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118 responses to “The kitchen test is bunk”

  1. Idiot/Savant

    The biggest difference between my grandparents’ kitchens and my own isn’t the appliances in them. It’s the fact it sits unused on a regular basis, because I can afford to pay other people to use their kitchens to prepare food for me on a far more regular basis than they could.

    And that you can do it over the internet.

  2. Helen

    I haven’t read Tyler Cowen’s piece or the responses to it yet, but what instantly springs to my mind is what you can’t immediately see in the kitchen of the future – how the appliances, lights etc are powered. That’s going to need a huge technological spike, and it has to happen sometime.

  3. Zorronsky

    it hasn’t changed a lot since 1957.

    Apart from fewer hats men have been wearing suits ties shirts shoes and socks for a century..That’s real stagnation!

  4. Fran Barlow

    My grandparents’ kitchen …

    had no microwave and no dual hotwater. I could have a dishwasher (but don’t) and of course we now have freezers as well as a fridge. All of them are more energy-efficient than the 1950s kelvinator by grandmother had.

  5. Steve1

    Besides the obvious introduction of micro-waves, dishwashers, freezers and other electrical appliance and things like non-stick fry pans, the bigest innovation in my families kitchen is that my sons are far more involved in the preparation of food and the cleaning up afterwards than I ever was. Maybe if these guys commenting actually spent time in the kitchen working rather than just consuming, there might be even more innovation. But if you can’t stand the heat!

  6. Paul Burns

    I seem to recall the fuss about microwaves irradiating food was in the late seventies/early eighties which is some twenty to thirty odd years after 1957. But hell, I can remember the ice-box and the meat safe, the baker in a cart and horse, stone jugs of soft drink, milk in glass bottles and getting money back on Coke bottles at the corner shop.In fact i can remember when the now defunct Polly Waffle was new,like Paddle Pops, Chico Rolls and Drum Sticks. I can even remember life before TV and Leonard Teale playing Superman on radio. In fact I can remember life before McDonald’s. And I still think they’re new. So I’m not much use.

  7. Katz

    The kitchen test is a very narrow basis for measuring technological change.

    But let us consider Rip Van Winkle going to sleep in 1910 and awakening in a kitchen in 1960. He would experience much more mystery in 1960 than if he fell asleep in that year and awoke in 2010.

    On the other hand, the office and the library would be very unfamiliar. Whatever happened to the typing pool? Where is the card catalogue? Where are the books?

    Moreover Rip Wan Winkle of 1960 would have completely missed the contraceptive pill.

    On the other hand, in 2011 he can still watch “I Love Lucy” on his momentarily unfamiliar flat-screen TV.

  8. Tom Davies

    For some reason I was able to purchase it via the Kindle app on my iPhone, but using the same Amazon account on my computer didn’t work — YMMV

  9. sg

    Also the food contents of the kitchen would be completely different due to huge improvements in storage and logistics – less need to freeze, more fresh fruit and vegetables from a wider range of countries, and a vastly greater diversity of foods.

    This diversity isn’t just due to food production technology. The available range of recipes in 1957 was tiny. Since then the global movement of people, changes in workplace practice (ie. women’s participation), the internet and changes in the publishing industry have revolutionized our ability to prepare and access new foods. I remember when my parents would complain for days if I cooked with garlic, and spaghetti bolognese was an exotic meal, prepared not because my Dad looked it up somewhere, but because his first wife (an Italian woman) taught him.

  10. BilB

    Maybe the genesis of this “book” is in the movement from the Koch Brothers


    , or maybe Cowen doesn’t have broadband and does not get Gizmag. Far from stagantion, as an inventor and product developer I find Gizmag a little terrifying for the pace of change. The pace of development is very confronting.

    There are a couple of things in this though. One is that you need to be fairly perceptive to notice many of the technological innovations that are taking place. Some years ago the patent rules were changed to encompass combinations of ideas to be considered as novel concepts in their own right. So much innovation now goes into internal improvements which magnify performance while not necessarily changing the appearence of products.

    As Cowen mentioned aircraft, I will point out that there is a massive revolution underway at present with electrically powered aircraft. The difference is huge, but they still look like planes. The plane that I am designing is a quantum leap in function and size, but there is a brilliant aircraft design from 1937 which looks very similar (Waldo Waterman’s Aerobile [the true first flying car]).

    The fact is that we are still human beings and still need very much the same things for primary existence (house food clothing stimulation), and our personal form has not changed (much) so things that worked hundreds of years ago still work today. But then how could Cowen have missed the computers, mobile phones, the iPod or GPS. This suggests to me that Cowen has a perception and understanding problem.

    What is changing, and will change beyond recognition, is energy…its use… and its source. This will be the major defining aspect of ourcivilisation in the next decades. It is also a pointer to the genesis of Cowens observation.

    For the past 150 years oil has been the dominant mobility energy form. It is so successful that it has eneabled us to progress rapidly as a civilisation. But it also has limits, both in the scope for its use, and for its availability. Its success has come to define what we do, and how far we can go. With oil reaching its supply and environemntal limits, we are now needing to step back a little. Back to seemingly less capable energy forms. What has been discovered though is that in that steeping back process and innovation tidal wave has been unleashed. Innovation that has been stiffled by oil’s all encompassing success. And with this innovation we are discovering that seemingly less able fuels are not so limited as it once seemed.

  11. Huggybunny

    When I first started designing stuff, what we now call a microprocessor was a rack of electronics about 1800mm high.
    Now I routinely incorporate microprocessors in every-thing.
    Said micros becoming more and more powerful and using less energy by the week. I buy a toy and it has a micro inside.
    You are about to witness the biggest technological change in the power supply network ever.
    Should be fun.

  12. BilB

    For instance, check out the Coke powered mobile phone


  13. Razor

    The kitchen might be similar. However,

    My parents can’t do anything in my lounge room or study despite repeated training and written instructions with diagrams and photo’s (laminated) and they’ve lived through the information revolution.

  14. akn

    In the kitchens of the future only those of wealthy will provide food for a balanced diet. The kitchen’s of the poor will remain the way they are now – empty of adequate sustenance.

  15. Phil

    Can confirm Tom Davies’ comment @ comment #8. Purchased on Kindle for Android $3.20, readable on the actual Kindle and all Amazon platforms. Nice window.

