Obsessed with ‘Growth’: why Will Hutton needs to innovate his outlook
I’m sitting in a stationary car in a traffic jam on some motorway. I’m on the phone to my partner, who asks if I’m making any progress.
Nothing moves. I stare vacantly out of the window at the sky. Psychic lightening strikes and I have a small epiphany. Now I must answer the question: I’m not moving, but am I making progress?
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Writing in The Observer, Will Hutton discusses a book by US economist Tyler Cowen called The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better.
The title is long enough to convey the concept, but here’s Hutton’s take on it:
My grandfather grew up in the 1900s in a world of horse-drawn carts and candle-lit houses. In the following 50 years he would live through a series of astonishing transformations – electricity, the motor car, television and radio, the telephone, the refrigerator, the vacuum-cleaner, penicillin and the aeroplane, just to name a few. It was not just these things that made the 20th century what it was. Their production was industrialised. They created huge employment and wealth.
I grew up in the 1960s and have experienced no such parallel transformations. Certainly, over the past 15 years, the mobile phone and internet have changed the way we all communicate. But the world of the early 2010s is recognisably the same as the early 1960s. The technologies have all incrementally advanced but the artefacts of, say, Mad Men are essentially the same, whereas those in, say, Downton Abbey are not. We live broadly as we did 50 years ago.
I was considering various aspects of this position and the best way to describe them at the beginning of my own discussion, when it occurred to me that his premise could be summed up by something analogous I have experienced. We called it ‘the killer app’, and it was a term used to describe novel computer software that was astounding, exciting and presaged great changes, the nature of which we could barely perceive. The first spreadsheet – accountants all over the world have to change their underwear. Photoshop – jaw dropping creative potential. Pagemaker – as someone with a print background, I knew a revolution in the making when I saw one, especially when combined with Freehand (first vector drawing program) and postscript.
These are my personal killer apps (applications, or programs) because I moved in those worlds. Of course, there were medical apps, engineering apps, scientific apps, and later – apps that were entirely a product of the technology that spawned them, which had no previous analog – web browsers and email clients are perfect examples.
By Christ, that was an exciting time if you liked computers and were interested in what they could do. Thing is – and here’s where I found my analogy for Hutton’s analysis – the appearance of killer apps that were so frequent back then, gradually slowed down, and finally halted. I can’t remember a single really innovative, novel item of software being released for a while now. Everything in the last decade seems, perhaps arguably, to be a refinement, a re-definition or restatement of what went before. So does this mean that in IT, as in the broader economic world that Hutton (and Cowen) addresses, that primary innovation has ceased?
If we want to step up the pace of invention, there has to be a huge shift in the way we think… Invention and innovation, we are discovering, are much too important to be left to the tender mercies of markets.
So speaks the economist. Hutton bemoans a lack of radical innovation, comparing it to the ‘low-hanging’ fruits of the industrial and scientific revolutions that gave us electricity, flight, satellites and MRI scanners. And computers. His solution is interventionist, and I think it flawed, but not by method, but by assumption. What Hutton does not do is distinguish between types of progress.
Here’s another analogy: I am sitting in a hollow, protected from the wind, but when it rains I get wet. I invent a covering that I construct over my head and call it a roof. It is very novel, but should I now bemoan the fact I haven’t invented another roof since the first one? Or should I consider instead what I can now do under this marvel above my head, that I could not do before?
…on one big thing [Cowen] is surely right: the importance of innovation as a driver of growth and the imperative to exploit it…
The trouble I have with Hutton’s position is that it singularly fails to think out of the box. Here is, for me, the greatest disconnect – another paean to bloody growth. Has he not heard of climate change? Of peak oil? Of 9 billion people soon to be wanting their respective slices of a pie too small for half that number?
Hutton appears not to understand a fundamental aspect of human development; once you’ve invented a roof and made all the money you can from it, that’s the end of the innovation. Roofs are not an end in themselves, they are a means to something more important: our wellbeing. Once we have them, we can concentrate on those things we do when not drenched in rain, shivering and vulnerable.
What we have created through our innovations is a world in which much fear can be diminished, much hunger can be assuaged, the darkness held at bay, our movements not constrained by pedestrian progress, our heath not merely the lottery of evolution and chance. Now we have created these benefits, we should be turning to the challenges they allow us to address: the uneven distribution of our intellectual and economic wealth, repairing our destructive relationship to the environment, seeking the calm and security that peace and generosity infer. Bettering ourselves through knowledge and education, weaning ourselves off the compulsion to measure our growth by that we consume, how much we own, how freely we can throw things away.
Cowen (and Hutton) seem to think that a lack of new roofs means the world is stagnating. I think they are wrong; it is more that, as in the world of computing, most of the heavy lifting has been done. We’ve addressed many of the key issues that protect us from the vagaries of nature at its cruellest. Now we have to figure out what to do with the freedoms we have earned. What we cannot pine for more novelty and expect our nostaligia to become a paradigm of permanent novelty. Discoveries can only be made once. After that, we have to pursue progress of a different kind. I believe that the progress mankind needs to make is spiritual, moral, egalitarian – and absolutely not the pursuit of more economic growth, the endless and mindless greed for more, without ever asking why we might need it.
This is my response to a critical question I have come to consider: how do we move forward as a civilisation in light of climate change and the other ‘limits to growth’ that are imposed by nature itself? This is my answer: mine is a call for inner progress, to turn away from the rotting carcass of consumerism and towards a world in which our demands and our needs can be met without depending on markets and materialism, where we do not measure ourselves and our worth by what we own, but by what we are. It is of course a call to arms for the hopelessly naive, but I am not without hope.