Home' Technology Review : January 2005 Contents 16
I November, engineers at NASA s Dryden Flight Research
Center in Edwards, CA, conducted their third and nal test
of the X-43A scramjet---an unpiloted "supersonic combustion
ramjet" that reached speeds of nearly Mach 10. The beauty of
a scramjet is that it has none of the moving parts that compress
air for combustion in a conventional jet; instead, the air is com-
pressed by the vehicle s own for ward motion. This also gives
scramjets a big advantage over rockets, which must car ry their
own oxygen aloft in heavy tanks.
The X-43A s purpose was merely to prove the concept of hy-
personic ight. But NASA believes future scramjets could be part
of a next-generation system for launching piloted vehicles into
space---and that makes the Dryden tests one hopeful sign that
NASA s program of human space exploration is rousing itself
from its 30-year slumber. Not since February 8, 1974, when Sky-
lab was abandoned by its third crew, has the United States had a
continuous, purposeful human presence in space. The Interna-
To Mars, by Tortoise
The US finally has a real plan for
space exploration: go slow.
eryone who uses the Internet should hope that happens---if only
because software is better in markets where Microsoft has seri-
ous competition. Google must learn to be a little evil. ■
Don t Buy That New Gadget
D technology make us happy? Technologists, business-
people, and most politicians assume so, celebrating its
ability to improve our persons, experiences, and material cir-
cumstances. And ordinary human behavior seems to answer
the question: if technology doesn t make us happy, why do we
spend so much time, e ort and money developing and buying
all the stu ?
But the answer is not so simple, as James Surowiecki explains
in "Technology and Happiness," on page 72. People are irratio-
nal about what will promote their well-being, and they aren t
very good at anticipating their future preferences. Considering
how many decisions about choosing new technologies are based
on little (or even erroneous) information, perhaps we some-
times get stuck with technologies that don t make us happy.
The social sciences have been nearly silent on the subject.
Since 1974, however, when Richard Easterlin published an arti-
cle titled "Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?"
and more frequently in the last decade, economists have turned
their attention to the vexing question of the complex relationship
between wealth and happiness. Some of their insights can also
be usefully applied to
Easterlin and his
disciples have demon-
strated that while there
is a strong correlation
between poverty and
misery, you can t buy
happiness. Despite the
fantastic increase in the
prosperity of the United
States since World War
II, most Americans are
no happier today than they were in 1947 (when happiness sur-
veys began). Indeed, according to social scientists, the numbers
of Americans who say they are "very happy" has actually fallen
since the 1970s, even while the average income of someone bor n
in 1940 has increased 116 percent. It turns out that when every-
one s income swells, people s subjective sense of what they min-
imally require to be happy in ates, too.
Psychologists call this "hedonic adaptation"---and it works for
Money can t buy happiness.
Technology won t help either.
technology as well. We become desensitized to our good for-
tune. When inter national telephone calls, jet travel, or broad-
band Internet access rst appeared, they were wonderful things
that seem to clearly make our lives better, but as their price fell
and they became commonly available, they quickly seemed quo-
tidian. In no time at all, we were irritated when they did not
So are we happier for new technologies? In one sense, Sure
(imagine yourself, hedonically adapted to this world, stripped of
all your stu ). In another sense, No. Happiness economists have
shown that there is a kind of decreasing return to increasing in-
come. Except for the very wealthy (the Forbes 400 consistently
report that they are very cheerful indeed), people who strive ar-
dently to become richer don t report any signi cant increase in
well-being. Some happiness economists suggest that "inconspic-
uous consumption"---that is, investment in health, family, or
community---tends to have a better return in happiness than buy-
ing bigger cars or houses.
It is the same with new technologies. Purchasing lots of the
latest gadgets is unsatisfying: you know that in a few months
there will be new, improved versions of the things. But some
technology consumption is less conspicuous. Internet technolo-
gies like search or social networking are informational and af-
fective networks that expand our knowledge and relationships.
Biotechnology and health care o er a better and longer life.
They re the better buy. ■
phone calls, jet travel,
or broadband access
first appeared, they
were wonderful things.
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