    That said, I get where Cowen is coming from up to a point. Not innovation so much as incrementalism in many areas. Sure a modern thing may have improved from a thing of the past but it isn’t exactly unrecognisable.

    Yes, we still burn coal, use ICE technology etc…but there has been revolutionary stuff in other areas – biotech, medicine etc. Lifespan is an good indicator of innovation there.

    And of course there is innovation waiting to be unleashed in energy given the right circumstances.

  16. Tom Davies

    Cowen is interested in median family income, and on inequality says (I’d post more, but you can’t cut and paste from the Mac Kindle App): “The slowdown in ideas production mirrors the well-known rise in income inequality. Labor and capital are fairly plentiful… so their returns have been somewhat stagnant … so the small number of people who hold the rights to new ideas — whether it be the useful Facebook or the more dubious forms of mortgage backed securities — earned higher relative returns…”

    He also suggests that we are spending a greater proportion of our income in sectors where marginal productivity is falling — health and education.

    Areas which one day will see great advances are not delivering yet: Pharmaceuticals, AI, nanotechnology, robotics.

    Read the whole thing when you can, it has plenty of interesting ideas.

  17. sg

    Pharmaceuticals aren’t delivering yet? In the 70s we saw the adoption of aspirin to reduce heart attacks; in the 80s we went from not knowing about, to being able to identify, a deadly disease (HIV) in 4 years, which saved most of the developed world from a major economic bullet (witness the fate of sub-saharan Africa for the consequences of this disease spreading through the heterosexual population before tests were available); in the 90s survival rates from breast cancer began to increase rapidly; in the 00s we introduced a vaccine for the second biggest killer of women (cervical cancer). In the 1950s we had access to a few types of pain killer, a few types of antibiotic, and a very limited range of diagnostic tools.

    Our modern success in preventing the spread of HIV in the western world is probably worth 10 years of economic growth. It would have been impossible without a range of advances in diagnostic, pharmaceutical and epidemiological science that were largely unheard of in the 50s.

  18. j_p_z

    What’s a “kitchen”?
    (kidding, I like to cook.)

    Didn’t Nixon and Khrushchev have a lot of zany things to say about kitchens, some time around the Middle Ages, back when Fred Flintstone was the Duke of Earl or something?

    One thing I’ll say is: beware of e-books. The people who control the system can just “disappear” your alleged library.

    Real libraries full of real books are cool. Buy real books.

    Some famous writer-dude once said that a good cigar is one of the rare objects that can please all five senses, and I agree.

    A well-made book is similar. Especially if, like the prophet Ezekiel, you occasionally eat one.

  19. Paul Burns

    Have to say I’m still old-fashioned enough to prefer the book as artefact any day. While I’ve had recourse to the occasional e-book on line, I draw the line at actually buying a Kindle machine/thingemejig/computer/screen etc etc or ordering books on that or related technology.

  20. sg

    japerz, too true. Since I moved to Japan the US government has banned sales of eBooks to non-British and non-US residents, and I have found it very difficult to buy new books. This means that those bastards have essentially stolen my eBook reader, and without any form of compensation. What a pack of arseholes!

  21. Paul Burns

    j-p-z, sg,
    Oh boy am I glad I never got into e-books. I knew there was something wrong with them instinctively. What a horror story.
    If yo can’t see and feel and smell a book, … one or two of my books smell of nearly a century, not just decades. (Will perhaps buy some more soon.)

  22. Katz

    That’s a horror story sg.


  23. sg

    Paul, I travel, and an eBook is an enormous advantage when you move from city to city. I don’t have to cart boxes of books, etc.

    I actually bought the reader hoping it would be useful for reading japanese – it has a dictionary function and I was hoping to be able to tap on a word and call up a translation, or at least a reading, and this would open up Japanese novels to me. But even though it’s a sony gadget, you can’t but it, or ebooks, in japan. I’m waiting for the iPad to force a change here.

    The other thing I had in mind was reading journal articles on it – if I’m in the midst of writing an article I can need a lot of journal articles and I won’t read them in cafes or trains if I have to carry 30 of the damn things. But I’ve subsequently discovered my eBook reader doesn’t work so well for this either (it doesn’t handle pdfs so well, though I haven’t tried in detail – I’ll be starting that up in earnest in about a month).

    I was hoping to eliminate boxes and boxes of books from my life. Libraries are cool if you’re in one place, but if you’re mobile they aren’t. And if I could reduce the effort involved in reading Japanese it would be worth a lot.

  24. sg

    Basically katz, I got a sony reader in December 2009, in London, and at that time I could buy ebooks from waterstones, whsmith, amazon, etc. and install them on the reader. I moved to Japan in January 2010 and continued occasionally buying eBooks from those sites until about July; then I didn’t read anything in English for a few months, and in November I tried again and discovered that I couldn’t buy ebooks from anyone but WH Smith. The other companies require an english-registered credit card and they check your IP address. I think Amazon only take US-registered cards. I have an Australian, Japanese and UK credit card but so far have only been able to get the UK card to work in one store in the UK.

    Once WH Smith close their loophole, I will have been robbed of my eBook reader. As far as I know I can’t even get my Dad to download them in the UK and mail them to me, due to the file format used. So my only option is to find illegal pdfs on bittorrent and download them for free. And I find it impossible to believe that this copyright decision is going to benefit the authors I read in any way, shape or form.

  25. j_p_z

    sg — good grief! Though I know nothing of the politix of e-books, I refuse to have any truck with them. Not only do they open the way to a world of abuses, but they also encourage the decay of complex traditions required to make actual books. It’s a bad bizniss fer kulcha, eight hands around.

    btw, a good slice of pizza is another object that passes the five-senses test.

  26. sg

    japerz, I suspect that the solid state physics involved in making ebooks is a deal more complex than bookbinding, dependent though it was for most of its development on books.

    My partner works in the publishing industry so I have no respect for the industry or its kulcha. In my view people who work in that industry are fundamental to the reproduction of our culture and all its knowledge; but they’re paid worse than almost anyone with similar education (oh, and shock! they’re mostly women…) and treated pretty poorly. Pretensions to cultural importance would get a little respect from me if the industry would shower some of its workers with the corresponding financial rewards.

  27. Phil

    Obviously this is getting very OT but this is for @sg


  28. j_p_z

    sg — well that’s a complex bit of business, that I can’t comment on.

