From what I can gather from several recent articles, many serious pundits have arguments with the views of ‘techno-optimists.’ A techno-optimist appears to be somebody who has blind faith in the power of technology to cure all ills, and particularly, to create economic growth. (See e.g., here, here, here, here, or here, and there are many more…)
I understand skepticism with an optimist, and asking someone naïve to ‘show me the money.’ As a rule of thumb, it is a good idea to be skeptical of bloggers and futurists who lack hard economic statistics.
That said, skepticism is an attitude, not a conclusion. Go ahead and ask for hard data, but do not close an open question. Sometimes innovative IT has had spectacular impact on the economy and sometimes it has not. It takes work to recognize the difference. Indeed, there is a set of norms and a range of standard tools for settling these questions – such as quality-adjusted price indices, revenue adjusted for inflation, and a range of economic accounting techniques.
This column (shamelessly) aims to educate journalists about some of the big open questions in research that studies productivity growth from innovative IT. While I am at it, I hope the topic informs graduate students about great topics for a thesis. Be forewarned, however. It is a little shocking how much (or how little) we really know about recent experience. Many of these questions are wickedly difficult.
The only thing I can promise with certainty is the absence of an easy answer.
1. Online pictures and videos are everywhere except in the productivity statistics. Tim Berners Lee invented the web to share graphs and pictures and other media, and nobody paid anything for licenses for the software. It spread everywhere, so we got a combination of low cost and wide use. Seems good for economic growth, right? To be sure, a space alien might see the web for the first time and might conclude that the web was invented primarily to share baby pictures and cat videos, and to illustrate men and women in, um, acts of procreation. Reflect for a thoughtful moment and really look beyond the superficial. There are millions of web pages. An enormous ecosystem of browsers and server software and networking infrastructure supports its use, and some of these actors – mainly Internet Service Providers – make some revenue, well north of fifty billion in wireline access. Online advertising is a little less. Is that it? How about online sales, which is less than eight percent of US sales revenues, but does not make large profits? What boost did the US get – a one-time surge in growth or a steady set of gains until now?
2. How much productivity does email produce? Email has a different history than the web, but its rise motivates almost the same types of questions. Nobody ever paid a licensing fee to make use of this invention. Last year over 200 billion emails were sent per day. To be sure, 75% of those emails are spam, but that still leaves a lot of quality communication. Where do we see those gains? Gmail and HoTMaiL, the two largest providers of email, charge nothing. Microsoft’s Outlook makes revenue, but that is not the contribution of email to GDP. Surely not. So how much does it contribute? When did email lead to growth – twenty years ago, when email largely displaced postal mail of letters? How about recently?
3. What were the gains from reduction in search costs? Who among you uses portals, search engines, recommendation sites, and online maps? OK, everyone can put down the hands. Remember how your parents used to fumble through the Yellow Pages? Remember how a cross-city trip involved laying out a great big paper map on the kitchen table? Remember when a cousin’s recommendation determined which restaurant in a new neighborhood you visited? Difficult as it might be for teenagers today to comprehend, everyone did manage in those dark ages. Still, today is much better. How much did the reduction in search costs bring to GDP, if anything, and when? Advertising supports some of this activity, which surely is only one aspect of a broad economic gain. Well, how do you measure those gains?
4. What were the gains from making the long tail available? Ebay, Amazon, Craigslist, and a gazillion sites made the long tail available – of books, music, clothing, memorabilia, and millions of other products. What an enormous variety lies at everyone’s finger tips. What does the long tail contribute to economic growth? There have been some estimates in specific product categories, such as books and shoes, but none across the entire economy. Were most of those gains realized in late 1990s? Do those gains today simply grow along with Amazon’s growth? Are most of the gains not realized as revenue, and, therefore, not measured?
5. Up to date online news is addictive. Is it productive too? The creation of online media ushered in an era for news-junkies. Again, hard for a child to comprehend how anybody checked the sports scores or learned timely financial news (without access to expensive Bloomberg terminals), but we did manage before. More deeply, what is the contribution of more timely information to economic productivity? Seems like many gains are not measured. If they are, where do those gains show up in national statistics? In which industries?
6. Did the rise of remote work change productivity? The cell phone and smart phone made work more mobile. The deployment of cloud is pushing in the same direction. There have been a few studies of a consumer’s willingness to pay for mobility, but very little about its effect on work. How did the economy gain from the introduction of mobility into work life? Just like the other questions: Some of the gains might show up in productivity statistics, or in prices, or in the hours worked, or in labor participation rates. Or not. How do we know?
7. How much did Wikipedia benefit the economy? Founded in 2001, Wikipedia is the third largest repository of human knowledge in the world today, exceeded only by the British Library and the Library of Congress. It is a top twenty site in every developed country. Traditional GDP measurement would value the advertising, but Wikipedia does not have any. Is Wikipedia’s value the displaced revenue at Encarta, Britannica, World Book and Colliers? Or is Wikipedia’s worth the value of the time put in by all its volunteers? Or is it the value to users, and the time savings it affords? What concept of value is appropriate, how would you implement it and measure its growth?
8. Enterprises do not own all their IT. Does that mean they are more productive? We are well past the days when an organization owned all its IT. Today we live in the era of cloud, networked services, rented manufacturing facilities, and marketing with social graphs. We are far past the era when a firm bought inputs and produced outputs in a manufacturing process and its productivity could be measured inside the manufacturing plant. In the extreme examples today firms such as Uber and Lyft own very few cars and employ very few people, and, yet, the firms are worth tens of billions. Has more value been created for GDP, if any, by these new organizational forms, that leverage external resources? How would you know?
9. How big were the gains from serving low density areas? Improvements in Internet access led to gains in GDP in places that had limited access to retail outlets. Traditional price indices have an urban bias, because the information is easier to collect in urban stores. Rural America comprises the experience of 15% of the US population (45m people), and a much higher percentage (and number of people) in the developing world. Again, how big were the unmeasured gains? Were most of the gains realized in 1995, or has there been steady progress since as the Internet has gotten faster?
10. What is the value of the creative commons license? A little less than twenty years ago some legal scholars invented the licenses known as the creative commons license. It is designed to permit sharing of copyrighted material in much the same way that open source has licenses for sharing code. Millions of web sites operate with this clever legal adaptation, it is integral to some popular sites with user-provided content, such as YouTube. What is the value of this invention? Do the price indices properly capture the extraordinary decline in the cost of sharing photography and video recordings? If not, how would you make a more accurate index?
These questions presume that many economic gains from the deployment of the commercial Internet went largely unmeasured. Blame flaws in traditional price indices, inadequate definitions of revenue, and flawed productivity attribution exercises.
These questions also tend to imply that the processes that created growth in the recent past will continue to create growth in the future. That motivates the research question. While it is good to fix recent growth statistics, it is even better to measure the gains in the near future.
If these two features make me an optimist, then call me that.
More to the point, if you’re an economic researcher and you do not like this list of ten questions, then make your own. Let’s focus on one of the biggest unaddressed economic topics of our time.