I don’t know if I fully realized this when I came here, but it turns out that most of my studies on economics and development are actually about technology. It makes sense when you think about access to technology being the driver of rising living standards around the world, but sometimes technology that has the potential to be hugely beneficial doesn’t become widespread.
If I asked you why we haven’t switched to renewable energy instead of carbon based technologies, you would probably respond that the technology isn’t there yet, or that it’s too expensive. Yet studies have shown that renewables are a cost effective efficient alternative in many instances. If that is the case then why do we still use carbon based technology?
We say, ‘Necessity is the mother of all invention’, and generally think about successful technologies being the ones that fulfill a need the most effectively. If the way we pick technologies as meritocratic, then the best ones will become widely adopted. But it is worth examining whether our culture (values and needs) influences the technology that gets adopted, or whether technology influences culture.
The keys I am typing on provide a good example. The QWERTY keyboard was originally designed to slow down typing, by putting letters next to each other that are not commonly used together. This was because the earliest typewriters would get jammed if you typed too fast. Obviously this is no longer a problem, but our habits have caused this technology to become ‘locked-in’, and efforts to change to a more efficient system flounder as a result (the attempts to switch the US to the metric system are another example). The idea that certain technological systems get locked into place by historical flukes or accidents is called ‘path-dependency’.
Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, the inventors of alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC) electricity, respectively, had a famous feud over who’s system would be used to bring electricity to the masses. This feud played out against the backdrop of the beginnings of mass production (Fordism) and urbanization in the early 1900s. Tesla’s system, which alllowed electricity to be centrally produced and then transmitted over great distance, won out, largely as a result of this backdrop. DC would have resulted in a large decentralization of energy production, avoiding the problems of utility monopolies, and potentially resulting in a grid system that would have been much more suitable to the adoption of new renewable technologies.
The centralization of electricity and oil production means it is out of sight and out of mind for most consumers. All most of us in the developed world know about energy is that it is relatively cheap and abundant. This has a huge impact on the way we design our houses, offices, consumer appliances, commuting patterns, and even courtship rituals (think about drive-in movies). These preferences affect the way we design roads, the things that mechanics know how to work on, and the concerns that government regulates. In fact, fossil fuels are mostly cheap because they are heavily subsidized by the government by R+D, limited liability, and externalization of pollution costs (so much for not picking winners and losers – in fact conventional fuels, including nuclear, get 90% of energy subsidies, and many economists say that without those subsidies renewables would already be much more profitable).
Furthermore, the invisibility of our electricity generation is relevant. Power lines are almost like trees in our psyche, we barely notice them. We tend to oppose the industry when it becomes visible again, leading to the nimby-ism plaguing Massachusetts wind farm projects.
The way that energy production technology completely permeates our life doesn’t just cause problems, it creates the way we see problems. In another example, it’s possible that the welfare state is simply a by-product of mass production technology. This technological system requires people who can afford its goods, and also relies on cheap labor mobility via unemployment. Hence, the New Deal.
Changes in technology are mostly incremental in that they involve slight tweaks or improvements to existing designs rather than radical re-inventions. This is why manufacturers of electric cars try to make them look, act, and sound exactly like gas powered cars rather than re-inventing the concept of transportation.
When a radical innovation (like the internet for example) is introduced, there is typically a period of chaotic competition, with many differing visions competing for market share. Over time, however, certain conventions win out (the mouse, keyboard, windows and mac operating systems). The conventions that win out influence what can later be easily introduced. Even if an innovation has relative advantages, it may not be adopted if it doesn’t fit well with current behavioral customs, regulatory frameworks, or knowledge bases. Renewable energy can’t be widely adopted, even if it is more efficient, unless we also remove government subsidies for fossil fuels, reinvent transportation networks, change behavioral patterns, and decentralize utility production.
The good news is that since the same infrastructure and institutions are not yet in place in many developing countries, they might have a chance to start from scratch and bypass carbon intensive development, similarly to how many developing nations adopted mobile phones without using landlines as an intermediary. India is electrifying much of Ladakh using small scale hydro projects. The bad news (for Americans anyway) is that we will probably get left behind. China already gets 15% of its energy from renewables. The US? 3%