- Dr. Timothy X. Merritt
From Crisis to Innovation: How the Greater Depression will Shape the Development of Technology
Abstract: Explores how the Greater Depression, a hypothetical future economic crisis, could shape future technology development. It discusses the potential for positive and negative technology shocks and examines the role of airships in this future scenario. The article also considers the potential impact of transportation, government investment, and global trade on technology that will emerge during the Greater Depression, ultimately framing it as an age of reckoning for the tech industry. In this second step of a STEEPLE analysis, the impacts of previous economic depressions are used as a guide to question what a Second Great Depression might look like for the modern world.
Background (STEEPLE Analysis) for Directed Fiction
This article is the second of a seven-part STEEPLE Analysis designed to examine the future impacts of a fictional Greater Depression. The specific Framing question for this exercise is:
How might Global Multimodal Logistics (GML’s) decision to purchase six hybrid airships be affected by a global-scale Greater Depression occurring in the decade of the 2020s?
From this perspective, it becomes possible to examine trends from the seven categories defined by the STEEPLE analysis. The second category is Technological. This article seeks to offer a plausible answer to the following two questions:
How would technology developed during the Greater Depression impact GML?
GML’s fundamental problem is that they have invested heavily (some say foolishly) in new technology in the form of six hybrid airships. Against the backdrop of a crumbling global economy, the loan payments on the $240 million bet they have placed threaten to bankrupt the organization.
The Lockheed-Martin hybrid airships have a twenty-ton cargo capacity and a maximum range of about 1,600 miles before they need to refuel. They also have the ability to land on any unimproved surface, including grass fields, snow, and even water. Unlike other forms of transportation, hybrid airships do not require infrastructure such as roads, rail, or ports.
Global trade is severely depressed, threatening all of GML's other aircraft, trucking, and shipping operations. Can Ranell and his team find a way to make the hybrid airships’ unique capabilities profitable?
The Greater Depression and Technology
A historical view of previous economic depressions shows that significant technological advances should be expected. The ravages wrought on society may also be a significant driver of technological progress. While countless businesses failed, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller stand as examples of what can be expected in the Greater Depression.
Despite the enormous damage done to society during the Great Depression of the 1930s, there nevertheless continued to be great strides made in the field of technology. “The sponsorship by institutions, such as the Rockefeller Institute, which were unaffected by market conditions, made possible so many technological advances that the 1930s became known as the machine age" (U*X*L, 2020). Numerous synthetic materials emerged at this time, along with a dramatic increase in the industrial application of various forms of plastic. Breakthroughs were also achieved in the understanding of atomic energy, which hinted at the possibility and prospect of vast new energy sources.
Somewhat counterintuitively, the despair and desperation of the Great Depression drove the advancement of technology to the point where the term "Technocrat" was coined to describe those who believed technology itself could pull society out of its economic malaise. “Technocrats could be found everywhere, from church pulpits to universities and the press. The idea of machines taking over for humans in routine jobs was highly attractive” (U*X*L, 2020).
Significant technological advances were not unique to the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Long Depression of 1873 – 1879 saw a similar dynamic emerge. David Ames Wells (1890) wrote about the expansion of steam shipping, the tremendous growth of railroads, and the development of telegraph networks that occurred despite the economic hardships ravaging the world during this period.
Many historians argue that the technological advanced made during the Long Depression set the stage for the Second Industrial Revolution and the Gilded Age that followed. It was a period where those few individuals who could weather the economic chaos and take advantage of new technologies stood to amass vast fortunes. "Businesses competed intensely with each other, and corporations battled to gain control of industries. Countless companies failed, and others were bought by larger corporations which eventually ruled the marketplace" (Engleman, 2022). Both Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller are products of this era, and they stand as examples of what can be expected in the Second Great Depression.
Technology Shocks: Positive and Negative
Human civilization is now processing exponentially more information than at any other time in history. This full-throttle embrace of the Information Age generates new technologies faster than anyone can list. Examples include quantum computing, hyper-personalized medicine, digital currency, artificial intelligence, satellite constellations, aviation and electronics breakthroughs, bioengineering, nano-molecular chemistry, and high energy physics, to name a few. It would be an effort in futility to attempt to predict which technology would impact the future. Extrapolating from historical trends, what we can say with certainty is that during the Greater Depression, there will be technology shocks – both positive and negative.
Positive Technology Shocks
One of the most significant positive economic shocks of the Great Depression was the increased demand for technological innovation. As businesses struggled to survive in the face of economic turmoil, many turned to technology to improve efficiency and reduce costs. This led to a surge in technological innovation as companies developed new products and processes to stay competitive. This demand for innovation sparked a wave of technological progress that would continue long after the Depression had ended.
