeton's William Baumol forecast that a growing service sector would be a drag on economic growth as long ago as the 1960s, while John Maynard Keynes wrote a memorable 1930 essay about the long-run prospects for an end to our preoccupation with getting and spending.. (In fact, Keynes suggested that such a point might be reached when Britain had increased its per capita income eightfold—and America today has just about eight times the per capita income of Britain in 1930.) Still, I don't buy it.

Have the sources of productivity growth really dried up? Only if the long stagnation in service productivity is permanent. But why should it be? Surely modern information technology will eventually revolutionize the store and the office just as older technologies transformed the farm and the factory. Some observers, like Morgan Stanley economist Stephen Roach, tell us that a surge in office productivity is already well under way. Indeed, the peculiarly jobless nature of the current recovery may be a sign that the trend of productivity, far from flattening, has just turned up again.

Are we so satisfied with our possessions that we'll choose to use our rising productivity to increase our leisure rather than our consumption? I doubt it. The median American family still has an income of only about $40,000. I know a lot of decent, not particularly money-hungry people with incomes twice that high who do not feel that they have everything that money can buy. Even if productivity growth accelerates to 2% a year, a rate we haven't seen since the early 1970s, it will take 35 years for American incomes to double; I think we are safe from satiation for at least a generation.

But Paepke is right in saying that after another 30 years or so progress will start to mean something very different from what it has meant in the past--if only because everything will start to become strange. We are on the edge of technologies that will change the human condition as never before, that will change even our definition of what it means to be human.

The Evolution of Progress does a workmanlike job of describing these technologies-in-embryo. In essence, genetic engineering will make humanity mutable; artificial intelligence may make it disposable. Our great-grandchildren may be more like designed artifacts than random genetic mixes like ourselves; our ultimate "descendants" may not be creatures of flesh and blood at all. Paepke is quite right to say that this impending revolution in the nature of existence is ultimately far more important than plus or minus 5% in the gross domestic product.

Yet I found Paepke's discussion of the brave new world of technology curiously flat and unsurprising, and I think I know why. It's because this territory has already been explored, with far more wit and imagination, by a group of "experts" that Paepke is apparently too serious to consult: contemporary science-fiction writers.

Actually, I'm amazed at the complete absence of science-fiction references in this book. How can you write about the social implications of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence without at least reading some of the classics of cyberpunk, a genre that focuses precisely, and often brilliantly, on that very issue? Where are the references to William Gibson, to Bruce Sterling, to W. T. Quick, or half a dozen others? Never mind the lurid covers: these guys have already covered all of Paepke's territory and more.

So here's my advice: if you want food for thought, don't read The Evolution of Progress. It's not a bad book, but you can do better if you buy a good cyberpunk novel--say, Gibson's Necromancer--and rent Blade Runner at your local video store.

Originally published, 4.5.93