I recently had dinner with a friend—a prominent IP lawyer—at his mansion in Switzerland, one of the few spots directly on Lake Zurich. As is customary with people who have mansions, he gave me the complete tour, not leaving out the sauna (how many different ways are there to decorate a sauna?). The mansion was a fireworks display of technological progress. My friend could regulate every aspect of every room by touching his iPad. "Material progress", he said during his show, "will soon come to every home." Stories of high-tech, high-touch houses have been around for decades, but it was still neat to see that it finally exists. Clearly sensing my lack of amazement he guided me to his "picture-room." Photographs on display showed him with his family, on sail boats, on ski slopes, golf courses, tennis courts and on horseback. One photo he seemed especially proud of showed him with the Pope. "A private audience", he said.
So what do we learn from this that we didn't learn from The Great Gatsby?
Material progress has and will continue to spread. Knowledge is cumulative. At times in our past, knowledge has diminished. The classic case is Tasmania or—on a grander scheme—the Middle Ages. But since Gutenberg, it is difficult to imagine that humanity will ever again shed information. Through the accumulation of knowledge and global trade, the goods and services that my lawyer-friend enjoys today soon will be available to the poorest farmer in Zimbabwe. But no matter how much knowledge we accumulate, no matter how cheap computation, communication and information storage become, no matter how seamless trade flows, that farmer will never get any closer to a date with the Pope.
See the Pope allegorically as all the goods and services that are immune to technological creation and reproduction. You can vacation on only one St. Barts island. Rauschenberg created just a few originals. Only so many mansions dot the lakeshore in Zurich. Bringing technology to bear won't help create any more. A date with a virtual Pope will never do the trick.
As mammals, we are status seekers. Non-status seeking animals don't attract suitable mating partners and eventually exit the gene pool. Thus goods that convey high status remain extremely important, yet out of reach for most of us. Nothing technology brings about will change that. Yes, one day we might re-engineer our cognition to reduce or eliminate status competition. But until that point, most people will have to live with the frustrations of technology's broken promise. That is, goods and services will be available to everybody at virtually no cost. But at the same time, status-conveying goods will inch even further out of reach. That's a paradox of material progress.
Yes, luxury used to define things that made life easier: clean water, central heating, fridges, cars, TVs, smart phones. Today, luxury tends to make your life harder. Displaying and safeguarding a Rauschenberg, learning to play polo and maintaining an adequate stable of horses, or obtaining access to visit the Pope are arduous undertakings. That doesn't matter. Their very unattainability, the fact that these things are almost impossible to multiply, is what matters.
As global wealth increases, non-reproducible goods will appreciate exponentially. Too much status-seeking wealth and talent is eyeing too few status-delivering goods. The price of non-reproducible goods is even more dependent on the inequality of wealth than on the absolute level of wealth in a society—further contributing to this queeze.
The promise of technological progress can, by definition, not be kept. I think we should worry about the consequences, including a conceivable backslash to the current economic ecosystem of technology, capitalism and free trade.