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Five great surges of capital and technology, 1771-2017

Carlota Perez is a professor that specializes in the social and economic impact of technological change. In 2002, she published an influential book called Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages.

One of her arguments is that economic growth since the Industrial Revolution has occurred through a series of cycles and surges, ultimately culminating in a fifth great surge centered around information and telecommunications. This is our current economic environment.

Perez was recently interviewed by strategy + business and they published this diagram (if it’s too small, click through to the article):

The five surges of capital and technology since 1771 are:

  1. Industrial Revolution
  2. Steam and Railways
  3. Steel, Electricity, and Heavy Engineering
  4. Oil, Automobiles, and Mass Production 
  5. Information and Telecommunications

Number 4 – oil, automobiles, and mass production – is what produced widespread suburbanization, a middle class filled with homeowners, and new forms of retail employment. And I am sure that most of you would agree that it’s not quite over yet.

According to Perez, each cycle has two phases: an installation phase and a deployment phase. This latter phase is a “golden age.” But in between these two phases is a turning point that is typically characterized by some sort of crisis and recession. 

Her belief is that we are in this turning point right now. You see it with Brexit. The demagogues being elected. And more. If you buy this, the key question naturally becomes: How do we cross this chasm and enter our next golden age?

What’s also important to keep in mind about this theory is that it means that what we are seeing today, socio-economically, is not in fact new. We’ve been through this before. I’ll end with this quote from the interview with Perez:

In the 1920s, wealth distribution looked the same as it does today. The top 1 percent received 25 percent of society’s total income. By the 1950s it was down to 10 percent. Every installation period brings inequality until the state comes back actively to reverse it and relieve social unrest.

So what’s happening today may be temporary and it may be history repeating itself. If you’re interested in this topic, you can read the full interview here.

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