On these counts, it has not delivered. To the contrary, the digital age has coincided with a slump in America’s economic dynamism. The tech sector’s innovations have made a handful of people quite rich, but it has failed to create enough middle-class jobs to offset the decline of the country’s manufacturing base, or to help solve the country’s most pressing problems: deteriorating infrastructure, climate change, low growth, rising economic inequality. Tech companies that operate in the physical world, such as Lyft and DoorDash, offer greater convenience, but they hardly represent the kind of transformation that Reagan and Gore had in mind. These failures—perhaps more than the toxicity of the web—underlie the meanness and radicalism of our era.
Decades from now, historians will likely look back on the beginning of the 21st century as a period when the smartest minds in the world’s richest country sank their talent, time, and capital into a narrow band of human endeavor—digital technology. Their efforts have given us frictionless access to media, information, consumer goods, and chauffeurs. But software has hardly remade the physical world. We were promised an industrial revolution. What we got was a revolution in consumer convenience.