Book shows rosy future due to, or in spite of, IT

Vice President Al Gore’s campaign will be highly attuned to nurturing
growth of the so-called new economy. Sustenance of this new economy, Gore assumes, will be
based on certain hopeful trends.

A cornerstone of new-economy thinking is that the computing and communications
industries—where technology is rapidly converging—will continue to be one of the
main thrusters pushing an unprecedented and long-term economic boom. If the economy
remains sound, it will be an uphill struggle for any Democratic challenger to Gore’s
presidential bid and the veep’s eventual Republican opponent.

Nevertheless, Gore is not alone in his belief in the new economy.

Two savvy Wall Street Journal reporters, Bob Davis and David Wessel, have staked their
reputations on it in the title of their new book, Prosperity: The Coming Twenty-Year Boom
& What It Means To You. Such a title is really sticking your neck out, because a
20-year prosperity boom coming after the uptick of the ’90s assumes that the current
positive trends will continue longer than any previous growth period.

The 1973-1992 period was not a great one for working people in this country. Davis and
Wessel acknowledge that since 1973, which they rightly described as the end of the Golden
Age for the American middle class, their optimism is not, on its face, justified by paltry
numbers such as a 1.5 percent annual growth in gross domestic product, compared with 3
percent annually for the period between 1950 and 1973.

As the book points out, if economic trends during the 1988-1991 period had continued to
prevail, it would have taken a century to double living standards.

But the authors claim computing technology, education and globalization will make the
next 20 years better for the American middle class.

They write that the prosperity will be widely shared. If true, it has important
implications for federal service. Under such prosperity, federal tax revenues would grow
and perhaps ease some of the relentless budget pressures on agency operations.

When people are less anxious, they are less apt to be dissatisfied with government.
Goodwill toward career civil servants and the work they do has been on the wane for a
while now.

We all want to believe these visions of the future are correct, but can we?

The book depicts information technology as a critical engine of productivity and
growth. Their description begins by pointing out that productivity payoffs from computing
have been elusive. But hold on, they entreat us.

“For technologies as fundamental as electricity, telephones and microcomputing,
there’s a torturous process of hype, disappointment and finally progress,” Davis
and Wessell write. They believe we are at the “finally progress” stage.

The authors believe the lessons of the computer age. In one chapter, they describe
making computer technology so simple that even less-skilled workers can use it. This, they
say, is one test for computing success.

They relate the case study of an Army tank project, in which high school graduates can
now operate complex laser range finders to lay shells on moving targets. The enabler? A
user-friendly software interface.

Imagine what that kind of IT success, turned toward average citizens, could do to
create support for federal initiatives such as IRS reform, especially if the agency
enlists private-sector help.

The IT industry may be the critical engine in this growth, as the steam engine, the
factory and other combinations of technological innovation and work organization have been
in the past.

In William Gibson’s 1993 novel, Virtual Light, discussed briefly in the
Davis-Wessell book, the author expressed a dark vision in which the computing revolution
does away with the middle class. Gibson is convinced the middle class will vanish early in
the 21st century, leaving a rich and powerful techno-elite served and protected by drones
who comprise the rest of society. Not exactly a Jeffersonian vision.

Real help for the middle class can only occur through economic growth. Davis and
Wessell recognize, for example, that affordable community colleges have a great deal to
offer in making the new prosperity. They see the colleges as puzzle pieces that policy
makers, such as the vice president or his Republican counterpart, will have to manipulate
to assemble a future worthy of the country’s promise.

In Brazil there is a saying, “Our country grows at night while the politicians
sleep.” We can only hope for a better and less cynical system here.  

Stephen M. Ryan is a partner in the Washington law firm of Brand, Lowell &
Ryan. He has long experience in federal information technology issues. E-mail him at

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