Friday, March 18, 2016

GDP, technology and more efficient hedonism

Over the last century, having more stuff generally meant having a better quality of life. As a result, GDP very closely tracked overall societal improvement. The big advances in the tech world are now breaking this connection.

Last century, if you wanted to be able to listen to more types of music, you had to buy more albums. If you wanted to read multiple news sources every morning, you had to pay for them to be physically delivered to you. If you wanted the frequent use of a car, you needed to buy one.

Technology has been changing that. I now read numerous news sources for free without the waste/economic production of making millions of physical copies and having people deliver them. One monthly subscription gets me all the music I want. While I'm paying for that subscription and the internet connection, the net result is I'm spending less for more for music than I would have in the 1990s. Once virtual reality takes off this dynamic will only grow.

Yet the most interesting tech developments aren't just about distributing digital content but using technology to make better use of our toys and resources that sit idle most of the time. 90 percent of the time, a personal car is just parked. Uber is trying to change that. Similarly, Airbnb is making it easier for people's vacation homes to get more use. Even something as simple as deal sites are using targeted discounts to make better use of services and entertainment options that were previously underused during non-peak times. As a society we could potentially get 3-4 times as much enjoyment out of the same number of boats, cars, bikes, RVs, tennis courts, and vacation homes as we currently do if technology improves how we share them.

We may have already reached the point of peak stuff. There are only so many hours in the day. and most of my favorite sources of entertainment (reading, music, TV, games, etc...) have for the most part gotten better and cheaper.

As a society we may need to be prepared for the fact that most of the big societal changes we'll see from advances in technology won't be about making us more productive but more efficient with our leisure. It could take new metrics and economic thinking to measure that.

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