Progress, extra time, efficiency, and consumer goods

Robin Hanson, typically insightful:

The most recent survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center found that five-year-old vehicles had about one-third fewer problems than the five-year-old vehicles we studied in April 2005. In fact, owners of about two-thirds of those vehicles reported no problems. And serious repairs, such as engine or transmission replacement, were quite rare. (p.15, June ‘10, Consumer Reports)

Car problem rates falling 1/3 in five years is change you might not notice, but if you think about it, its a pretty big deal. Most people are surprised to hear that the world economy doubles roughly every fifteen years; when they think back fifteen years, the world doesn’t seem that different. Besides a few big changes, most things seem not pretty similar. But this is illusory – most change happens behind the scenes.

We don’t notice the (relatively) small, cumulative changes that add up to major improvements in life unless we’re paying attention to them, which Hanson is drawing attention to here. If we don’t have our cars repaired as often, we have more time to think about and do other things. This means we have more time to think about art, technology, life, and so forth, although most of that surplus is probably used watching TV, searching for pornography, and so on.

But computers have improved too, just like cars: around 2002 or 2003, a typical computer became more than fast enough for most typical activities aside from high-end gaming and video editing; by now, the developed world is awash in computers that are “good enough.” Some relatively small percentage of us will use those computers to help us think, help us make things, and help others learn.

Of course, most people spend that extra time watching TV; according to the Los Angeles Times:

“The Nielsen Co.’s ‘Three Screen Report — referring to televisions, computers and cellphones — for the fourth quarter said the average American now watches more than 151 hours of TV a month. That’s about five hours a day and an all-time high, up 3.6% from the 145 or so hours Americans reportedly watched in the same period last year.”

But fewer are doing so now than once did, which is a large part of Clay Shirky’s point in Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, a book worth checking out from the library but probably not worth buying. He says:

Today people have new freedom to act in concert and in public. In terms of personal satisfaction, this good is fairly uncomplicated—even the banal uses of our creative capacity (posting YouTube videos of kittens on treadmills or writing bloviating blog posts) are still more creative and generous than watching TV. We don’t really care how individuals create and share; it’s enough that they exercise this kind of freedom.

The “freedom to act in concert” is significant because the costs of doing so are low. Still, we don’t just have more time because the cost of doing things other than watching TV have fallen, although that’s important, as Shirky discusses elsewhere in his book—we have more time because things like cars, as Hanson points out, don’t demand as much time as they did. And that change is fairly recent; as John Scalzi wrote a few months ago:

You have to get to about 1997 before there’s a car I would willingly get into these days. As opposed to today, when even the cheap boxy cars meant for first-time buyers have decent mileage, will protect you if you’re hit by a semi, and have more gizmos and better living conditions than my first couple of apartments.

The question still is: what are we going to do with all that spare time, spare computing power, and spare mental capacity? The answers (so far) look positive, but I don’t have the foresight (and neither does Shirky—he points out that we have it, but can’t really say what will happen) to predict specific changes rather than the scale of those changes. In a very small way, I’m part of the answer, since I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’m doing right now 20 years ago. About 10 years ago, it would’ve been much harder because blogging software hadn’t matured. Now it’s incredibly easy. That’s progress, even if most blog posts don’t look much like progress because they concern cats, celebrity scans, and so on.

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