Bryan Caplan  

How Stagnant Are We? The Results

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Remember my Time Diary Self-Experiment?  Only 41 people responded, so I take the feedback with a grain of salt.  Still, both of my predictions were correct.  To refresh your memory, I asked respondents to repeatedly ask themselves:
1. Was my experience during the last hour noticeably better as a result of an innovation introduced from 1990-present? [Yes/No]

2. Was my experience during the last hour noticeably better as a result of an innovation introduced from 1950-1989? [Yes/No]
Then:
Once you're done, code "yes"=1 and "no"=0.  Then calculate your average scores, and report them on quicksurveys.
My predictions:
1. The median response for question #1 will be at least .15.

2. The median response for question #2 will be no more than three times as high as the median response for question #1.
The median response for both questions was 1!  The typical respondent claimed that every single waking hour was "noticeably better" as a result of innovations from both the 1950-1989 and the 1990-present eras.  I'm tempted to claim vindication, but my honest reaction is that respondents didn't take the time diary approach very seriously.  Life has improved a lot, but if you spent your last hour reading a (conventional book) or taking a (tech-free) stroll, it's hard to see how your experience is noticeably better than it would have been in 1949.

Anyone who answered "1" care to defend your answer?



COMMENTS (28 to date)
Peter H writes:

Well, this is just me, but it is highly unusual for me not to interact with one of a computer or a cell phone in a given hour, probably enough so to get me to .9 at least, with the remainder being long meals (I do my reading on a Kindle, and my walks are generally not tech-free).

Sorry to say, but for many people, it really is the scarce hour that doesn't involve technological interaction. Even sitting in front of the TV and relaxing gets me a yes on both questions.

The Dirty Mac writes:

Having watched the Yankees-Orioles game on TV, my life was just made worse by the innovation introduced from 1950-1989.

Peter writes:

I didn't answer the original query. But the respondents where likely online using a web browser during that last hour (how else would they have read your post and responded?). Web browsers and rss readers are inventions of 1990 or later. A severe case of selection bias?

Bryan Willman writes:

let's invert the question - for how many waking hours in the last day was my life NOT made better by:
a. Something introduced after 1949?
b. Something introduced after 1979?

Leaving out the 24hr per day benefits of things like asthma control meds introducted after 1980...

Even riding a bicycle (index shifting and combined levers after 1980, first rate clincher tires after 1980, clipless cleats after 1980) is much improved, even though the basic device is much older.

Robinson writes:

I didn't respond, but I suspect I would have been at or close to 1. I think both "going for a stroll" and "reading a (paper) book," on average, take up very little of the time of a typical EconLog reader. (I'm guessing your audience is generally white-collar, technologically savvy, and young). I suspect Tyler would say that the stagnation is centered around the poor and lower middle class.

(Incidentally, I agree with you that there is no such stagnation).

louis the briton writes:

Don't be so quick to discount the results just because the response was so one-sided. Even reading a conventional book can be a dramatic improvement. The nonfiction books we have now make use of ideas and statistical methods that were then undeveloped. In fact there are very few nonfiction books I have read in the past year that could have been written in 1949. I almost always take the mp3 player along when I walk the dog.

aretae writes:

Automobile features like rear view digital cameras, automated sliding doors.

Home Cell Phone or work blackberry or work laptop or home laptop is touched at least once in every
waking hours. Usually 3 of 4 in any given waking hour. Read on a kindle.

Air Conditioning in Texas in the late summer.

Also...my job is in how to make software processes more effective in 3rd and 4th Generation Languages in the absence of real constraints on memory, processing power, or storage. My entire (very fun) job is enabled by stuff from both eras.

Tracy W writes:

If I'd done it when I'd first gotten up, I'd've encoded a 1 for post-1950 and a 0 for now.

But otherwise, between work, using my phone to be in touch with people, taking photos of the baby to send to the grandparents, and breastfeeding baby while browsing the web one-handed, it's hard to get an hour where I'm not better off using modern technology.

Plus note that if you went for a walk in pouring rain wearing your Gore-tex raincoat, you're noticeably better off with modern technology (though this comes back to the question of invented versus wide-spread).

Lupis42 writes:

I didn't keep a time diary, but I would estimate a solid 1 for the first, and between .9 and 1 for the second. Most of my hobbies have advanced by leaps and bounds in the last ten years alone.

