The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

When Does Technological Advancement Actually Lead to Prosperity?

When is a society prosperous? The general understanding seems to be it’s when everyone has an abundance of goods. But is this a useful definition? Are you prosperous if you have an abundance of goods, but no time to enjoy them? Are you prosperous if you have an abundance of goods, but you’re sick? Are you prosperous if you have an abundance of goods, but you live in an oppressive society? Are you prosperous if you have an abundance of goods but are desperately unhappy and feel you’ve wasted your life?

You can argue to keep it simple: Prosperity means everyone has access to a lot of goods and services. But I think this falls flat; we can all understand that more goods don’t necessarily make us better off, nor more services. More foods that make us sick aren’t better. More health care doesn’t mean we’re healthier, it often means we’re sicker. More prisons mean our society is producing more criminals and more crime.

Just increasing economic activity doesn’t make people better off, doesn’t increase prosperity.

The prototypical example of this is the move to agriculture. It would seem self-evident that learning how to grow more food has made us better off. More food is better, right? In fact, however, the move from hunting and gathering to agriculture led to lives which were worse, for the vast majority of the population. People were shorter in most agricultural societies, which indicates worse nutrition. There was far more disease and far more chronic health conditions. People also generally had less free time and they lived fewer years than the hunter-gatherers who preceded them.

Nor was this a short term decline, it lasted for thousands of years. Height is a good measure of nutrition, and we are still not as tall as our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Pelvic depth, which measures how easily women give birth has also never recovered. Median lifespan was not higher for around 6,000 years. And it declined for hundreds of years during that period in certain areas of the world. Members of the Hellenic world, from 300 BC to 120 AD, had longer lives than westerners before the 20th century.(1) Our lives can get worse, and stay worse, for hundreds or thousands of years, despite having more ability to create goods.

Are societies with more food and goods better if the people are sicker, live shorter lives, and have more difficulty reproducing? If that’s prosperity, do we want it?

Instead of more goods, more “stuff,” we should want the right goods and/or the right stuff. Stuff that makes us healthier, happier, smarter, more able to do great works, and to live well. Instead of more work, we should want right work, enough work to make the right stuff, but not so much work we have no time for our loved ones, friends, and doing the activities we love, whatever those might be. And, as much as possible we should want health instead of medicine and low crime rather than prisons.

All other things being equal, yes, more productive capacity is better. The more stuff we can make, in theory, the better off we’ll be. But in practice, it doesn’t always work that way.

Again, part of this is about the right stuff, or the wrong stuff. In our own society we are seeing an epidemic of obesity and diabetes due to our diet, for example. Part of that problem lay with modern hierarchies and inequality. Inequality is undeniably bad for us, as a whole. The more unequal your society is, the lower the median lifespan. The more unequal the society, the sicker, in general. More heart attacks, much more stress. The more unequal, the more crime. These links are robust.

The links run two ways. On the one hand, humans find inequality stressful. The human body, if subject to long term stress, becomes unhealthy and far more likely to be sick. People who feel unequal act less capable than those who feel equal. This is true for the rich and powerful in unequal societies and the poor. Everyone suffers. Though the poor and weak do suffer more, even the rich and powerful would be healthier and live longer in equal societies, most likely simply due to the stress effect.(2)

The second part is distribution, or rather, the question of who gets to control distribution. The more unequal a society, the less stuff the poor and middle class have, comparatively. Some technologies tend to lead to more inequality, some tend to lead to more equality. In most hunter-gatherer societies, there isn’t enough surplus to support a class of rich, powerful people and their servitors–in particular their servitors who enforce the status quo through ideology or violence. With little surplus, there is equality. This doesn’t mean hunter-gatherers live badly, most of them seem to have spent a lot less time producing what they needed than we do, they certainly didn’t work 40 hour weeks, or 60 hour weeks, closer to 20. (3) The rest of the time they could dance, create art, make love, socialize, make music, or whatever else they enjoyed.

Agriculture didn’t lead immediately to inequality, the original agricultural societies appear to have been quite equal, probably even more so than the late hunter-gatherer societies that preceded them. But increasing surpluses and the need for coordination which arose, especially in hydraulic civiliations (civilizations based around irrigation which is labor intensive and requires specialists) led to the rise of inequality. The pharoahs created great monuments, but their subjects did not live nearly as well as hunter-gatherers.

