Investing in Disaster: Technical Progress and the Taboo of Diminishing Returns

Chapter 2 in a collection of essays published by Rowman and Littlefield (2019)



If we in the West pride ourselves on our technological prowess, and distinguish ourselves as the tool-making animal, we risk deluding ourselves by glossing over the profoundly useless character of so much “progress.” Disposable electronics and entertainment aside, much of our civilization’s investment in technology — from computers to the accouterments of modern medicine — suffers from diminishing returns. Diminishing returns, however, remains a taboo subject: minor improvements are routinely hailed as revolutionary, but the diminishing marginal utility of these products and the cumulative cost of regular upgrades are frequently ignored. A sober, objective accounting of society’s investment in diminishing marginal utility furthermore requires recognizing that these trends reinforce consumer behaviors that threaten to unleash catastrophic consequences globally. There are no technical solutions to the problems created by technology, and attempts to seek such technical solutions only compound the problem of diminishing returns.