    Meanwhile though — the Japanese novel! Lucky duck.

    Tanizaki, Oe Kenzaburo, Mori Ogai, Akutagawa, Miyoshi-sensei…

    Take me back,
    Take me back…

  29. sg

    I was thinking a little simpler than that, japerz. More like mobile phone novels and manga.

  30. j_p_z

    sg — all the same, at least don’t miss out on Tanizaki, whose shorter stuff is weirder and more entertaining than any manga I can imagine! (Granted, I don’t do the bizarre phallic tentacles, etc. We have Lovecraft for that!)

  31. sg

    I doubt I’ll ever be good enough at Japanese to get much out of such an endeavour, japerz. I’ll be sticking to translations for that sort of thing. If I can get through a trashy fantasy I’ll be happy.

  32. MH

    There is probably a more interesting piece somewhere about the perception of technological change and living standards, memory, history, the endless post-Spengler-esque variations on Western decline, etc, and also some revival of Wallerstein in acknowledging the place of energy in civilizational development.

    Meanwhile, Quiggin on the Concorde? – state-subsidized travel for the super-rich, how very post-imperial Europe, an idea who time had passed even before it took the skies, while the democratic, progressive, Boeing 747 demonstrates the durability of the values it represents.

  33. Paul Montgomery

    Obviously, Krugman needs one of those new Internet fridges.

  34. derrida derider

    I dunno what sg is talking about. I have only an Australian credit card and have never had a problem buying any ebook I’ve wanted, from a fair variety of vendors aroun the world.

  35. sg

    Really dd? Have you tried recently? I tried just before christmas and was thoroughly stymied.

  36. sg

    In fact, Waterstones UK told me this in an email:

    Unfortunately whilst you are outside of the UK even with a UK billing address and have a UK registered card we are unable to fulfil your orders.

    Waterstone’s is a UK based bookseller and bound to honour the rights agreements of the publishers that supply us. To comply with international publishing rights agreements we have removed the ability for overseas customers to download eBooks from Waterstones.com. We apologise for the inconvenience, and will pass on any comments to the relevant publishers.

  37. Helen

    Wow. This is doing my head in. I wanted to buy my daughter a Kindle for christmas, but didn’t get the idea in time to get one. Seems I dodged a bullet there.

  38. j_p_z

    It gets worse, Helen. Not only are they able to refuse to sell you stuff, in some circumstances they can wipe a book you’ve already purchased, off your device. (I bet the legal argument is, you didn’t really “buy” the “book”, you only bought a “user’s license.”. Can more knowledgeable people clarify/verify/debunk?)

    Don’t know if that’s still the case but it was for a while, and ironically one of the books that became an “unbook” on people’s devices was something by Orwell — either Animal Farm or 1984, can’t remember which. Either way the irony is too perfect for even Mr. O.

  39. jane

    @6, Paul Burns, snap! My parents and my aunt and uncle lived with my maternal grandmother until I was six.

    She had an icebox and the iceman would call every day in the summer with a horse-drawn van and always had some ice chips for us kids; the fridge didn’t come until years later.

    No tv, just the radio. An Adelect No 3 (I think)with a power point on the side, no supermarkets and most women walked to the local grocery, green grocer’s and butcher with a basket or string bag to buy the daily perishables. And the butcher always gave kids a slice of fritz.

    The baker and the milkman also delivered door-to-door with a horse drawn van.

    No tea bags or instant coffee. Coffee and chicory was it, or you could get Turkish coffee with was boiled to death in a saucepan, strained with half a ton of sugar and a gallon of milk!

    Grandma’s 50s kitchen was as different from today’s kitchens as a 50s car is from modern cars-a/c was an open window back then. No woks, microwaves, non-stick pans, kitchen spray, alfoil, blenders, food processors, silicon cake pans.

  40. j_p_z

    I bought an e-book edition of a Dickens novel, and the opening paragraph read…

    “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. But for the best of times, come to Wendy’s for great food and family fun!”

    Well actually that didn’t happen… YET!!

  41. Fiona

    japerz @ 37, it was that bloody Gore Vidal who gave them that idea.

  42. Paul Burns

    j-p-z @ 39,
    Priceless. I love it.

    jane @ 38,
    I can remember seeing my first potato peeler. Used to peel potatoes and string beans with a knife. (Now I wash the jackets and boil them and only get small potatoes in jackets, not ones with dirt all over them.) And I’m not that old, really, just turned 66. It was years before I got a TV or video. I just used to go to the movies all the time. And i was still using a typewriter circa 1995.

  43. Quoll

    Notwithstanding some claims to advancement in medicine, but recent research and other data I’ve seen suggests that rather than continually advancing, it’s a far more complex situation.

    It’s more like we’re just changing the nature and substance of our disease burden than anything else. Perhaps we’re increasing the length of time we’re burdened with disease and immobility. Which is exactly what the story and research article below suggest.

    Might go some way to explaining the contemporary interest in voluntary euthanasia. People survive longer in poor and difficult circumstances, with probably far less social acceptance and support for the less than beautiful, fit and able than previously. Often virtually pickled by the numerous drugs they’re taking to ‘stay alive’ in the case of many frail and aged.

    I’ve heard it from a few pharmacists, and seen in my own relatives, that significant improvement often occurs in many aged people when their cocktail of drugs is ceased. In one relatives case sure she died in the end recently (hey no-one gets out of here alive), but her last year and a half (from when they thought she was close so stopped giving most drugs) was far more lucid and she was far more engaged with her family.
    94’s not a bad run. Who wants to live forever?

    Personally I think there’s a mountain of understanding to climb before biotech delivers anything widely, and much of that understanding will result from the inevitablities and complexities of mistakes and previously unknown events that will occur. It seems to be the only way that humans learn anything often.

    It’s race to see whether modern human technological society can keep itself together, or not destroy the basic ecological services necessary for the survival of everything, long enough to see anything come from it I’d say.

    Also it seems 2008 was the first year when life expectancy fell in the US in over 25 yrs (except for black men who were at a record high) and they spend more than any other culture in the world on medicine, high tech and all for those who can afford it

    Despite Longer Life Spans, Fewer Years Are Disease-Free

    ScienceDaily (Dec. 20, 2010) — Increased life expectancy in the United States has not been accompanied by more years of perfect health, reveals new research published in the December issue of the Journal of Gerontology.