Dan Carroll writes:

I didn't respond to the original post, but here is my input (dates are largely from Wikipedia, which was invented in 1990-present period)

Last hour:
* PC (invented 1965, dramatically improved 1990-present)
* Cell phone (invented 1973, improved since)
* Internet (invented by Al Gore in 1960's, deregulated 1990's)
* Electronic fuel injection (developed 1957 based on earlier mechanical technology, widespread use in 1980's and 1990's)

These are the most prominent examples.

Mordatar writes:

i agree with the first commenter. But, after following this debate about a great stagnation, I would like to ask a genuine question: how important is it to know whether or not we (or the US) are in a great stagnation?
If there is a great stagnation, how does that affect what policies we should choose, or our personal decisions. Personally, I cannot think of any way it does affect, so anybody has an idea?

Steve Schow writes:

Not being alive in 1949 I can't really compare but even going for a run, my shoes, shorts, moisture-wicking T-shirt are all improvements.

Are they noticeable improvements? Maybe, I would say yes. Perhaps that's a refinement for future study.

gwern writes:

> Anyone who answered "1" care to defend your answer?

If you aren't going to accept the results, why did you waste the time of 41 people?

> I'm tempted to claim vindication, but my honest reaction is that respondents didn't take the time diary approach very seriously.

A reaction that ought to cast doubt on any data of 0 as well.

Scott Saliency writes:

Selection bias as Peter suggest.
Gwern points out only 41 people responded.

I bet everyone was on MRUniversity :P

I did not respond but if I did my number would be pretty close to 1 also. I use a kindle, and listen to podcasts. I don't watch TV, but bet people who do think TV is better now due to higher resolution, dvr, ect.

It is more complex and subjective but what you should have asked is for a number between 0 to 1 how much better was your experience.

Example kindle use.
When at home I would probably rate it a .1
When traveling I might give it a .5

Example internet use.
When doing research for work .95
Entertaining self with random Wikipedia .3


Even this though will not capture the differences in differences Tyler takes about. The internet can be a big deal to us because other need have been met.

Daublin writes:

I posted it before, but I'm very close to a 1,1: Internet, Kindle, and TV are in use by me just about any hour of the day. Lunch time is about the only exception I can think of.

Moreover, even though I don't use the Internet every hour of the day, it's an absolute game changer. I remember a multitude of kinds of confusion pre-Internet that just don't exist any more. For any device or software I use, I can now get a current manual for it without even having to put my shoes on.

Chris writes:

I didn't answer the survey but I'll toss in my rationale:

I work on computers all day at work

I listen to music and audiobooks on mp3 players when walking, driving and hanging out at home. Indeed driving is vastly improved because I can listen to audiobooks and podcasts downloaded off the internet.

Recipes are on the computer when I'm cooking, as well as I use modern metal pans, and using modern appliances.

I shave with a modern battery powered shaver.

Modern communication devices.

I use a computerized watering timer and drip watering lines in my garden.

Mowing with a modern mulching mower.

I occasionally pick up an old fashioned book, but usually only for a short time at a single sitting.

Wide screen tvs for video entertainment.

Modern battery powered tools for woodworking hobbies.

Even when hanging out with friends we converse about latest news (acquired from the internet), and about friends who may not be present (via news from facebook) or play games from an awesome new selection of modern, fun board games.

AND I'll cheat and claim an additional .5 because I now get vastly improved sleep due to a CPAP I got 3 years ago.

So not getting a benefit from modern inventions is indeed an incredibly rare experience for me.

So my answer is 1.49.

Floccina writes:

Just what Chris wrote.

IVV writes:

Were mattresses just as comfortable 50 years ago? I know that when I compare my life today to what it was in my 70s childhood, the number of times I feel uncomfortable, bent out of shape, itchy, the wrong temperature, etc. is far, far less today.

Joe Cushing writes:

I spent my last hour on the internet, leaning up against a pillow that was shipped in a shipping container, which makes everything in the world more affordable. Of course my internet experience is a whole string of inventions starting in the 50s and going right on up to a year ago when I bought some of my equipment. I suppose it was a shipping container that allows me to afford this nice desk I'm sitting at. It's 40 degrees outside. Fracking and other oil and gas technology has kept the cost of natural gas so low that I can afford to keep it warm enough in here to sit here in shorts, no socks and no shirt, ready for bed. I'm pretty sure it was modern manufacturing technology that allowed my parents to buy me this nice leather desk pad that's keeping my wrists from hurting right now. In the 1980s, everything made of leather was super expensive. While I'm at it, I'm sitting in a nice leather chair, I couldn't have even hoped to afford 15 or 20 years ago. All around me are live corals, which bring beauty to my whole space. The ability to house live coral in one's living-room was unheard of 40 year ago. Above my monitor is a beautiful print of a wildlife painting in an equally beautiful frame. The thing is huge. I don't remember ever seeing print this nice in anyone's home ever. I'm not a wealthy person. When I bought the print, 4 years ago, I couldn't have imagined owning anything this nice to hang on a wall. I bought two. The other one is behind me--above my newer leather couch.

Mark Bahner writes:
Were mattresses just as comfortable 50 years ago?

Good point. I sleep on a 4 inch memory foam mattress topper. It was very inexpensive, but it's a big improvement over the inepensive mattress I had.

Dan j writes:

Not White Collar... Very blue collar... And it is ridiculous to think that life has not been Improved by tech innovation since 1980 and up. Certainly, health industry improvements have made life better. The cell phone and Internet have changed the entire world.
Soon, books on Notebook devices will be equipped with video enhance,nets to illustrate complex scenes or climatic events... Comic books on notebooks will come with 30sec to 2 minute video to assist in imagination. Non-fiction will have video to show events, recreated or live taped.

Michael York writes:

I didn't respond to your survey, partly because my lifestyle is quite far outside the norm. I'm a retired, 68 year old expat, living in Thailand. My reading is via Kindle, so all the time I spend reading gets coded "1". My main means of communication is the internet--"1". My diversion while walking each day is to listen to podcasts on an ipod --"1". Some of my food is packaged and prepared using modern technology (microwave, very high temp pasteurization for milk, for example) so even my eating is partly "1". I sleep in an air-conditioned room--I suppose that's a bit before 1990. But my light is provided by energy-saving light bulbs that are not only cheaper to operate but produce much less heat than did the incandescent bulbs I grew up with, so that's partly "1". Thus, although I suppose an overall score of "1" is high, my overall score would certainly be well above .5, probably something like .7.

Dan Hill writes:

On the tech free stroll: why would I? My phone has a stopwatch so I can time my walk, a camera to take a photo if I see something interesting, a phone with email so my boss doesn't need to know I'm not at my desk in the middle of the day, not to mention my entire music collection to listen to. But I'll humor you and leave the phone at home. Like @Steve Schow said, just focus on the improvements in the shoes and clothing (not going to leave those at home!)

As for the conventional book: do you mean the obscure book I ordered online from a choice of 8 million books that was delivered to my door overnight?

[broken link removed--Econlib Ed.]

IVV writes:

Yeah, even when I'm taking a "tech-free" stroll, I'm probably relying on shoes with materials and design developed in the past 50 (if not 20) years, made available and affordable through advanced in supply chain management.

Various writes:

I think a better way to phrase your questions would be:

1. How many minutes of the last hour were noticeably better as a result of an innovation introduced from 1990 - present.

2. How many minutes of the last hour were noticeably better as a result of an innovation introduced from 1950 - 1989.

Pavel writes:

Most hours a day I use either a computer or a smartphone, sometimes both. The times I am not, I am most likely watching TV or drinking microbrewery beer. Both things improved significantly during the last 20 years. So my median day is 1. There might be days as low as 0.7, but probably not lower.

Cyberike writes:

I did read a regular hardback book for an hour (or so) before bedtime several times in the last week, and I did so under the nice, soft glow of a 17 watt florescent bulb.

I went for a stroll the other morning, made much more comfortable with my orthotic inserts and gel insoles.

I was able to observe nature much more enjoyably because of my laser eye surgery. The book as well.

I doubt there is as much as a 5 minute interval that I do not enjoy some aspect of improvement made possible by recent technology.

Charlie writes:

Why don't you do your own, so we can see how it's done.

I didn't answer the survey because I have no idea when the stuff I use was invented. Also, what is noticiably better? What is an innovation? If I'm reading a book or journal article with post 1950s research, does that count. What about this IKEA lamp I'm sitting next to? Lamps are old, but this design must not be that old. Would an old lamp be noticiably worse? How would I know?

I've spent all day checking fantasy football on my phone. Is FF an innovation?

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