The 100-Year March of Technology in 1 Graph
When I visited Costa Rica the tour guide told me that the poor in the disheveled huts had color tv and cell phones, but my photos also show that their security system against howler monkeys was a dog on a chain, their door a burlap sack, and their children in need of new shoes, more nourishment, and new clothes. Derek Thompson destroys a powerful meme that makes its rounds mostly in elderly conservative circles.
There is a strain of conservatism that suggests that the march of technology has made life so good for people at the bottom that we don’t have to worry much about income inequality. Tens of millions of Americans are living in poverty, “but it’s okay, because they have more microwaves than ever before,” is an argument that exists, and is widely persuasive. It’s accurate to say today’s poor own stuff that yesterday’s poor wouldn’t recognize. But the ubiquity of microwaves doesn’t displace the moral obligation of the richest country in the history of the world to protect people who literally can’t afford food to put in that microwave. Medical bankruptcy is hardly alleviated by the falling price of flat screen televisions.
One hundred ago, what is now the modern world was considerably more vulnerable to agricultural crisis. After poor seasons of weather, thousands would starve. It was a tragedy. But this tragedy occurred in the context of what were then amazing new technologies. As Bill Bryson wrote in At Home, the world had never been more brilliantly lit by gas or more reliably cleaned by plumbing. Nobody today would claim that gas lamps and plumbing technologies obviate the need for welfare. And yet, I do often hear it said that microwaves and TVs have partially or wholly relieved us of the burden of worrying about the poor. If the position isn’t simply wrong, it is at the very least historically myopic.