At this point, the whole digital era, spanning more than four decades, is looking like a disappointment. New technologies have yielded great headlines, but modest economic results. Why? ... The answer is that I don’t know — but neither does anyone else. Maybe my friends at Google are right, and Big Data will soon transform everything. Maybe 3-D printing will bring the information revolution into the material world. Or maybe we’re on track for another big meh.
What I’m pretty sure about, however, is that we ought to scale back the hype. You see, writing and talking breathlessly about how technology changes everything might seem harmless, but, in practice, it acts as a distraction from more mundane issues — and an excuse for handling those issues badly. If you go back to the 1930s, you find many influential people saying the same kinds of things such people say nowadays: This isn’t really about the business cycle, never mind debates about macroeconomic policy; it’s about radical technological change and a work force that lacks the skills to deal with the new era.
And then, thanks to World War II, we finally got the demand boost we needed, and all those supposedly unqualified workers — not to mention Rosie the Riveter — turned out to be quite useful in the modern economy, if given a chance.
Of course, there I go, invoking history. Don’t I understand that everything is different now? Well, I understand why people like to say that. But that doesn’t make it true.