    Indeed, a 20-year-old today can expect to live one less healthy year over his or her lifespan than a 20-year-old a decade ago, even though life expectancy has grown.

    But new research from Eileen Crimmins, AARP Chair in Gerontology at the University of Southern California, and Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez, a postdoctoral fellow at the Andrus Gerontology Center at USC, shows that average “morbidity,” or, the period of life spend with serious disease or loss of functional mobility, has actually increased in the last few decades.

    “We have always assumed that each generation will be healthier and longer lived than the prior one,” Crimmins explained. “However, the compression of morbidity may be as illusory as immortality.”

    Story source article
    Mortality and Morbidity Trends: Is There Compression of Morbidity?
    Eileen M. Crimmins and Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez


    Objective. This paper reviews trends in mortality and morbidity to evaluate whether there has been a compression of morbidity.

    Results. Mortality declines have slowed down in the United States in recent years, especially for women. The prevalence of disease has increased. Age-specific prevalence of a number of risk factors representing physiological status has stayed relatively constant; where risks decline, increased usage of effective drugs is responsible. Mobility functioning has deteriorated. Length of life with disease and mobility functioning loss has increased between 1998 and 2008.

    Discussion. Empirical findings do not support recent compression of morbidity when morbidity is defined as major disease and mobility functioning loss.

  44. CRAIGY

    I remember, in the early 70s , in mums kitchen ( yes mums kitchen) there was a telephone that weighed a ton, she turned the dial and asked an operator to connect her to the lady on the neighbouring farm.

    How things change.

    Yet Dad says” She hasn’t got of the bloody thing since”

  45. joe2

    “….In fact i can remember when the nowdefunct Polly Waffle was new….”


    Bastards, Nestlé, you have marshmallow on your hands.

  46. Russell

    If I wasn’t so lazy I would buy a kindle or suchlike because they have the fabulous ability to vary the font size – very good for older eyes. I don’t see them as library replacement but for fun reading.

  47. Alexander

    Zoronsky was being funny, but

    (a) I wear a hat
    (b) I wear jeans, t-shirt, jumpers, sneakers, no tie.

    The casual dress of today has greatly changed compared to a century ago. I’m told that in the sixties jeans were a sign of rebellion—today they’re a sign of conformity. And it’s no surprise that it’s slowly affecting the more formal dress.

    But this is no real surprise; if we can’t distinguish ourselves from our parents by our kitchens, we’ve got it do it with our persons.

  48. GregM

    You are about to witness the biggest technological change in the power supply network ever.
    Should be fun.

    Big statement there BilB. Though I’m sure you’re right.

    I’d love to see a post from you on it, if LP will agree to it.


  49. jane

    Paul @38, my mother didn’t buy a potato peeler for ages and I don’t think either grandmother ever invested in one.

    Everyone had a small, sharp pointy vegetable knife for peeling everything to within an inch of its life and for scraping carrots and new potatoes which we grew ourselves when we had our farm.

    I don’t peel anything except potatoes (pre-washed) for mashing and carrots for my language disordered son’s morning tea and cooked lunches. However, they’re great for making cucumber ribbons and pumpkin and carrot crisps.

  50. SJ

    Back to the topic, the kitchen test is indeed silly.

    Krugman or Cowen should have readily looked around their classrooms instead, and seen the bloody obvious changes.

    International communication existed in 1957, but undersea optical fibres didn’t. They’ve made satellite communication almost obsolete (something that also didn’t exist in 1957), and they allow some kid sitting in Cowen’s classroom to instantly fact-check anything Cowen says.

    Computers, like the one in Cowen’s classroom is using, also existed in 1957, but it wasn’t the case that everyone had one and carried them wherever they went.

    International transportation existed in 1957. But the kid in Cowen’s classroom comes from Hong Kong, and flies home every vacation. Nothing remotely resembling that ever occurred in 1957.

    The whole “stagnation” thesis is bullshit. Cowen’s a moderate right-winger, and Krugman knows this, but isn’t going to waste time arguing about pointless garbage.

  51. Paul Burns

    jane @ 47,
    I’ve got one of those knives. I remember was it was specifically for, thanks to your post.
    They also had a handmade apple-corer (I think my old man made the handle) which was also used for digger eyes out of potatoes.
    And here is something tou never see – lawnmowers you push by hand and electric lawn-mowers with extraordinarily long extension cords.

  52. Fiona

    You also never see the exasperation of the pusher of the mower when he (it was inevitably a he) ran over the extension cord….

  53. terangeree

    I have got a hand-held, battery-operated, electric potato peeler (which is probably the most useless of kitchen gadgets ever devised)

  54. Ginja

    I don’t think innovation – or the lack of it – is what’s ailing America. America’s problems are mostly political.

    Elsewhere Krugman, drawing on the work of others, has noted just how rapidly American living standards improved, and how quickly the middle class was created. He concludes that policies put in place during the New Deal were responsible for this.

    Politics still trumps technology.

  55. Down and Out of Sài Gòn

    It’s not a technological innovation per se, but a medical one: elimination of Guinea Worm. From 3.5 million cases in 1986 to just 3,000 in 2009. All done by lo-tech means such as creating uncontaminated boreholes, or use of simple filters on contaminated water.

    I think that’s amazing.

  56. Richard Tsukamasa Green

    I put a fake US address in amazon’s kindle section a year ago and have been buying US books on it ever since, despite only ever using the wireless in Australia and constantly using the same amazon account to ship stuff here. I don’t think Amazon gives a stuff about territorial restrictions (it’s to protect the profits of others, I’m not sure they’re engaging on much country level price discrimination ala iTunes), which might be why it is so insanely easy to bypass them, at least in my experience. The Kindle has a billion things wrong with it, but it has the great benefit of not being a book, which only held it’s place for so long because it was better than a scroll.

  57. Chris

    sg @ 34 – I don’t think its a US government mandated thing. Its simply that the some retailers don’t own the rights to sell outside the country the operate in. That being said I buy kindle books from amazon.com all the time with an Australian credit card.

    Note IP address filtering is not a real barrier either. Just get a vpn account with an IP address in the country you want to buy from (http://myvpnreviews.com/). Retailers would know about this but they have probably have to be seen to make a token effort.

