Let me dedicate my first column of the New Year to slowing things down a notch or two-to the proposition that things aren't progressing as fast as we think they are.
Paul Krugman, a professor of economics at MIT, made a good point the other week in USA Today. Back in 1968, when the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" came out, we thought that having regularly scheduled flights to space stations with fancy lobbies was in the realm of possibility in what is now only four years hence. But, he said, "If 2001 is actually going to look anything like '2001,' technology had better get a move on."
"The point is that if you measure the progress of technology not by mips and bytes but by how it affects people's lives and their ability to get useful work done, you realize that the last 30 years have been a time not of unexpected achievement but of persistent disappointment," Prof. Krugman wrote.
We haven't made much advancement in other areas, either. Prof. Krugman makes the point that his kitchen, equipped with a lot of 1957-type stuff, isn't all that different from what's available today. The real advance was from the icebox to the refrigerator; since then, we've gotten the microwave oven but what else?
My Mom and Dad got our first television set in 1948, and except for color and larger screens, there hasn't been much progress. All the talk about interactive TV (remember Qube from the late '70s?) has never gone anywhere, and now the telephone companies seem to be abandoning their quest to hook up with television. They want to concentrate on more lucrative opportunities such as good old-fashion long-distance telephone service. We do have the Internet, but my hunch is that it will end up looking and behaving like traditional TV. It's nuts for everyone and their brother to have a Web page, and this phenomenon, too, will shake down along traditional magazine-format lines.
Take something as mundane as garbage. We're stuck in a debate over whether it does any good to divide the bottles and cans from paper products, and barges still ply the waters trying to find a friendly landfill. I would have thought by now we would have figured out how to load rocket ships full of the stuff and shot them toward the sun where they'd eventually get burned up.
Are we any closer to solving our social problems, like how to get the poor off welfare or rebuilding our decaying and crumbling inner cities or improving education? Things have gotten steadily worse, not better, and there are scant signs of progress anywhere on the horizon.
Advertising is in the same boat. In the last 30 years, do we know much more about how and what motivates consumers to buy than we knew back then? We don't even give advertising any kind of a prominent role when economists talk about the need for stepped-up growth plans in the next century.
Creative techniques, such as pre-emptive advertising, were first invented years ago and nothing much has taken their place in the arsenals of ad writers today.
The legendary adman Claude Hopkins is generally credited with having invented pre-emptive advertising for reasons just as valid now as they were at the turn of the century.
In his book, "Scientific Advertising," Mr. Hopkins said: Even though your product is not unique, "tell the pains you take to excel. Tell factors and features which others deem too commonplace to claim. Your product will come to typify these excellencies. If others claim them afterward, it will only serve to advertise you.
"There are few advertised products which cannot be imitated. Few who dominate a field have any exclusive advantages. They were simply the first to tell certain convincing facts."
Either Mr. Hopkins was ahead of his time or we have been lagging behind for the last half-century or so, because nothing in the intervening years has pushed the needle past his very basic observation.