Does Technology Always Lead to Higher Productivity?

Does Technology Always Lead to Higher Productivity?

Utopian thinkers have always believed that technological advances would usher in an age where people would accomplish more in far less time.  The dream was that productivity would get to a point where leisure would become the dominant feature of our lives, with hyper-productive work a mere sideshow.

To an extent, the dream has come true.  As a planet, we are vastly more productive now than we ever have been.  And in a grand sense, advances in technology (both in the older sense of manufacturing and the contemporary sense of information technology) are primarily responsible for those gains.

The failure of utopian thinking, however, was to assume that the rapid pace of technological innovation would be inevitably reflected in productivity gains.  This is particularly true for the optimists of the digital age, who seem to believe that Moore’s Law can be replicated in the realm of productivity.

The reality, as we now know, is different.  Technological change is as fast as it ever has been, yet productivity goes in cycles.  As the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes, the technological upheavals and “disruptions” of the last seven years actually led to lower productivity growth than in the 1990s and early 2000s.  In productivity terms, all of those apps may have been for nothing – today’s slow rate of growth is much closer to that of the late 1970s, when the words “smart” and “phone” were never used in the same sentence.

What happened to the life of leisure we all dreamed of?  Economists aren’t so sure.  It’s possible that what we see as revolutionary change simply isn’t as impressive as it appears.  Another theory holds that the productivity gains of technology simply take longer to come to fruition.  Or the impressive gains derived from the technology sector were offset by productivity losses in other industries.  It could be any, all, or none of these things.

It’s tempting to double down on the link between technology and productivity.  The most utopian technology boosters of all are the ones who actually believe that the technological golden age is still ahead of us – the “killer app” which ushers in the twenty hour work week is still around the corner.  But if personal computers and smart phones are two killer apps which ultimately failed to usher in a leisure economy, then what will?

One more thing to consider is the goalpost for productivity and where it stands.  Compared to our forebears from thirty, sixty, or one hundred years ago, we are vastly more efficient – and our lives are clearly better for it.  Yet banking those gains or coasting on the earned laurels of productivity doesn’t seem to be an option in modern society.  The goal of maximum productivity always seems to be just out of reach.  We may be at a point where our work lives permit more leisure than ever before (Cf. the unlimited vacation policies of many tech firms), and yet we keep chasing a revolutionary productivity which is supposed to set us free.

Perhaps the true secret of productivity is enjoying it while you can.  Rather than looking for the next time-saving iPhone app, why not enjoy the fact that you can read this sentence at a time and place of your choosing?  Instead of chasing a shorter work week, maybe we should use all that free time which technology has already given us.  The productive utopia may be all around us – all we have to do is look up from our phones and take it in.