Needed: The Fourth Big Invention

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

Ezra Klein:

Perhaps it’s the mark of a good book that after you read it, you begin seeing evidence for its thesis in lots of different areas. Since reading Tyler Cowen’s “The Great Stagnation,” I’ve been seeing a lot of support for a claim that I’d initially resisted: the idea that the technological advances of the 19th and early 20th centuries were far more important to both the economy and quality of life than what’s come since.

I myself never found this thesis hard to accept in the first place, but I’d toss in an additional aspect to ponder. Roughly speaking, I’d say there have only been three big GDP-busting inventions over the past few centuries: the steam engine, electrification, and the digital computer. There have been plenty of related spinoffs (internal combustion engines, the internet) and plenty of important but smaller inventions (penicillin, radio). But the big three are the big three.

So in some sense, the problem here is with our expectations. World-changing inventions just don’t come around all that often, and when they do it takes a long and variable time for them to become integrated enough and advanced enough to have an explosive economic effect. Steam took the better part of a century, electrification took about half that, and computers — well, we don’t really know yet. So far it’s been about 60 years and obviously computers have had a huge impact on the world. But I suspect that even if you put the potential of AI to one side, we’re barely halfway into the computer revolution yet. To a surprisingly large extent, we’re still using computers to automate stuff we’ve always done instead of actually building the world around what computers can do.

In any case, regardless of how computerization unfolds in the future, it’s hardly surprising that we haven’t yet had a fourth great invention. They only come around once a century or so, after all. Give it time.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend