Peter Thiel cites the fact that the Empire State Building was built in 15 months as a sign that maybe our society has stagnated. Can we build things any more? Why not?
I’ve wondered if part of the answer was the political power of Al Smith, who was appointed head of Empire State Inc, and various other elements of the former Tammany/Democratic machine that controlled New York City at the time. An argument for the efficiency of political machines?
But what if the answer was: fairness?
The Empire State Building was constructed in just 13* months, and that included the dismantling of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel that sat on the site. Paul Starrett, the builder, treated his workers rather well by the standards of the time, paying much attention to safety and paying employees on days when it was too windy to work. Daily wages were more than double the usual rate and hot meals were provided on site.
The concept is known as “efficiency wages”. Companies that compensate workers well and treat them fairly can attract better, more motivated staff. Unlike most construction projects, the Empire State Building had low staff turnover, and workers suggested productivity improvements such as building a miniature railway line to bring bricks to the site.
That’s Bartleby in the Dec 12, 2020 Economist, reviewing a book called The Art of Fairness, by David Bodanis. Starrett was not “naively generous,” the article also notes. He checked worker attendance four times a day.
I’d kind of resolved to stop reading these books that are just collections of neat anecdotes under some big umbrella, but maybe I’ll make an exception here. Another example cited: Danny Boyle used thousands of volunteers for the 2012 London Olympic Ceremonies, but he also had to keep details of the show secret:
The conventional approach would have been to make the volunteers sign a non-disclosure agreement. Instead, he asked them to keep the surprise – and trusted them to do so. They did, thanks to the grown up way he treated them.
Also in this week’s Economist, Buttonwood reports on a study in India:
The study’s main finding is that retail investors who were randomly allocated shares in successful IPOS view their good fortune as evidence of skill.
* note the revision to Thiel’s figure
This post is in response to my East Coast buddy Monkeytrial, who says:
We haven’t been to the moon in 42 years, and the richest 1 percent of humans own half the world’s assets.
I’d like to read a discussion of the psychological implications of growing up in a time of dramatic technological progress (my parents’ generation) versus consumer-focused incrementalism (my own). If any of my zero readers know and could link, much appreciated.
Hmm! Let’s think about the idea that technological progress has slowed from a rapid rate 1940-1970 to a stagnation now.
Is this true?
What does it mean?
I don’t have exactly what Monkeytrial is looking for. But through the glory of the Internet, we can converse via blog.
Some uncooked ideas inspired by him. First, a rec:
Check out Peter Thiel.
If not exactly this, he is obsessed with similar problems. He talks about ’em in his book which I recommend, thought-provoking to the max. Dude is thinking interesting thoughts at a rapid rate:
Even more on Monkeytrial’s theme is this essay, from National Review (I know, I know):
When tracked against the admittedly lofty hopes of the 1950s and 1960s, technological progress has fallen short in many domains. Consider the most literal instance of non-acceleration: We are no longer moving faster. The centuries-long acceleration of travel speeds — from ever-faster sailing ships in the 16th through 18th centuries, to the advent of ever-faster railroads in the 19th century, and ever-faster cars and airplanes in the 20th century — reversed with the decommissioning of the Concorde in 2003, to say nothing of the nightmarish delays caused by strikingly low-tech post-9/11 airport-security systems. Today’s advocates of space jets, lunar vacations, and the manned exploration of the solar system appear to hail from another planet. A faded 1964 Popular Science cover story — “Who’ll Fly You at 2,000 m.p.h.?” — barely recalls the dreams of a bygone age.
Another roundup of Thiel pessimism. This one seems to really nag at him:
The Empire State Building was built in 15 months in 1932. It’s taken 12 years and counting to rebuild the World Trade Center.
(Well, was that an engineering problem, or a political one? I don’t know a ton about New York City politics in the ’30s, but from what I understand, between former governor Al Smith as president of Empire State Inc., FDR as governor, Jimmy Walker as mayor, and James Farley supplying the building materials there was more or less a semi-benevolent mafia running the city.)
Maybe: we work in levels, like an orbiting electron?
Like, maybe we humans make big jumps, and then plateau for awhile? Nothing happened in Europe between 5oo and 1300 AD (let’s say) and then there was the Renaissance. Maybe what DFW’s characters speculate about tennis applies?:
“‘He’s talking about developing the concept of tennis mastery,’ Chu tells the other three. They’re on the floor indian-style, Wayne standing with his back against the door, rotating his head to stretch the neck. ‘His point is that progress towards genuine Show-caliber mastery is slow, frustrating. Humbling. A question of less talent than temperament.’
