The benefits of tech adoption

Dylan Matthews has a good column in Vox’s Future Perfect newsletter (can’t find a link) that gets at something I’ve been thinking about a lot: the potentially large, but unseen costs of slowing the spread of useful technologies.

He’s writing about a new paper estimating the benefits of the Green Revolution:

The [Green Revolution] was a widespread global agricultural shift in the 1960s and 1970s, encouraged by US-based foundations like Ford and Rockefeller and implemented by the governments of countries in Asia and Latin America, toward higher-yield varieties and cultivation methods for rice, wheat, and other cereals…

The new paper, from economists Douglas Gollin, Casper Worm Hansen, and Asger Wingender and set to be published in the influential Journal of Political Economy soon, estimates what the effects of delaying the Green Revolution by 10 years would have been. IRRI started breeding rice crops in 1965, so in this counterfactual the revolution would have begun in 1975 instead.

They estimate that such a delay would have reduced GDP per capita in countries analyzed by about one-sixth; worldwide, the cost to GDP would total some $83 trillion, or about as much as one year of world GDP. And if the Green Revolution had never happened, GDP per capita in poor countries would be half what it is today.

I have not read the paper, but I trust Dylan’s research coverage.

This is the sort of hidden cost that the folks I characterize as pursuing the “innovation agenda” worry about. Might we look back one day and kick ourselves for having delayed the spread of artificial intelligence? Of offshore wind? Of self-driving cars?

I suspect that in at least some of these cases there are large costs to delay.

That isn’t an argument for just charging full speed ahead without concern for safety and equity. It was clear from my look back at the early days of electricity, for example, that getting the regulations right was an essential part of making the technology actually good for well-being. Spreading it too fast, without the right laws and institutions and even norms, can cause considerable suffering.

And then there’s the point Steven Johnson made in his New York Times Magazine excerpt of his book on human lifespans:

How did this great doubling of the human life span happen? When the history textbooks do touch on the subject of improving health, they often nod to three critical breakthroughs, all of them presented as triumphs of the scientific method: vaccines, germ theory and antibiotics. But the real story is far more complicated. Those breakthroughs might have been initiated by scientists, but it took the work of activists and public intellectuals and legal reformers to bring their benefits to everyday people. From this perspective, the doubling of human life span is an achievement that is closer to something like universal suffrage or the abolition of slavery: progress that required new social movements, new forms of persuasion and new kinds of public institutions to take root. And it required lifestyle changes that ran throughout all echelons of society: washing hands, quitting smoking, getting vaccinated, wearing masks during a pandemic.

His point is that it’s not just that we can’t spread the tech until the right laws are in place; it’s that laws, norms, and institutions are an important part of how the tech develops. There’s no clear dividing line between the tech itself and the context in which it spreads.

Social media makes that point well, I think. It’s not just that social media’s effects depend on the norms and rules of the day; it’s that its very development reflects that context. It is the way it is because of the context in which it developed.

Back to the Green Revolution. Surely some of this is true there as well; the development and spread of those agricultural techniques no doubt depended in part on the specifics of time and place. Is that a reason to doubt the paper’s main idea, that spreading those technologies a decade earlier would have been massively beneficial? I don’t think so; that’s taking the Johnson point too far.

So what does this add up to? The effects of a technology depend both on its technical features today (the ability to improve crop yields or to drive a car using software without crashing) along with the laws, norms, and institutions that exist around it.

Delaying the spread of a useful technology can be extraordinarily costly–unless you hold some very specific ideas about the institutional context, how it will change, and how the pace of technological diffusion affects that process.

All else equal, we should want useful technologies to spread quickly. All else equal, we should want our laws, norms, and institutions to improve a technology’s benefits–both making it more beneficial at a given point in time by say outlawing forms of exploitation and by changing its development path to make it more beneficial over time.

To the extent these two processes are separate, these points mostly hold: deploy self-driving cars as fast as we can, and improve the laws around self-driving cars as fast as we can. But they’re not wholly separate. Where we most need to worry is when a technology’s spread constraints our ability to improve it later. You could write a fun example of an AI that captures Congress or something but you don’t need to go all sci-fi, just think about Uber. You might think, all else equal, it’s good to spread the (admittedly minor) technology of mobile ride-hailing. And then alongside it you’d want to change laws to prevent exploitation, pollution, and the like. But Uber’s spread in some ways makes it harder to change those laws. Or think of the shipping container: Its spread changes the political economy around trade in ways that are hard to predict ahead of time. Context shapes diffusion, but diffusion also shapes context.

This is the challenge for the innovation agenda crowd. It’s important to loudly explain the hidden potential costs to delaying the spread of useful technologies. But tallying those costs depends on political economy: speeding a useful technology’s spread doesn’t make sense if that spread hampers institutions to the point of negating the technology’s benefits.

It’s at least plausible that sometimes the faster a technology spreads, the harder it is to (ever) successfully regulate. The empirical question is how often that happens.

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