Will the New Tech of 2012 Prove as Successful as the Tech of 1912?


A Wall Street Journal opinion piece offers that the United States is about to undergo a technology-led boom much like the one that followed the deployment of the car, electrification, telephony, stainless steel, and radio amplifier in the early 20th century. By the authors' calculations, Americans are 700 percent wealthier than we were back then and technology is why.

This is an optimistic story, not one of decline, because they believe that three current technologies will have a similar impact as the foundational tech of the last century.

In January 2012, we sit again on the cusp of three grand technological transformations with the potential to rival that of the past century. All find their epicenters in America: big data, smart manufacturing and the wireless revolution.

I'm open to the idea that we are myopic about long-term change and don't pretend to know what the long-term economic health of the United States will be. But nothing they note seems like it could deliver tens of millions of jobs to people who are aligned with the industries created by the tech of 1912.

The era of near-perfect computational design and production will unleash as big a change in how we make things as the agricultural revolution did in how we grew things. And it will be defined by high talent not cheap labor.

So, when agriculture was transformed by mechanization, suddenly all kinds of farmers flooded the cities to take manufacturing jobs. Now those manufacturing jobs will be accomplished without them. So now those masses of people will get work doing ... what, exactly? The practical point of big data and smart manufacturing is often to squeeze ever more efficiency out of ever fewer people.

Sometimes, I look at the last century and I think, the most underrated part of their technologies were that they required lots of people doing bearable stuff for decent money.

Image: Production line. Library of Congress.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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