    Some books aren’t available for electronic purchase in Australia though even though the paper versions are 🙂 In the long run I think publishers are shooting themselves in the foot when they try to enforce region restrictions like that – I feel no guilt at all at bitorrenting for something when they refuse to sell it to me.

    Also as I see it the big innovation of ebooks is not how convenient they can be for users. Its the greatly lowered barrier to entry for authors to self publish.

  58. Fiona Reynolds

    terangeree, I hope that it was a present, rather than a deliberate purchase on your part.

  59. Labor Outsider

    To be fair, Tyler’s thesis does NOT rest on the kitchen sink hypothesis, or any one area of technology. And he is not saying that innovation has stopped. He has saying that the sorts of innovations that translate into improved living standards has slowed down. On the kitchen, his main point was not that there have been no changes in recent decades, but that earlier changes were more transformational. He acnowledges the transformations in information technology over the past 25 years but makes the quite reasonable point that so far those innovations have not been as tranformational for the average person as earlier innovations. One of the points of the book is to look at an alternative hypothesis for the slowdown in median income growth to those that the literature has concentrated upon up until now – skill biased technological change, changes in worker bargaining power, trade liberalisation, etc. He isn’t suggesting that none of those things matter, just that something else important has been neglected. And he is right that productivity growth slowed on average during the reference periods he focuses on. Between 1947 and 1978 US output per hour worked increased by 120%, but in the following 31 years output per hour increased by 80%. That is a slowdown by anybody’s standard.

    So, I’d suggest people wait until they can actually read his book before making wild claims about its contents and arguments.

  60. Labor Outsider

    And further up the thread, Tom was right that that book argues that the innovation slowdown helps to explain the increase in income inequality, so it isn’t as though Tyler is neglecting distributional changes.

  61. BilB

    Actually LO,

    I challenge

    “but makes the quite reasonable point that so far those innovations have not been as tranformational for the average person as earlier innovations”

    The internet and blogging have had a profound effect on peoples lives. Not so much their standard of living, but on their method of living. And this is a very essential adaptation of escalating populations and in the face of resource depletion. rather than blasting around in a boat car or bike chewing through fuel, more people spend time on social networks using virtually no energy or other rfesources. This is pivotal for civilisations survival in the coming Climate Changed world. Not that Broad Band was created for that purpose, it is simply a timely developemnt. As for Productivity Growth, that is a huge subject all on its own. I wonder if Coen has taken in the concept of non commercial productivity. Things that people do for their own personal satisfaction, still productive and on top of income earning activities. Intelectual creativity activities very much fit into this are, and the mass of software that extend the use of computers way beyond the primary commercial reference frame.

    It would seem to me that Cowen’s greatest achievement (having not read his work) is to promote awareness and a catalyst for creative intercourse.

  62. Catching up

    The biggest difference is the time we spend in the kitchen.

  63. wilful

    Surely the globalisation of the economy, the ability to have a call centre in Bangalore rather than Duluth Minnesota is a function of technology, one that has worked quite well to raise global living standards? Cowen’s problem is that his frame of reference is too narrow.

    And other countries (Scandinavia) have provided excellent examples of where increasing standards of living can and have been shared across society.

  64. sg

    LO, it’s possible that post-1978 slowdown represents partly the reduction of collective action in US workplaces. Keating has some very nice things to say on the importance of collective bargaining for increasing productivity, and I get the impression that the US workplace turned away from such ideas in favour of turning the screws on individuals, during the 70s.

    I think Cowen’s wrong if, as you say, he claims recent changes in the kitchen are not transformational. The microwave is an 80s innovation, and makes a huge difference, especially in terms of food preservation and cooking time. The rice cooker is a fantastic post-60s invention, with its ability to both cook rice while you’re not looking, keep it warm and prepare it in advance. That saves huge amounts of time.

    Not to mention instant noodles, a 1970s invention dependent on technology not available in the 50s. Instant coffee? Packet miso soup? Flavoured tinned tuna? I can make you a feast in 10 minutes using products that didn’t exist or were only available to the super-rich in the 1950s, using only a microwave.

    The main lesson of this is that Cowen is a shit cook.

  65. Helen

    He acnowledges the transformations in information technology over the past 25 years but makes the quite reasonable point that so far those innovations have not been as tranformational for the average person as earlier innovations.

    BilB has already made the point I was going to make – developments since the 80s in personal computing and the internet/telephony amount to a second industrial revolution IMO.

  66. Paul Burns

    hadn’t realised the dates all those things came in, microwave excepted. )I can remember that foul coffee and chicory.) You’re right. He’s a shit cook.
    (Must get a rice cooker if they’re that good.)

  67. sg

    I don’t think people realize how much technology influences the preparation and preservation of the foods we eat. It’s not just the visible machinery in the kitchen, but the diversity, range and safety of the foods we eat too. In the 1950s there was a choice of canned goods and preserves, but even those products have come on in leaps and bounds in the intervening 50 years.

    e.g. I learnt a 10 minute recipe on the tv the other day, that involves rice made in a rice cooker, a tin of mackerel cooked in miso (in the tin), a fresh lemon, pre-chopped spring onions and some sesame salad dressing. None of those things were available 50 years ago, not in winter anyway. That 10 minute recipe would take me an hour, and wouldn’t be as good.

    Preparing rice properly is a time consuming and delicate process, and the rice cooker means you have it ready, perfectly cooked, when you get up in the morning. You can have a traditional Japanese breakfast – which 50 years ago was prepared by the woman of the house an hour before everyone else got up – in about 1 minute. So you can preserve the good part of a cultural tradition (the food) and drop the crappy bit (the unpaid domestic labour).

  68. wilful

    Paul Burns, the rice cooker is the second most used electrical item in our kitchen, after the fridge. Well third I guess, the dishwasher is used more often. But anyway, it makes absorption rice easy.

    Anyway, in further rubbishing of Cowen, has he checked out a modern hospital any time recently? CT scanning came in in the 70s, but has massively improved since then. MRI scanning came in the 80s.

  69. Russell

    Everybody who comments here during work time knows why productivity has gone down! On the other hand, life is so much richer, so that’s a price worth paying.