The organization of violence, and the technology behind it, is also a factor. It is not an accident that classical Greece had democracy in many cities, nor that it extended only to males who could fight and not women or non-fighting males. It is not an accident that Rome had citizenship classes based on what equipment soldiers could afford: the Equestrian class was named that because they could take a horse to war. It is not accident that the Swiss Cantons, where men fought in pike formation, were democratic for their time. Nor is it an accident that universal sufferage arose in the age of mass conscription and that women gained the vote as societies moved to mass mobilization.

When Rome moved away from citizen conscription to a professional army it soon lost its liberty. As we move away from mass armies it is notable that, while we haven’t lost the vote formally, the vote seems to matter less and less as politicians increasingly just do what they want, no matter what the electorate might have indicated.

Power matters for prosperity. The more evenly power is spread, the more likely a society is to be prosperous, for no small factions can engage in policies which are helpful to them, but broadly harmful to everyone else. Likewise, widespread demand, absent supply bottlenecks, leads to widespread prosperity as well.

In the current era, we have seen a massive increase in CEO and executive pay. This is due to the fact that they have taken power over the primary productive organizations in our society: Corporations. The owners of most corporations, if they are not also the managers, are largely powerless against the management. It is not that management is more competent than it was 40 years ago, at least at their ostensible job of enriching shareholders, it is that they are more powerful than they were 40 years ago, compared to shareholders and compared to government.

Because increases in the amount we can create do not automatically translate into either creating what is good for us, or into relatively even distribution of what we create, increases in the amount we can create do not always lead to prosperity. Likewise, it certainly does not naturally lead to widespread affluence. Productivity in America rose 80.4 percent from 1973 to 2011, but median real wages rose only 10.2 percent and median male wages rose 0.1 percent. (4) This was not the case from 1948 to 1973, when wages rose as fast as productivity did.

Increases in productivity, in our ability to make more stuff, only lead to prosperity and affluence if we are making the right stuff, and we are actually distributing that stuff widely. If a small group of individuals are able to skim off most of the surplus, prosperity does not result and if a society which is prosperous allows an oligarchy, nobility, or aristocracy to form, even if such an aristocracy (like our own) pretends it does not exist, society will find its prosperity fading.

Creating goods that hurt people is not prosperity either. Currently, about 40 percent of all deaths are caused by pollution or malnutrition.(5) If someone you love has died, there is a good chance they died because we make stuff in ways that pollute the environment, or because the stuff we make, like most of our food, is very bad for us. Being fat is not healthy, and we are in the midst of an obesity epidemic. Even when we do not immediately die, we suffer from chronic diseases at a rate that would astonish our ancestors. As of the year 2000, for example, approximately 45 percent of the US population suffered from a chronic disease. 21 percent had multiple conditions.(6) Some of this is just due to living longer, but much of it is due to the food we eat, the stress our jobs inflict upon us, and the pollution we spew into the air, land, and water.

We should always remember this. Increases in productive capacity and technological advancement do not always lead to welfare and when they do, they do not automatically do so immediately. The industrial revolution certainly did lead to increased human welfare, but if you were of the generations thrown off the land and made to work in the early factories, often 6 1/2 days a week, in horrible conditions, you would not have thought so. You were, in virtually every way, worse off than you were before by being thrown off the land, and so were your children. A few industrialists and the people around them certainly did very well, but that is not prosperity, nor is it affluence.

And a gain of affluence which lasts less than two centuries and ends in ecological disaster which kills billions, well, our descendents may not call that a success, or nor may they think it was worth it.

Prosperity, in the end, is as much about power and politics as it is about technology and productive ability. The ability to make more things does not ensure we are making the right things, or that the people who need them, get them. Productive capacity which is not shared is not prosperity.

  1. pg 23, Spencer Wells, Pandora’s seed
  2. Inequality book
  3. going from memory on this one
  6. Anderson G, Horvath J The growing burden of chronic disease in America. Public Health Rep. 2004;119:263-70.

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  1. Excellent essay! (Will read the second half at my leisure.)

  2. Lisa

    Until the late 1800s, London the largest city in the world at the time and the centre of the biggest empire the world had ever seen…was a population sink.

    More people died there than were born…so they depended in internal immigration from the country to keep things going…

    Medical technology then…don’t make me laugh…doctors of the time killed far more poeple than they ‘cured’.

    Technology, per se is, not good or bad, it just is. For every ‘good’ example’ there is a ‘bad’ example. More money, duh, always goes into the areas where someone thinks they can make a profit.

    Better water,sewage reatment and maternal care (eventually) meant more people could be killed by machine guns in WW1. So what was the point?

    Right now, low fat high sugar processed food created the epidemics of diabetes and obesity…and was built on ‘science’ (my back ground is Phsyics and I thought it was BS when it was rolled out by the doctors to reduce cholesterol…as if).

    Again what was the point of it all?

    How many bits of technology have had a positive impact on life for everyone? Not a lot by the way. Vaccinations. anti-biotics…..trains, trams, ships…then what?

    You can design a moon landing or a Concorde or a 747 with a sliderule. So who needs computers?

    ust some thoughts….technology is not everything…or even anyhting important.

  3. Peter

    Instead of more goods, more โ€œstuff,โ€ we should want the right goods and/or the right stuff. Stuff that makes us healthier, happier, smarter, more able to do great works, and to live well.

    Condemning excess or “destructive” consumption for health, spiritual, environmental, aesthetic, philosophical, political or economic reasons has a very long history and is low-hanging fruit. The hard question is what coercive measures are you prepared to countenance to stop it.

  4. I think there is a deeper problem of life goals. These kinds of intellectual exercises basically assume a notion of happiness or the good life that clearly, not everyone shares. What if you believe that like is and ought to be a tough, demanding struggle, for instance? There are clearly people who believe this.

  5. hvd

    Plainly there are people who believe this but why on earth do they?

  6. reslez

    It occurs to me that part of the reason the population consented to worsening inequality and degraded conditions during the run up to the millennium might be the 20th Century dream of space exploration. How many TV shows and articles in popular magazines promised abundant space colonies by the year 2000? Now that those avenues are closed — government doesn’t even pretend to fund space exploration anymore — it’s apparent the human race is trapped on its origin planet with no realistic chance of escape.

    The dream of progress and science fiction persuaded many the human race would expand into the stars, paralleling the escape to the New World (if we put aside the atrocities inflicted on the original inhabitants). They offered heaven for those who adhere to primitive religion, Star Trek for everyone else. Societal inequity is all the more painful when there is no elsewhere to establish a better way of life. Ecological disasters are suddenly far more meaningful when there is no second Earth we can escape to. Cornered, without hope, poisoned by our own waste products, we turn on each other.

  7. Peter

    Plainly there are people who believe this but why on earth do they?

    Because workers’ paradises and Gardens of Eden prove for many, especially the young, to be exciting to fight for but unbearably boring to experience. Have you ever met anyone who dreamt of retiring to the tropics all his working life and then came home quickly when his dream was fulfilled?

    When the Soviet Bloc countries abandoned rule by revolutionary fervor backed by terror in the fifties and nascent senses of public accountability emerged, there was a steady shift from investment in heavy industry to consumer goods. Enter the Trabant, flickering TVs, Black Sea holidays, etc. Whether to prove the system worked or placate a restless populace, expectations grew inexorably, the public demand proved insatiable and some, notably Poland, borrowed recklessly and unsustainably. There was no homelessness or unemployment, but they couldn’t give the people a perfect blue jean and the rest is history.

  8. hvd

    It is the “ought to be” of “life is and ought to be a tough, demanding struggle” that I questioned. I’m not sure how the Soviet experience proves the “ought to be.” I think also that a goodly number of those who preach the “ought to be” probably think that estate taxes are somehow unfair.

  9. Jeff Wegerson

    @Lisa The bicycle is touted as the only personal transport that generates a net savings in time.

  10. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    There are indeed people who believe that life ought to be a tough, demanding struggle.

    There is a name for such people.

    That name is “morons”. ๐Ÿ˜ˆ

  11. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    Meanwhile: Happy Halloween!

  12. V. Arnold

    “When Does Technological Advancement Actually Lead to Prosperity?”
    Never as long as people do not self educate. Never as long as CCM (corporate controlled media) is the dominant source of news. Never as long as forced education and its bastard child, charter schools, is the machine educating the children into compliant workers/citizens/ignoramuses. Never as long as democratic government is usurped by the corporate state. Never until people like Chomsky, Wollen (recently died), Hedges, Parenti, Bill Black, M. Hudson, Steve Keene, Marx, et al, are in the mainstream of education.
    Never if if curiosity remains dead and buried…

  13. Pelham

    Re wage stagnation: The real problem may be much worse than that. Whether wages are level or going up slightly is of less importance than discretionary income — what you have left over after paying for the essentials, such as housing, healthcare, education, food and the like.

    Astonishingly, USA Today last year did something rather enlightening. They calculated what it would take for a family of four to live just a basic, rock-bottom minimally acceptable middle-class life, including the items mentioned above and a little cheap entertainment. The annual figure was $130,000, and only 1 in 8 US households with four members could clear that bar. And those households more than likely need more than one income to do so.

    I have no idea what the comparable figures would have been, say, 50 years ago. But I’ve heard many accounts from people of my generation relating how with two incomes they’re over their heads in debt and barely getting by whereas their parents, on one income and with comparable employment (and maybe with just a high school education), could afford a house, two cars, health insurance, babysitters and the occasional night out on the town, plus maybe a speedboat, a place at the lake and a decent retirement.

    So I suspect we’ve lost a lot of ground in strictly material terms and are suffering from this as well as from the ills Ian correctly documents due to widening inequality and maldistribution.

  14. There are indeed people who believe that life ought to be a tough, demanding struggle.

    There is a name for such people.

    That name is โ€œmoronsโ€. ?

    Yes but that is part of the problem. A discussion of how to build a prosperous society is not complete without a discussion of how to handle the case where a nontrivial number of people have a radically different idea of what the “good life” is.

  15. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    I admit to confusion.

    I understand why many people would believe that life is a tough, demanding struggle, since they have much evidence from their own lives, and the lives of other people around them.

    However, why would anyone believe that situation was proper, rather than its being the result of bad luck, and/or parasitism or predation by other humans?

  16. Most people are happier doing “hard work” rather than just sitting in indolent leisure–as long as they are physically healthy, and the work is the 40-hour-per-week variety, and in a reasonably healthy environment–maybe outside.

  17. JustPlainDave

    I don’t disagree with the central argument that prosperity is situational and not solely derived from increased economic productivity, but the knots the archaeological evidence is tied into attempting to support this argument are incredible. The root cause of much of this is sedentism, not agriculture. The relationship between sedentism, food production, social complexity and proto-state development is complicated and extremely historically particular – not least, in instances of primary development, the trajectory took many thousands of years. To glue a sub-set of them together like this is a significant disservice to the data – the articulations just aren’t that tight, the trajectory isn’t that clean, and causality is way more complex. For most of the period one should be looking through a lens of risk reduction in the face of decreased mobility and carrying capacity pressure rather than power and control of surplus – that lens is applicable very late in the process. If one wants to know *why* ancient populations would do this to themselves, I would suggest they should look first to external population pressures and the incredible explosion of ritual furniture and facilities over the period.

  18. nihil obstet

    Prosperity is about power, and technology IS power — to go faster, kill more effectively, heal more surely. The goal must be for the people to control the technology, its aims, and its workings. Generally, I lean towards technologies controlled by individuals, like solar/wind technology that could power each residence, but then I suspect public transport will always be preferable to individual autos for many reasons.

    On the thread above on why many people believe life ought to be tough — it’s part of the justification for hierarchies. The elites are those who have met the challenges and demands, and have therefore earned their privileges and power. The poor have failed to meet the demands of life and therefore deserve their poverty. Conservatives believe that people should get what they deserve. Anything else is unfair. So they talk a lot about their “hard-earned” money as the result of unpleasant work while simultaneously getting outraged when you suggest that a different arrangement would eliminate the unpleasantness. That would mean that persons less deserving than themselves would benefit. That would be unfair.