‘Is this right Mr. Wayne?’
Chu says ‘…that because you proceed toward mastery through a series of plateaus, so there’s like radical improvement up to a certain plateau and then what looks like a stall, on the plateau, with the only way to get off one of the plateaus and climb up to the next one up ahead is with a whole lot of frustrating mindless repetitive practice and patience and hanging in there.’
‘Plateaux,’ Wayne says, looking at the celing and pushing the back of his head isometrically against the door. ‘With an X. Plateaux.’
Maybe: we got scared by the speed of what we were doing.
This caused us to pull back on investment/energy in areas like nuclear engineering where there may have been big if scary advances to make?
Maybe: we were really just plucking low hanging fruit.
The Tyler Cowen theory, that there was a lot of low-hanging economic fruit, esp. in the resource rich United States, and we ate it all up and now it’s gone.
Maybe: globalization happened in one big boom.
Like, it was a closer to a one-time event than an enduring process, and it already happened, between say 1960 and 1989, as China opened, containerization blasted international shipping forward. The revolution is over, we already got the major results in the form of Wal-Mart and so on, now it’s just a matter of economic water shifting across the world until all the glasses (countries) are level, and that’s gonna look like reverse progress from here in the US.
Maybe: it only looks bad here in the US.
Sure, it seems like technological progress has stalled out since 1970~ here in the US, but it sure as hell doesn’t look like that in China, India, dunno parts of Africa, where changes from 1970-now are as rapid as 1945-1970 in the US?
Maybe: tech “progress” isn’t necessarily good.
Maybe the jarring nature of it, the disorienting and alienating effects, level out the material gains? Maybe we’re feeling some kind of technological hangover and we’re all kinda cooling it?
What about social/cultural progress?
Food. I’m eating better every year. The food a person in Los Angeles or New York can access is insanely better than it was in 1970 in terms of variety and quality. Here’s literally the first pic I found when I googled “Food 1970:”
Sex. Sexual freedom is insane now.
Art. There’s pretty much no limit on what you can do artwise in the Western World – a guy inflated a buttplug in the middle of Paris and the President of France stuck up for him.
Drugs, alternative lifestyles, dressing weird – it’s becoming pretty much a field day. Whether that’s “good” or “bad” is another puzzle but we are “progressing” very rapidly in a direction.
In less ambiguous ways, there’s been massive social progress. We’re getting more inclusive. Here’s a clearly stated example Aisha happened to put on This. today: Shonda Rhimes putting racial/gender/representational progress in sharp terms she receives the Sherry Lansing Award:
Look around this room. It’s filled with women of all colors in Hollywood who are executives and heads of studios and VPs and show creators and directors. There are a lot of women in Hollywood in this room who have the game-changing ability to say yes or no to something.
15 years ago, that would not have been as true. There’d have been maybe a few women in Hollywood who could say yes or no. And a lot of D girls and assistants who were gritting their teeth and working really hard. And for someone like me, if I was very very VERY lucky, there’d have been maybe one small show. One small shot. And that shot would not have involved a leading actress of color, any three dimensional LGBT characters, any women characters with high powered jobs AND families, and no more than two characters of color in any scene at one time — because that only happened in sitcoms.
30 years ago, I’d think maybe there’d be a thousand secretaries fending off their handsy bosses back at the office and about two women in Hollywood in this room. And if I were here, I would serving those two women breakfast.
What if: technological progress – the speed of it, especially – itself aggravated the wealth inequality.
Twitter was created eight years ago. It’s now worth roughly $24 billion. Have people ever, in the history of the world, gotten that rich that fast?
Also: the last period of insane technological progress culminated in a horrifying cataclysm.
World War I, where all those terrific machines were turned to gassing and machine-gunning each other. Then, when they were done with that, they ramped up to the next one: twice as cataclysmic (but on the other hand, very fertile for creating more technological progress).
So, maybe we should just count our stars we’re lucky we dodged that and closed out a tech boom peacefully.
And: Why should we expect things to be linear?
Maybe this Thiel idea that technological progress has “stalled” is like the weird thinking of an Asberger’s robot, human history is chaotic and works in undiagnosable, epileptic fits and starts that can’t be rationally charted.
Did the rapidity of change make us (sanely enough) feel more unsettled about predicting the future?
Maybe that itself acted as some kind of check on technological progress? The optimism of a 1960s Popular Mechanics cover
feels dated today.
Anyway, I guess my point is: check out Monkeytrial.