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The Mismeasure of Technology

CAMBRIDGE – There is nothing better than fuzzy language to wreak havoc – or facilitate consensus. Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that philosophical puzzles are really just a consequence of the misuse of language. By contrast, the art of diplomacy is to find language that can hide disagreement.


One idea about which economists agree almost unanimously is that, beyond mineral wealth, the bulk of the huge income difference between rich and poor countries is attributable to neither capital nor education, but rather to “technology.” So what is technology?

The answer explains the unusual consensus among economists, for “technology” is measured as a kind of “none of the above” category, a residual – Nobel laureate Robert Solow called it “total factor productivity” – that remains unexplained after accounting for other production inputs, such as physical and human capital. As Moses Abramovitz aptly noted in 1956, this residual is not much more than “a measure of our ignorance.”

So, while agreeing that technology underpins the wealth of nations sounds more meaningful than confessing our ignorance, it really is not. And it is our ignorance that we need to address.

In an important book, W. Brian Arthur defines technology as a collection of devices and engineering practices available to a culture. But devices can be put in a container and shipped around the world, while recipes, blueprints, and how-to manuals can be posted online, putting them just a few clicks away. So the Internet and free trade should make the ideas and devices that we call “technology” available everywhere.

In fact, much of modern growth theory, starting with Paul Romer’s research in the late 1980’s, sprang from the idea that output was driven higher by ideas that are hard to come by but easy to copy. That is why inventors have to be protected by patents and copyrights or subsidized by governments.

So, if ideas are easy to copy and devices are easy to ship, why do differences in “technology” persist between countries?

When something upsets a beneficent natural order, humans crave for stories featuring some malign force. For example, the argument in Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s book Why Nations Fail is essentially that technology does not diffuse because the ruling elite does not want it to. They impose extractive (bad) institutions, instead of adopting inclusive (good) institutions; and, because technology may upset their control over society, they choose to do without it.

As a Venezuelan who is seeing his country collapse at this very moment, I do not doubt that there have been many instances in human history during which those in power have prevented progress. But I am also struck by how often governments that embrace the goal of shared growth – post-apartheid South Africa is a good example – fail to achieve it.

Such governments promote schooling, free trade, property rights, social programs, and the Internet, and yet their countries’ economies remain stuck. If technology is just devices and ideas, what is holding them back?

The problem is that a key component of technology is knowhow, which is an ability to perform a task. And knowhow, unlike devices and ideas, neither involves nor can be acquired through comprehension.

The tennis champion Rafael Nadal does not really know what it is that he does when he successfully returns a serve. He just knows how to do it; putting it in words is impossible, and any effort to do so would not make the rest of us better players. As the scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi would say of such tacit knowledge, we know more than we can tell.

So we do not need extractive elites or other evil forces to explain why technology does not diffuse. Technology has trouble diffusing because much of it requires knowhow, which is an ability to recognize patterns and respond with effective actions. It is a wiring in the brain that may require years of practice to achieve. This makes its diffusion very slow: As I have argued previously, knowhow moves to new areas when the brains that hold it move there. Once there, they can train others.

Moreover, now that knowhow is becoming increasingly collective, not individual, diffusion is becoming even slower. Collective knowhow refers to the ability to perform tasks that cannot be carried out by an individual, like playing a symphony or delivering the mail: neither a violinist nor a letter carrier can do it alone.

Likewise, a society cannot simply imitate the idea of Amazon or eBay unless many of its citizens already have access to the Internet, credit cards, and delivery services. In other words, new technologies require the previous diffusion of other technologies.

That is why cities, regions, and countries can absorb technology only gradually, generating growth through some recombination of the knowhow that is already in place, maybe with the addition of some component – a bassist to complete a string quartet. But they cannot move from a quartet to a philharmonic orchestra in one fell swoop, because it would require too many missing instruments – and, more important, too many musicians who know how to play them.

Progress happens by moving into what the theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman calls the “adjacent possible,” which implies that the best way to find out what is likely to be feasible in a country is to consider what is already there. Politics may indeed impede technological diffusion; but, to a large extent, technology does not diffuse because of the nature of technology itself.

Ricardo Hausmann, a former minister of planning of Venezuela and former Chief Economist of the Inter-American Development Bank, is a professor of economics at Harvard University, where he is also Director of the Center for International Development.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
www.project-syndicate.org

Image credit: Shutterstock

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

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  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

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  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

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  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

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