    PB – get a rice cooker – I wouldn’t buy one for decades (knowing the inevitability of getting cancer from non-stick cooking surfaces) but one of the benefits of being old is you can just enjoy the convenience of these things without worrying too much about the distant future.

  70. Mindy

    Maybe he just has a retro kitchen?

  71. Tom Davies

    Bilb @59 — Read Chapter 3 “Does the Internet Change Everything?”

    “Much of the value of the Internet is experienced on the personal level and will never show up in the productivity numbers” “We’re getting away from materialism…”

    As they say, read the whole thing, but I think Cowen covers the points you are interested in well.

  72. Stephen L

    I haven’t read Cowen’s piece, although I have read Quiggin and Krugman on the same topic. I think it’s hard to reach a conclusion, simply because it is so hard to compare the affect on people’s lives of the Internet with the arrival of appliances.

    However, I think pieces like this have some value in challenging the breathless “technology is moving faster and faster and faster and will soon solve all all our problems” hype of the singularity crew.

  73. Megan

    Umair Haque has a slightly different take: it’s not that there isn’t a great quantity of innovation, but there is not enough ‘quality’ of innovation. In particular, he’s talking about institutional innovation.

    Hyperbolic at times but worth reading: http://blogs.hbr.org/haque/2011/02/egypts_revolution_is_coming_to.html

  74. jane

    Paul @51, I’ve still got one myself, but it’s just for nostalgia. I use an ergonomic peeler and it comes equipped with an eye gouger.

    We didn’t have an apple corer, so the vegie knife did coring duty as well.

    Yes, good old push mower-made my mother very strong, along with the wash board and copper until we got a 32 volt lighting plant, Pope wringer washing machine and electric iron. Looxury!

  75. Patrickb

    OK, I haven’t read any other comments but I did read the OP. Perhaps the problem is with the definition of innovation. Perhaps tiny enhancements can be called innovation. I mean take a look at the iPad. Not much really different there. In some ways it’s actually less useful than that great innovation the personal computer. And yet it is hailed as innovative. Indeed Apple is seen as an innovative firm. I think a lot of what passes for innovation these days can be fitted into the “rear view mirror” paradigm first postulated by that great innovator Marshall Mcluhan.

  76. Patrickb

    “The internet and blogging have had a profound effect on peoples lives”
    “The Internet” has been around since the late 60s. It’s a 40 year old idea. AS for blogging, I’d suggest that it has less effect on the lives of most people than you’d like to think. Can you present some examples of blog-led innovative leaps?

  77. James T

    “The Internet” has been around since the late 60s. It’s a 40 year old idea.

    Yes, and the breadth of its use, and purposes for which it is used, have not changed one jot since its inception.

  78. Helen

    PatrickB, son, evidently you’re too young to have been around in the 1970s office where there was a “typing pool” – documents were generated by dedicated worekrs, mostly women, whose job it was to accurately render information from (mostly male written) scrawled handwritten notes. There was always reams and reams of paper everywhere. Information was kept in paper files which took up large sections of buildings, as did the computer (singular) which filled a room. More workers (again mainly women) were employed simply entering data from written dockets, or forms, so that computer updates to customer records could take days depending on the backlog.

    When personal networked computers came into use my organisation went from roughly 130 workers to about 35. Documents are imaged and stored on line. PCs and internet are used to update customer records in real time. The paper files are gone, and with them the need for much building space. The typewriters have gone. Needless to say, this destroyed quite a few jobs for the less-skilled (mainly women) and the workforce is now composed of about half higly skilled and a bunch of call-centre workers who are moderately skilled.

    Like I said, another industrial revolution.

  79. sg

    Further to that Helen, the story of the original “calculators” – women who did the sums for maths and stats professors in the 1950s – shows a similar massive improvement in institutional performance (and loss of jobs for the women involved).

    Some of the “calculators” were intimately involved in the development of the first programming languages too. I somehow doubt that the US could have put a man on the moon if he’d had to take a roomful of those young women with him, just to solve the flight trajectory of the vessel.

  80. Robert Merkel

    SG, you may wish to read this book, where trips to the outer solar system, complete with a roomful of human “computers”, were contemplated.

    One guess what the proposed propulsion system for such a ship was 🙂

  81. sg

    wow! That’s sci-fi gone mad.

    I remember reading an excellent little feminist pamphlet (I think it was a pamphlet) about the sexist language of the original nuclear bomb designers. Their language was almost comically biblical in its misogyny, right down to their choice of code-words for a successful test: “it’s a boy” if the bomb went off, and “it’s a girl” if it didn’t. And I think one of the big wigs quoted some really disturbing biblical passages (about being like god) during the tests.

    1950s nuclear science was a disturbing world.

  82. David Irving (no relation)

    sg, I think you’re recalling Oppenheimmer’s quote from something Indian along the lines of “behold! I am become destroyer of worlds.” when they let off the first fusion bomb.

  83. sg

    yes yes, that’s right! But the pamphlet had a bunch of other examples, from the start of the Oppenheimer project onward. I think the analysis in the pamphlet was of a group of extremely arrogant young scientists engaging in an act of anti-creation, and (unconsciously) using a misogynized(?) metaphor of childbirth to reclaim the act of creation from women. Something along those lines.

    Which seems like a somewhat overblown thesis, but it’s really hard to dismiss when you read the torrent of metaphysically-oriented misogyny that these boys were spouting. They were self-consciously aware of exactly what they were making happen, and revelling in their sense of being equal to the gods. It’s a weird and spooky insight into the 1950s brave new world mindset.

  84. David Irving (no relation)

    sg, that set of attitudes has a lot to do with why so many hippies were anti-science and anti-technology.

  85. sg

    I was thinking that when I wrote that comment, David. I was also thinking of the particular suspicion that people have of nuclear power.

    Which reminds me of another great pamphlet from the Greenham Common days, titled “At least Cruise is Clean.” It was a description of the media and local response to the Greenham Common protests, and the title was a quote from someone famous (possibly Thatcher).

    There’s a lot of subtle rhetorical mischief involved in political support for the “hard” sciences.

  86. James T

    As I understand it, “I am become death, destroyer of worlds” was said with (to put it mildly) trepidation, not triumph.

  87. sg

    That wasn’t the implication of the pamphlet I read, James T, and might well be a retrospective interpretation.

