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Norman Macrae 1923-2010

When I joined the Economist in 1983, Norman Macrae was the
deputy editor. He died last week at the age of 87. Soon after I
joined the staff, a thing called a computer terminal appeared on my
desk and my electric typewriter disappeared. Around that time,
Norman wrote a long article that became a book about the future. It
was one of the strangest things I had ever read.

It had boundless optimism —

Over the last decade, I have
written many articles in The Economist and delivered lectures in
nearly 30 countries across the world saying the future should be
much more rosy. This book explores the lovely future people could
have if only all democrats made the right

combined with a weird technological vision —

Eventually books, files,
television programmes, co
information and telecommunications will merge. We’ll have this
portable object which is a television screen with first a
typewriter, later a voice activator attached. Afterwards it will be
minaturised so that your personal access instrument can be carried
in your buttonhole, but there will be these cheap terminals around
everywhere, more widely than telephones of 1984. The terminals will
be used to access databases anywhere in the globe, and will become
the brainworker’s mobile place of work. Brainworkers, which will
increasingly mean all workers, will be able to live in Tahiti if
they want to and telecommute daily to the New York or Tokyo or
Hamburg office through which they work. In the satellite age costs
of transmission will not depend mainly on distance. And knowledge
once digitalised can be replicated for use anywhere almost

and a startlingly fresh economic perspective —

In the 1890s around half of the
workforce in countries like the United States were in three
occupations: agriculture, domestic service and jobs to do with
horse transport. By the 1970s these three were down to 4 per cent
of the
workforce. If this had been
foretold in the 1890s, there would have been a wail. It would have
been said that half the population was fit only to be farmworkers,
parlourmaids and sweepers-up of horse manure. Where would this half
find jobs? The answer was by the 1970s the majority of them were
much more fully employed ( because more married women joined the
workforce) doing jobs that would have sounded double-Dutch in the
1890s: extracting oil instead of fish out of the North Sea; working
as computer programmers, or as television engineers, or as
package-holiday tour operators chartering jet

When he retired in 1988 he wrote

Some will say [I have] been too
optimistic. That is what a 65-year-old like me finds it natural to
be. When I joined The Economist in 1949 it seemed unlikely that the
world would last long. But here we stand, 40 memory-sodden years
on, and what have we done? What we have done – largely because the
poorest two-thirds of people are living much longer – is
approximately to octuple real gross world product. During the brief
civilian working lives of us returning soldiers from the second
world war, we have added seven times as much to the world’s
producing power as was added during all the previous millennia of
homo sapien’s existence. That may help to explain why some of us
sound and write rather tired. It does not explain why anybody in
the next generation, to whom we gladly vacate our posts, can dare
to sound pessimistic.

He was a rational optimist.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist