💻 What clunky computers from old sci-fi can teach us about economic decision-making today
They provide a fascinating image of an alt-history created by different societal choices about technology
Quote of the Issue
“The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. [Not] a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” - James Truslow Adams
💻 What clunky computers from old sci-fi can teach us about economic decision-making
Fans (including me) of the Alien(s) and Blade Runner film franchises like to imagine the films occupy the same cinematic universe. (The original films were directed by Ridley Scott, and he’s confirmed a loose connection between them.) Both are set in seemingly dystopian futures where humanity has colonized other planets. There’s a lot of 2001: A Space Odyssey in their attempt to show a realistic future without laser guns and faster-than-light travel. Alien(s) and Blade Runner also share a similar design and visual aesthetic: dark, gritty, and industrial where interiors are cramped, claustrophobic, and poorly lit. The Nostromo spaceship in Alien suggests a flying oil rig, it’s been said, rather than a sleek cruiser.
Some fans also like to include the lesser-known 1981 film Outland in the mix. It stars Sean Connery as the new marshal assigned to a mining colony on Io, a moon of Jupiter. It’s also grim, gritty, and industrial with a “used” world look to it. And like those other two films, the technology seems realistically extrapolated from the technology of today, or at least the technology of the 1970s and early 1980s.
Indeed, the one bit of tech that always seems to date a sci-film, even of one of the fairly recent past, are clunky-looking computers and boring, simplistic interfaces. These are worlds without high-definition, flat-screen monitors and a variety of colors and fonts to choose from. Where are all the smartphones? The explanation: Predicting the future is hard, not to mention that less sophisticated computer graphics back then made it more difficult to depict the future. These films are inescapably products of their time. And visually, the depictions of computers work to reinforce the overall industrial aesthetic.
But there’s also a plausible in-universe explanation for the lack of progress when it comes to information technology, one that’s relevant to real-world economic history. Consider: In our world, we’ve experienced huge progress in IT over the past half-century or so. As captured by Moore’s Law, the number of transistors per microchip has increased to 50 billion from 100 in the 1960s. “In simple terms,” explains Bloomberg columnist Tim Culpan, “the density rate added a zero every 3.5 years.” GPS, the internet, notebook computers, smartphones, and the recent breakthroughs in AI reflect Moore’s Law.
But tech progress outside the Information and Communication and Technologies Revolution, in the world of atoms rather than bits, has been less impressive. Americans haven’t left low-Earth orbit since December 1973, the same year the FAA banned overland supersonic commercial flight. Space launch costs were for decades stuck until SpaceX. Flying from Los Angeles to New York or across the Atlantic Ocean is only as fast as it was 40 years ago. We get no greater share of energy from nuclear power than we did 40 years ago. As Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon told me back in 2016:
We’ve had plenty of inventions since 1970 but it’s been focused on the narrow sphere of entertainment, information, and communications technology. That means everything associated with the television, including time shifting through VCRs and DVRs; computing, going from the mainframe through mini-computers and personal computers through to the laptop and the smartphone; and the mobilization of communication, moving from the landline phone to the dumb mobile and now the smart mobile phone. Those innovations are everything that we talk about today, but in perspective they’re just a small slice of what human beings care about. … The progress we’ve achieved has been more narrowly focused in a smaller part of the economy.
I’ve frequently written about why tech progress has been so narrow and slow: too little radical R&D and too much repressive regulation are at the top of my list. For decades, it’s been a lot easier to innovate in the world of ICT than in energy, space, and transportation.
But maybe the America of those films I just mentioned made a different sociopolitical choice and the energies of entrepreneurs, technologists, and scientists were directed toward a broader range of technologies. Maybe IT progress wasn’t as fast in those worlds, but perhaps sit was faster in other areas. One example of a sci-fi creator making technological choice an explicit part of the story is the early 2000s reimagining of Battlestar Galactica by Ronald D. Moore where humans have rejected AI to avoid another robot uprising. Likewise, Star Trek’s Federation bans genetic engineering due to an earlier global war with enhanced superpeople.
But even in the more technologically diverse reality of Alien(s) and Blade Runner, the lack of IT progress may be more stylistic than substantial given that both have highly sophisticated humanoid androids that certainly seem to possess human-level intelligence. I would like to think what’s true in those films could also have been true for us: advancing significantly in ITC wouldn’t have prevented us from advancing significantly in other areas as well. Indeed, isn’t that what we are seeing right now with big progress across a range of technologies? Even better we are seeing combinatorial impacts where advances in IT are helping boost advances in biotech, energy, and space.
The real good news is that the dystopian futures shown in Alien(s), Blade Runner, and Outland are unlikely. A civilization with the technological know-how to travel across the Solar System and build human-level AI is likely to be one a mass abundance and widespread prosperity. Too bad Hollywood too infrequently makes compelling films that assume what is the more likely economic outcome.
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