Stagnation is a word which resonates emotionally in much the same way as it does economically. Whether in relationships or in economics, it implies the absence of dynamism: the dogged persistence of old ways, a pool of murk and malodour.
The intellectual pool, at least, has been stirred recently by debates about whether the digital age, in comparison with earlier agricultural or industrial revolutions, is a damp squib in terms of generating wealth and prosperity.
The corporate digital giants of our age employ a workforce a tenth the size of their manufacturing predecessors. And even what they've produced in the last decade is, arguably, inessential.
Economist Robert Gordon often asks lecture audiences to choose between two options. In the first option, they get to keep all the tech they had in 2002: a Windows 98 computer with access to Amazon; plus running water and indoor toilets. In the second option they keep only the tech invented since 2002: iPad, Twitter, Facebook – while forgoing all that lovely plumbing. No one ever goes for the latter choice.
Gordon's point is that if we date the major introduction of computers into the workplace at, say, 1960, we’re deep into the 100-year take-up pattern that previous tech revolutions have followed. Yet the information era hardly displays a similar transformative leap in human prosperity – at least when measured by GDP.
As a yardstick to guide us through this, GDP may be one of our problems: what gets measured is what gets valued, after all. One of our main themes at FutureFest – Nesta’s festival to explore the future – is ‘FutureMachines’; covering all kinds of automation, from robots to algorithms, hardware to software. It’s intended to examine the question of whether their labour-saving efficiencies are encroaching dangerously on human purpose and agency.
We will be tracking the daughters of IBM’s Watson, with its capacity for answering questions, thus laying waste to call centres; and the sons of the Google self-driving car, removing vast amounts of human-operated infrastructure.
The increasing connection of everything to everything else across the globe might be a 'one-time' event – a planetary network we're only at the beginning of forging
But because our remit includes arts and culture, we are also free to explore human agencies which are unlikely to be automated: the great embodied music or dance performance; the philosophical conundrum explored through artworks; the act of conviviality that pleases some or all of our mammalian senses.
In his response to Robert Gordon, one of the founding editors of Wired magazine Kevin Kelly wondered whether the economist’s measuring tools – productive efficiency, doing more with less – are even remotely capturing what the digital era is making possible.
The introduction of plumbing, road systems, electrification, or even women into the labour market, are ‘one-time’ events: they don’t need to happen again and they cause huge change. Isn't the increasing connection of everything to everything else across the globe, suggests Kelly, the same kind of ‘one-time’ event – a planetary network we’re only at the beginning of forging?
What if the coming ‘machine age’ should not be measured by the amount of labour it saves, but by the amount of labour we'll be able to 'waste': through relationships and the art of living; experimenting with materials and processes; and exploring culture and science in purer, less utilitarian ways? Which may themselves produce the transformative breakthroughs that our discourse about 'stagnation' laments?
Kelly asks us to replace the word ‘productivity’ with ‘generativity’, as we survey the coming decades of networked and automated global society. What entirely new kinds of labour – the ways we transform, and make our mark upon, the world – may be generated as the bots and algos advance? And how much might such jobs be defined by those most intrinsic of human qualities: joy, care, sensuality, invention?
It is striking how the tribunes of the new machine age, like Erik Brynjolfsson at MIT, or the Oxford Martin School's Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne (a keynote speaker at FutureFest), reach back to some very old social policy ideas, like a guaranteed basic income.
They see this as one of the main ways to mitigate the pure profit-seeking logic of automation, by fiscally supporting a mass society of entrepreneurs, possibility explorers and social players; rather than having the underemployed many gawping at parades of super-rich tech elites.
Another word the economists use for economic ‘stagnation’ is economic ‘immobilism’. Perhaps there's nowhere better than a multiform festival of the future to get those stagnant pools moving again.