  88. James T

    Well, read it however you like I suppose… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f94j9WIWPQQ

  89. Chris

    sg & David Irving – Oppenheimer didn’t actually say that during the tests. What occurred has probably just been distorted over the years to fit people’s views. He did however say a few years later that he recalled a couple of verses from the Indian holy book after seeing the first successful test. The full quote was:

    “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one… Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

    I’m not surprised at all that after seeing the first atomic explosion that he would be reminded of those passages. And to put things in perspective he used his power and position later to lobby against the nuclear arms race which resulted in him losing his security clearance.

  90. sg

    I found a summary of the language in this excellent article (pdf) by Carol Cohn.

  91. Nabakov

    “…when they let off the first fusion bomb.”

    Umm… fission rather.

    And never mind the kitchen, what about the dunny? Even a few generations ago for most people it was a cold and windy outhouse that fed into a septic tank. Now you can get wifi in your centrally heated indoor bog. I can see a future where it’s the most expensive and complex item in the house, bio-analysing your contributions to monitor your health and diet. And posting very revealing photos of you on its Facebook page.

  92. sg

    It’s interesting isn’t it? I’m not sure what you mean by “read the article against itself” but I’m always dubious about these language-interpretation pieces. However, the examples she gives and the breadth of macho language involved are pretty powerful.

    Of course, there’s no control group. Maybe this is just general engineering language. But the childbirth imagery particularly I have never heard of as particularly common in other fields of scientific endeavour, I think it might be a powerful image amongst these scientists particularly.

  93. sg

    Nabakov, the dunny is already the most complex room in many Japanese houses. Heated seats, directional bidets, auto-closing lids, built in plasma tvs, a selection of music to hide the sound of your dirtiness. The toilets in a good quality Japanese internet cafe have to be seen to be believed.

  94. Katz

    Septic tank? Looxury!

  95. Patrickb

    Er .. Helen just because these technologies (i.e personal networked computers) weren’t in use in your workplace in the 1970s doesn’t mean these technologies didn’t exist. I’m 47 this year so I wasn’t working in the 70s, not in an office anyway but I’ve been ’round long enough to form the view that, with some exceptions, innovation has slowed and now there’s a greater reliance on marketing to sell something as an innovation that’s actually not adding all that much value. And that’s not an uncommon view amongst technology workers.

    Also, for some time those bloody “scientists” have been moaning about the diminishing pool of funds for basis, non-technological research. I mean what are they expecting to find, something innovative!

  96. Patrickb

    Oh and remember “convergence”? That has been an innovation, whether it’s actually a valuable one is arguable.

  97. sg

    patrickb, by definition if personal networked computers weren’t in workplaces in the 70s then the technology didn’t exist. That’s what the technology is for.

    I don’t know what technology workers you’re talking to either. Amongst statisticians and people who work with data the advent of the modern personal computer has been a godsend. Good, reliable object oriented programming (also something that didn’t exist in the 70s), high speed processors and a decent connection…

    I can analyse 4 years of individual-level hospital attendance data for every individual in the UK in a matter of minutes using a computer that costs about $5000; 30 years ago this would have been physically impossible, and 20 years ago it would have cost huge amounts of money on a super-computer (when I started working in 1995 I recall it would cost about $5000 an hour to use one of those things and you had to book them in advance).

  98. Patrickb

    I note that Ethernet was developed between 1973 and ’75. The LISA mouse based UI system was around the same time and Smalltalk, a real OO language was developed at the concurrently. PARC was a very innovative place.

    Things take a while to get picked up but they were around. I get what you’re saying about data processing etc but it’s all a bit meh. I mean from a users perspective things are different but fundamentally the big changes stopped happening in the 80s. Actually I reckon you probably would have done it on a PC in ’95 or not long after. Wouldn’t have done under Windows though. Oh and don’t forget that a lot of the PC price factor is because of our friends in China. What computer are using that costs 5K anyway, PCs are a lot less than that?

  99. moz

    All I have to say is: lithium batteries.

    I don’t know about his kitchen but mine is full of tiny battery powered widgets. From the phones to the netbooks, none of those things was even on the shopping list in the 1960s. Ditto bedrooms and anywhere else.

    So it’s actually less about what’s in the kitchen as what is not in it. No teenager using the house phone, no recipe books (remember looking up recipes in deadwood books?), no kitchen mixer (remeber one electric motor unit that powered 200 different attachments?), no home canning or preserving kit, even trivia like the bean slicer.

    I suspect it’s easy to forget just how much things have changed from the increased power denisty of small batteries. If you want a hint, give a Walkman to a five year old.

  100. Patrickb

    Yeah, battery technology has certainly enabled a lot of stuff. Be good if it could get to the stage where electric vehicles become full replacements for fossil fueled ones.

  101. FDB

    Batteries schmatteries.

    Portability schmortability.

    Convergence schmonvergence.

    Wireless schmireless.

    Do these things improve economic productivity? In a few cases, perhaps. In many cases, the reverse.

    Quality of life might be improved, but at an economic productivity cost.

    Being kinda cool to play around with does not put a piece of tech on the same level as the internal combustion engine, or the refrigerator, or even the microwave.

  102. sg

    Patrickb, I suppose most people don’t realise just how useful some of the post-70s developments are. The machine I used for analyzing NHS data was a 4 processor, 32Gb RAM, RAID-5 desktop PC that I got in 2009, I think it was about 5k. You can’t load 4 years of NHS data into any modern stats software package if you have less than 32Gb RAM. In 1980 you would have paid the equivalent in today’s money for a couple of kb of RAM.

    Further to that, a lot of the analytical methods I use were developed in the 80s. The Generalized Linear Model, 1984 (McCullagh and Neder). GEEs came out the same year and modern longitudinal analyses are impossible without the work of Zeger et al. The Lancet Iraq studies, for example, were mathematically impossible before 1984. Most of the modern studies of school achievement and family/social/school/individual factors were computationally infeasible before the early 90s and mathematically impossible before the 1980s.

    In case anyone thinks this is not that big an achievement: the first space shuttle disaster was the result of a bad logistic regression.