  19. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    That explains why people of high rank support hierarchies, but why do people of low rank support systems which punish them?

  20. Rostale

    ” Conservatives believe that people should get what they deserve” I have to disagree with you here, I think the defining characteristic of conservatives is that they believe people ARE getting what they deserve, and any attempt to change that, whether by welfare or economic reforms, is unfair.

  21. That explains why people of high rank support hierarchies, but why do people of low rank support systems which punish them?

    Because it punishes others more. That’s why some low-status men cling to nostalgia over old-school patriarchy — because manhood is defined in part as having control [over], and that hidden [over], for someone who has not much else going for them, can mean [over a woman, children, etc].

    But it’s not only about punishment. It’s also about life-meaning and purpose. It’s partly emotional and indeed partly set in personality. Where that personality is acquired is a complicated thing and it is hard to control.

    It’s why Peter’s post above, about consumerism, is relevant. It’s about what prosperity is “for”. A lot of these discourses of prosperity have an implicit assumption that prosperity is for some sort of combination of “real” comfort and grand deeds, defined by the person arguing the case. But what if that’s not an attractive use of prosperity for everyone? What if happiness were not everyone’s life goal? How do you build a system of prosperity resilient to the dissent of a minority who don’t accept your notion of prosperity? Who don’t organize to reject it…but simply behave differently. Behave to compete on status-frivolity, behave to monopolize, etc.

  22. nihil obstet

    Rostale, I’m not sure what the disagreement is. I think that strong belief in people getting what they deserve, and the concomitant belief that the conservatives are able to determine what people deserve is the underpinning of emotional commitment to hierarchy.

    If I read correctly, Ian has written several posts in favor of kindness rather than strict fairness. Conservatives would find the arguments hard to accept because despite better outcomes from less harshness, failure to hold people to strict accountability is a moral failure.

  23. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    I am tempted to maintain my starting view that the main reason non-elite conservatives choose love of petty dominance over those who suffer even lower rank than they do, instead of choosing their plain self-interest, is that non-elite conservatives simply are not very bright.

    Occam’s Razor and all that… ๐Ÿ˜ˆ

  24. Jessica

    There is a tendency for us as human beings to prefer the familiar, even when it is painful. There are multiple mechanisms for this. Some of them are more or less hard-wired. Others are more culturally based. All of these mechanisms can be overcome, but not easily.
    Writing off our fellow human beings is often one of these mechanisms at work.

  25. Ian Welsh

    Fairness is a lot harder to define than kindness. When you start to seriously think about how the rules of society are set, you see this, and that’s even before one gets to the birth lottery of genetics, parents and place/time one is born.

    Fitness is related to environment, and to a remarkable degree, humans create their own environment.

    If we refuse to consciously make choices about who we want to be, and what sort of society we want to live in, we will suffer the consequences.

    While the odds are currently still low, it is now possible for us to wipe ourselves out. If we keep refusing to take conscious control of our destiny as a species; continue to pretend that profoundly unnatural environments are “natural” we are very likely to manage it. If we don’t, we will live much worse lives than we need to.

    If this is what humans want, so be it. I, and others, merely note that refusal to make conscious choices is a choice, and will have serious consequences.

  26. ralph m`

    Excellent essay!
    A lot of the techno-skepticism seemed counter-factual when I first discovered this approach….I think Jared Diamond’s critique of the Agricultural Revolution was the first time I came across the theme that inventions and technological improvements may not be necessarily making our lives better.

    I wonder if you’ve heard of an exhaustive critical book on the prevailing unqualified acceptance of new technologies called Techno-Fix by Michael and Joyce Huesemann? I wish this book had received a lot more attention when it was published a few years ago. Here we are…genetically engineering plants and animals, tinkering with nanotechnologies, planning geoengineering schemes to fix climate disruption, and we still don’t know the full impacts of some of the technologies we’ve already created in recent decades…especially non-biodegradable plastics!
    If we were sensible creatures, we would subject all new technologies and innovations to a review process, instead of assuming that they should be proven harmful and delays stand in the way of progress and other nonsense that will get us all killed!

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