The Steam Engine is Just As Frivolous As An iPad

A Sullivan reader writes:

In the first half of the 20th century, the U.S. made goods that were essential to life.  In the second half, we made machines and software that made it easier and more efficient to produce those essential goods.  In both cases, the utility of the what we produced stretched far beyond the end-user.  However, over the past 20 years, much of our technology has been focused on facilitating our personal mirth via iPods, Facebook, widescreens, etc.  It may not be an accident that this shift in technology focus coincided with economic decline, because I do not believe these personal technologies bring as many positive externalities as do steam engines, cotton gins and inventory control systems.

Or put more succinctly, what comes after “Here we are now, entertain us”?

I have an ongoing joke with a friend that there is no item so mundane that there cannot be a branded version of it. For his birthday this week, I bought him a designer doorstop. As a symbol of an item that delivers utterly nothing in the way of ‘positive externalities’, you couldn’t do much better.

Frivolous household bullshit, though, is actually a pretty good indicator of development. At a very low level of income, people in the need of a doorstop will probably requisition something they already have, like an old can they can fill with rocks. At a slightly higher level of income, people will buy an object that’s built for purpose. They’ll go to the dollar store and buy a yellow wedge of plastic. It won’t be branded, but it will be labeled as a doorstop.

At a higher level of income, people buy a doorstop that reflects their personality in some way. They’re willing to payextra for a doorstop with a smiley face, in a color that matches their couch or, in my friend’s case, in the shape of a naked smurf. At the Saddam Hussein end of the scale, their doorstop would be made of solid gold, or wrapped in virgin hair or whatever.

The thing is, a solid gold doorstop is better for the economy than a can of rocks. Classes of professionals such as designers, marketers and salesmen have been paid with the markup for your personal doorstopping expression. Economic growth doesn’t distinguish between things you buy because you need them and things you buy because you want them.

There’s this idea that our age is uniquely frivolous, as if the steam engine and the power loom were used solely to pull the smooty classes out of poverty.

But ready-to-wear clothing was, at the time, basically frivolous household bullshit. Every advance in transportation technology was used for people to get where they wanted to go. Markups for convenience or personal expression led to massive expansions in employment in creative arts, tourism and so on. In 1850, purchasing a shirt in your favorite color would have seemed as frivolous as a designer doorstop.

So now we have the iPad, which is undeniably frivolous household bullshit. We also have highly developed sectors in IT development, logistics and e-commerce.

Economic growth doesn’t distinguish between things we need and things we want. The widespread prosperity delivered by the Industrial Revolution was driven by frivolous desires for cheap travel and clothes. Our continuing prosperity may be driven by on our desire for sexting, photo-tagging and FarmVille.

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