The Great Depression also saw the emergence of new forms of technology that are ubiquitous today. Nylon, a synthetic fiber developed by DuPont in the 1930s, was a cheaper and more durable alternative to natural fibers. It quickly gained popularity in a wide range of industries, from clothing to automobile tires.
The Great Depression also sparked the development of new forms of transportation. As the economy struggled, some companies responded by investing in new forms of transportation, such as automobiles and commercial air travel. This led to the rapid expansion of the automobile industry and the development of new technologies, such as the jet engine, which revolutionized air travel.
Communication technologies also advanced as businesses struggled to survive. They turned to technology as a means to stay connected and communicate with customers and clients. This led to the development of new forms of communication, such as radio and television, which helped to keep people connected and informed during a time of economic uncertainty.
The Great Depression also saw the emergence of new forms of entertainment and leisure, such as movies and sports. These industries provided a much-needed source of escapism and entertainment during a time of economic hardship, and they played a critical role in helping people to cope with economic stresses. The growth of these industries also led to the development of new technologies, such as sound recording and broadcasting, which would shape the future of entertainment.
The development of these technologies was a direct result of the economic crisis of the Great Depression, and they played a critical role in shaping the future of technology. Dr. Ranell may suspect that the Greater Depression will similarly drive technological development. He considers these five emerging technological trends as are likely to have a significant impact on the global economy and society during the economic turmoil in the coming years:
Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning: AI and machine learning are technologies that allow machines to learn and make decisions without explicit human input. These technologies are being used in various applications, including healthcare, finance, and transportation, and they are expected to impact the global economy significantly.
Internet of Things (IoT): The IoT refers to the network of connected devices that can collect and share data. This technology improves efficiency, reduces costs, and improves decision-making in various industries, including manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation.
Blockchain: Blockchain is a distributed ledger technology that allows for secure and transparent record-keeping. This technology is being used in various applications, including financial transactions, supply chain management, and voting systems, and it has the potential to revolutionize many industries.
Renewable energy: As concerns about climate change grow, there is increasing demand for renewable energy technologies, such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric power. These technologies are expected to play a significant role in the global energy mix and contribute to economic growth.
Advanced manufacturing: Advanced manufacturing technologies, such as 3D printing and robotics, are being used to improve efficiency and reduce costs in the manufacturing industry. These technologies are expected to significantly impact the global economy and shape the future of manufacturing.
These emerging technological trends will likely significantly impact the global economy and society in the coming years. “Technology shocks and declining productivity have been advanced as important factors driving the Great Depression in the United States, based on real business cycle theory.” (Inklarr, De Jong, & Gouma, 2011). As the economy continues to deteriorate during the Greater Depression, it will drive the development of new technologies and shape the future of technology.
There is a warning from history here. “The machine age of the 1930s offered Americans huge technological gains, but it also forced Americans to think about the responsibilities that went along with ‘progress.’ In the next decade, the atomic bomb would soon illustrate the weight of those responsibilities” (U*X*L, 2020). Technological advances come with negative as well as positive shocks.
Negative Technology Shocks
Dr. Ranell knows that there are dangers as well. The Great Depression also had significant negative impacts on the development of technology. Despite the numerous bright spots and breakthroughs, there was a general slowdown in technological innovation during that time. As businesses struggled to survive, they cut back on research and development and focused on more immediate needs. This led to a slowdown in technological innovation, as companies were unable to invest in new technologies or expand their technological capabilities.
While it is difficult to imagine the possible technologies that were not developed during the Great Depression, the lack of stability and predictability made it difficult for businesses to plan and invest, further slowing development. The same dynamic may emerge during the Greater Depression, “Bad regulation, be it in any particular country or on the international scale, could severely hamper the Internet's value and its ability to grow” (Wolchover, 2012).
Most ominous for Dr. Ranell, the Great Depression harmed the global technology market. The decline in international trade and the rise of protectionist policies meant businesses could not access the technologies they needed to survive. This created a vicious downward cycle on the development of new technologies. Would that also be the case during the Greater Depression? "Global unemployment will rise sharply during the Second Great Depression. To cope, people will cut back drastically on their spending and hoard what money they can. When magnified across millions (or even billions) of households, the aggregate effect will be to further deflate the global economy” (U*X*L, 2020). He has to wonder, how will it impact airship technology?
Airships in the Greater Depression
During the Great Depression, the development of airships played a significant role in shaping the future of technology. In the 1930s, airships were seen as a promising technology that had the potential to revolutionize transportation and communication. While airships were once seen as a promising technology with the potential to revolutionize transportation and communication, they ultimately failed to live up to their potential and fell out of favor. Dr. Ranell did not choose to be saddled with the problem of making his airships profitable, so he reflects on the trends and scans the environment to discover if there may be renewed interest in the potential uses of airships in a variety of roles and applications.