  103. Patrickb

    I’ve no idea what you’re talking about re stats all I know is that we run some very high end OLTP type apps on machines with the same basic architect that von Neumman theorised. I’d say that you’re running similar systems. Thing is software packages shouldn’t really care what machine they are running on, they’ll either not run, run slowly or run as per spec. Most modern programming languages don’t really want to know about low level system operations. Sure there are threading and multiplexing libraries but ultimately it’s up to the OS/hardware to sort out how it’s all executed. And hardware is just grunt. A big 302 Windsor vs a v12 Ferrari formula 1 motor, still an internal combustion engine.

  104. Patrickb

    Agreed FDB, how are we doing on frictionalless surfaces and nifty uses for magnets? Not very well, but look over there, it’s an iPad.

  105. FDB

    Yairs, Patrick.

    “On my iPad, I can do exactly what I could do in my home or office, only on the tram!”

    “Er… why is that good for anyone but you?”

  106. sg


    not true. sadly completely wrong. The ability to do statistical analysis is dependent on the ability to construct certain matrices and to perform certain calculations across very large datasets. as the problems get more complex, the minimum size of the matrices and/or the complexity of the sums involved increases. Most modern stats packages with any oomph rely on being able to do vectorized calculations and they require that you load the entire dataset.

    This isn’t unique to stats either. That’s why super-computers were invented.

  107. BilB

    sg @103,

    Actually your comment highlights one of the most invisible yet phenomenal developments of our time, and that is computer memory. At one stage I found myself owning a CNC machine from the 70’s. This machine had a wire wrap backplane computer and 2k of ferrite ring memory, similar to the memory that went to the moon with Apollo. I tried hard to bring this machine back to life, but the capacitors were so old that some of them had flipped their polarity, so when I finally powered it up “initialising” came up on the 2 line display, and I just happened to be looking at the two memory cores when they burnt up in the most beautiful light display. Tiny tiny dots of light that seemed to be moving gracefully around. We refitted the machine with a Bosch controller and it worked fabulously after that.


    Nothing that is being talked about here works without it. And to be able to carry around 16 gigabytes of data on your keyring???? Unbelieveable.

    I read an article on the spectacular miracle of hard disk drive reading heads. The article described their performance as being comparable to a jumbo jet flying just one metre above the ground at full speed and being able to recognise every blade of grass. There is nothing in historical technology to rival that kind of achievement. But it is internal, and therefore invisible, so may as well never have happened, from the kitchen technoframe.

  108. wizofaus

    “Thing is software packages shouldn’t really care what machine they are running on, they’ll either not run, run slowly or run as per spec.”

    Even if this were true, it totally ignores the fact that unless software performs at a useful speed there’s no point having it.

    But in general to suggest that there were more fundamental developments in computer technology during, say, the 70s than during the 00s would seem to require a very peculiar and limited way of defining what a ‘fundamental development’ is.

  109. wilful

    And the argument that “of but it was really in a sense invented in the seventies, even if it wasn’t used till the nineties” is pretty bloody spurious too. Quite a lot of tech and drugs and stuff is currently under development, having only been invented in the past decade, and going to become commercially feasible this decade.

  110. GregM

    And never mind the kitchen, what about the dunny? Even a few generations ago for most people it was a cold and windy outhouse that fed into a septic tank. Now you can get wifi in your centrally heated indoor bog. I can see a future where it’s the most expensive and complex item in the house, bio-analysing your contributions to monitor your health and diet. And posting very revealing photos of you on its Facebook page.

    True, Nabs, true. But it is only when we adopt the high pressure nozzily things that Asians use to finish the job rather than inefficient toilet paper that we will have taken the quantum leap that you predict.

  111. moz

    [email protected]: I think the productivity gains from the near-ubiquity of cellphones outweigh any amount of whining from GOFs. But to many of us money is not the only measure, and I’m happy that technology has made me happier even if it hasn’t made you sufficiently rich.

  112. Katz

    Web 2.0 (wot we are are all using now) is an extraordinarily empowering innovation.

    Suddenly, access to world markets is a keystroke away, and LP is there to entertain me between moments of decision.

    Fun and profit in a tidy, user-friendly bundle.

  113. Mr Marcab

    Oooh, lookit Mr Cowan! Just another pseudo-intellectual reifying categories for quick and dirty book sales…

    “Innovation” isn’t a thing that can “stop” or “start”. It’s a dynamic sociotechnical multiplicity. Tyler, go read some SCOT theory, and its critics, in the sociology of technology before you bring this drivel…

    Treating inherently plural concepts as though they were actual individual objects in the world is a sign of too little thinking and too much swallowing of ideologies.

    Perhaps Tyler can hang out with the New Philosophers, like Levy (who writes in the Huffpost), who are past masters at this particular brand of Capitalised Big Concept stupidity.

  114. Patrickb

    “That’s why super-computers were invented”
    Yes but I thought you were using a standard PC? Most of that machine is based in 30 year old technology. You seem obsessed with the volume of data you have to load. I can’t see the problem, large amounts of data are standard these days. OK, you’ve got 32Gb of RAM, I remember when 4 was HUGE, “Man you could get the whole database into memory” we used to say. I don’t really see where I’m wrong, let alone sadly so. Are you a developer? And I saw a super computer once, a Cray in the Smithsonian. About the only place you’d find one now, sadly.

  115. Patrickb

    “performs at a useful speed”.
    Which is an entirely relative concept. A piece of software may not run at a useful speed on a large amount of data on a developer’s machine. But on test or production hardware it may run fine. I’ve just imported years of insurance data from a legacy system to the new core system. I didn’t run my ETL software on the whole dataset on my development machine. We ran it on test machines running several DBs and app servers.

    The software ran to spec. It probably wouldn’t have run to spec on my 4Gb, Win64 i5 laptop. But I didn’t really care when I developed the software (outside of professional pride I mean) as I knew we had a lot of old tech to throw at the problem.

  116. Patrickb

    Oh and best innovation of the 21st century so far? The use of passenger planes as weapons of mass destruction. No one saw that coming (OK there was some preliminary work done in WW2).

  117. HWH

    The biggest difference between my grandparents’ kitchens and my own isn’t the appliances in them. It’s the fact it sits unused on a regular basis, because I can afford to pay other people to use their kitchens to prepare food for me on a far more regular basis than they could

    Is this a step forward or back? Don’t you want to be in charge of what goes into your most important asset, your body? Is eating out because you are too tired or busy to cook or cannot be bothered to cook a bit like lining up at a soup kitchen?

    For me what you describe is a step backwards.
    Cheers H