The Next Time You Bitch and Moan About the Lack of Jetpacks, Remember Disposable Diapers!


Former Reason Editor Virginia Postrel has a great column up at Bloomberg. It's titled "No Flying Cars, But the Future's Bright" and it provides a smart and necessary counter to the idea that important technological innovation has stalled out (she notes the cover of MIT Technology Review laments, "You promised me Mars colonies. Instead, I got Facebook."). Some snippets:

The world we live in would be wondrous to mid-20th-century Americans. It just isn't wondrous to us. One reason is that we long ago ceased to notice some of the most unexpected innovations.

Forget the big, obvious things like Internet search, GPS, smartphones or molecularly targeted cancer treatments. Compared with the real 21st century, old projections of The Future offered a paucity of fundamentally new technologies. They included no laparoscopic surgery or effective acne treatments or ADHD medications or Lasik or lithotripsy—to name just a few medical advances that don't significantly affect life expectancy….

The glamorous future included no digital photography or stereo speakers tiny enough to fit in your ears. No forensic DNA testing or home pregnancy tests. No ubiquitous microwave ovens or video games or bar codes or laser levels or CGI-filled movies. No super absorbent polymers for disposable diapers—indeed, no disposable diapers of any kind.

I've longed believed that by the time most gee-whiz elements of "the future" arrive, they're immediately revealed as banal (describe Lasik surgery to someone living in 1920 or 1950 and his eyes would have popped out). That's generally a good thing, as it allows us mere mortals to actually use the stuff rather than fall down on our knees and worship it.

But Postrel is making a deeper point, too: Many of the people decrying the lack of "distruptive" and golly-gee "transformational" technologies are market-friendly people who rightly push back against all sorts of counterproductive regulations that prevent experimentation and innovation. But these same people often discount or wave away the changes that are actually improving things in their calls for mega-scale projects. That can be a real problem, Postrel concludes:

If a few venture capitalists believe that "transformational technologies" are worth betting on, we may see some bold ideas come to fruition. But if they also convince the general public that the only worthwhile technological initiatives are splashy ventures that rate mentions in a State of the Union address, we won't have more technological progress. We'll have less.

Read the whole thing.