During the Great Depression, one of the main advantages of airships was their ability to travel long distances at high speeds. Airships were faster and more efficient than airplanes and could carry larger payloads. This made them particularly well-suited for use in the transportation and communication industries, and they were seen as a promising technology for the future.
During the Greater Depression, there is still a significant potential role for airships as a means of transportation. Airships can travel long distances at high speeds and carry large payloads, making them well-suited for transportation and logistics. They are also more fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly than many other transportation forms, making them an attractive option in the fight against climate change.
The Air Cushioned Landing System (ACLS) of the Lockheed-Martin hybrid airships means they can land on nearly any level surface, including grass, sand, gravel, snow, ice, and even water. This means the massive, fixed costs associated with other forms of air travel are eliminated. Modern airship technology eliminates even the docking towers and massive ground crews.
During the Great Depression, the government supported the development of airships to stimulate economic growth and create jobs. Governments worldwide invested heavily in airship research and development, and several successful airships were developed during this time.
Might governments find the potential application for airships worthy of state investment? As a platform for scientific research and exploration, airships are able to reach high altitudes and can remain airborne for extended periods, making them well-suited for use in scientific research and exploration. They can be equipped with various sensors and instruments to collect data and perform a variety of scientific missions.
Dr. Ranell's team senses a potential role for military airships as surveillance and intelligence-gathering platforms. Airships are well-suited for use in surveillance and intelligence-gathering missions. They can be equipped with various sensors and instruments to collect data and perform a variety of intelligence missions. With the likelihood of combat operations across the vast distances of the Indo-Pacific theater, hybrid airships may have a potential role as long-distance missile platforms or motherships for drone swarms.
The Great Northern Trade Triangle
Hybrid airships are a type of aircraft that combines the characteristics of airships and airplanes. These aircraft are propelled by both engines and a lighter-than-air gas, such as helium, and they can take off and land vertically, like an airship, but can also fly at high speeds and altitudes, like an airplane. In recent years, there has been increased interest in the potential roles and applications for hybrid airships in the mining and chip manufacturing industries.
One potential role for hybrid airships in the mining industry is as a platform for rare earth mining. Rare earth elements are a group of minerals that are used in a variety of high-tech applications, including electronics, magnets, and batteries. However, they are often found in remote and difficult-to-reach locations, which makes their extraction and transportation challenging. Hybrid airships could transport equipment and personnel to remote mining sites and transport the extracted minerals back to civilization.
Another potential role for hybrid airships in the chip manufacturing industry is as a platform for transporting chips and other high-tech components. Chip manufacturing is a highly specialized and capital-intensive industry that requires transporting large quantities of high-tech components between different manufacturing facilities and suppliers. Hybrid airships could be used to transport these components in a more efficient and cost-effective manner than traditional transportation methods.
Ranell and his team envision a triangular trade route established whereby his airships pick up the vital rare earth elements from Canada's northern mines, transport them to chip manufacturing centers in the US, reducing the need for the Canadian government to construct the wildly expensive northern ice roads. Hybrid airships could then deliver freshly manufactured microchips that are in desperately short supply, charging a premium to bypass the snarled supply chains. Finally, the airships could be loaded with life-saving food, fuel, medical and other equipment to transport back to the remote Canadian outposts.
Towards The Age of Reckoning?
The period of the Great Depression has been referred to as the ‘Machine Age’ due to the advances in technology. Nearly a century of technologically driven progress followed. “In the Industrial Age and the Information Age, there was widespread optimism that technology would eventually solve all our problems—poverty, disease, violence, and others. In the last five years or so, it's been slowly dawning on us that more technology, by itself, cannot be the solution, and in fact, the systems we currently have in place, while they solve some problems, create other problems that may be equally severe." (Bi, 2019, Forbes). What comes next, however, may be an Age of Reckoning.
Rising from the countless calamities of the Great Depression, the machine age emerged as the technological driver for the global economy. However, “The machine age had its critics. British author Aldous Huxley published Brave New World in 1932. In the novel, humans have become slaves to machines” (Hazlitt, 1988). Many have fears that artificial intelligence will lead to human killing robots or the elimination of jobs through the automation of robots. Gray (2018) worries about a different and perhaps more insidious problem. "This report suggests a different scenario: low-level algorithms – or what the authors call 'AI weeds' – that slowly choke off the internet."
While Dr. Ranell focuses on his airship problem, he may be operating in a disruptive new environment where, as we "become more reliant on codes that can write their own code (the crux of AI), we'll lose the ability to track and control it" (Gray, 2018). Do we rely too heavily on the internet? We've reached the point where any disruption would be massive.
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