I was listening to a lecture on industrialization the other day, learning how much more and stronger steel could be churned out with a new process in the mid 1800s, and learning how much more textile could be woven, how many more cigarettes, and so on.
I sometimes hear that a big thing that's helped the US economy in the past was increasing productivity. It's hard to increase productivity in academics, though. On the most basic level, people don't seem to learn the really important stuff any faster than 200 years ago.
I was thinking about it, and yes, using computer search engines is faster than the old bibliographic indices, but there are also ever more papers to read. Being able to read a text on EEBO is lots handier than having to travel to the British Library or something (though probably less fun, too), but reading the text takes probably longer because of the computer screen and stuff. Email's a wash: some things are faster, but there's more stuff to get through.
And then I thought, of course, the word processor! Think how much faster it is to edit essays, dissertations, and book manuscripts.
And then I remembered all those book acknowledgement sections, thanking the wife for typing up the book. So basically, better word processing has made us more efficient at doing labor that used to be done by someone getting no pay and no credit. I mean, women are getting phuds rather than typing the Putting Hubby Through dissertation, getting tenure rather than typing someone else's manuscript. But since the powers that be never acknowledged (or paid for) the typing skills and time, to them, it looks like we've gotten less efficient now, doesn't it?